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Cosmos Magazine - April 2018

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Issue 78
Autumn 2018
9 771832
AU $15.00 inc GST NZ $16.00 inc GST
Synthetic life
Synthetic biologists want to build a better world with
artiicial organisms. By JAMES MITCHELL CROW.
RICK LOVETT looks at where
the greatest ield work in sports
science is being done.
The quantum internet may be
just a decade away. So what is
it? MICHAEL LUCY explains.
Geneticists are taking steps to
resurrect the Tasmanian tiger.
the controversial plan to save
the world’s reefs.
Issue 78
EDITOR’S NOTE — We live in interesting times 7
NEWS — A guide to the big stories in science 9
TECHNOPHILE — Flying cars 26
BODY TALK — No easy ix for Alzheimer’s 30
The shapes that enthralled and inspired
mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot.
ASTRO KATIE — Tides and galactic collisions 31
THE THINKER — Genetic mugshots 32
INCURABLE ENGINEER — Long live lithium! 33
PROFILE — Kathryn North’s sequential life 94
SMOKE & MIRRORS — Now they are the champions 96
ABACUS — The intriging geometry of borders 97
REVIEWS — Non-iction and iction, new and old 99
DESTINATION — Museum of Human Disease 106
Those plastic blocks and science just it together.
ANDREW P. STREET looks at the cosy relationship.
WHY IS IT SO — How to spot an alien spaceship 109
DID YOU KNOW — Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb 114
DEBUNKED — Is Wi-Fi dangerous? 116
EXPLAINER — Solargraphy exposed 126
MIND GAMES — Puzzles by Snodger Media 128
PORTRAIT — Jacq Romero, quantum physicist 130
A new generation of talented artists keeps alive
the tradition of natural history illustration.
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Issue 78
James is freelance science writer and a former deputy
editor of Cosmos. A research chemist by training, he
began his science journalism career at Chemistry World
magazine. In 2009 he joined New Scientist in London
as a features editor. In 2010 he moved to Australia,
and has since written for publications including New
Scientist and Nature.
Richard is a science writer and science iction author
based in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Michigan
State University, where he studied astrophysics. A
frequent contributor to Cosmos, he has also written for
publications including National Geographic and – as a
keen runner and coach – Running Times.
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editing, he can be found these days on fossil digs in the
Australian outback or Gobi Desert.
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We live in interesting times
thanks to biological tools
TWO HUNDRED YEARS of industrial-scale
technology have made our planet less habitable.
We’ve crowded out individual species and now
whole ecosystems are in peril as the climate warms.
But we live in interesting times. Technology just
might come to the rescue.
Geo-engineers are busy scaling up techniques
that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Now it is the biologists’ turn to lex their muscles
and show what heavy lifting they can do with their
tool kit.
One audacious goal is to speed up the evolution
of species to keep pace with the changing climate.
Another is to deliver greener industrial technologies
to address the root cause of the problem.
Three stories in this issue of Cosmos showcase
how the biological tool kit is being deployed to
ix planetary problems. The tools are equal parts
thrilling and controversial.
For starters, take a look at the story on coral
reefs – the canaries in the planetary coal mine. The
reef builders are jellyish-like creatures called coral
polyps. To survive in nutrient-poor waters, they
form an intimate liaison with algae. Should the sea
temperature climb a single degree above the coral’s
normal maximum for more than a few weeks, that’s
the end of the relationship and the death of the
coral. Researchers from the Australian Institute of
Marine Science have been exploring methods to
speed up the coral’s evolution to adapt to warmer
waters. Long considered fringe, as of January this
work is being seriously considered by the Australian
government and its expert institutions.
For species that don’t make it, the biologists’
tool kit is now ofering Jurassic Park-style
resurrections. Last December Andrew Pask at
the University of Melbourne pieced together the
genome of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. Now
he is taking the irst steps to clone one, using the
powerful gene editing tool known as CRISPR.
The idea is to rework the DNA of the numbat – a
striped, termite-eating, squirrel-sized relative – to
resemble that of the tiger.
The biologists’ tool kit may also help blunt the
efects of our insatiable appetite for energy and
commodities. Solar and wind power will supply ever
more energy, but we will still need fuels to power
the likes of aeroplanes and feed industrial processes
like plastic production.
Synthetic biology, a discipline that views a
living organism not as a mystery but as a machine
to be re-engineered as needed, is trying to deliver
more sustainable biofuels, as well as a range of
commodities from perfumes to plastics.
None of these projects will be rolled out
without social licence. Witness the obstacles faced
by a product as benign as golden rice, a GM crop
designed to ix the vitamin A deiciency that each
year causes more than half a million children in
developing countries to go blind.
So read up and get prepared for the coming
debates. Whether or not these technologies go
ahead is up to you.
Fungia coral with green tentacles.
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Ice thermometer
Noble gases can measure the average
temperature of the world’s oceans.
It would look nice in a drink, but the air
bubbles in this 24,000 year-old ice core
drilled from the Antarctic polar ice cap
ofer a new way to measure the average
temperature of the oceans.
Measuring the average temperatures of
the oceans is a diabolically diicult thing to
do. While 90% of the planet’s heat is sunk
into the oceans, it is unevenly distributed.
Bernhard Bereiter, of the Scripps
Institution of Oceanography, and his
colleagues measured the concentrations of
noble gases within the air bubbles trapped
within the ancient ice.
They believed noble gases like argon
could provide a precise thermometer. Cool
oceans absorb noble gases while warming
oceans release them into the atmosphere.
Because the noble gases don’t interact with
other molecules, they just shule between
the atmosphere, the ocean and back.
“Our study clearly shows that the
basic idea – the connection between
the concentration of noble gases in
the atmosphere and the average ocean
temperature – is correct,” says Bereiter.
The study, “Mean global ocean
temperatures during the last glacial
transition”, was published in Nature.
NGC 2070, The Tarantula Nebula
Issue 78
Superstars shaped
the universe
Many more stars million times brighter than
the Sun overturn past models.
Our Sun is commonly held to be an
average sized star. Sadly, it now appears to
be a pipsqueak compared to the monsters
that ruled the early cosmos.
That’s the inding of a team of
international astronomers who pointed
the European Southern Observatory’s
Very Large Telescope in Chile at the Large
Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy about 160,000
light-years away.
The team examined about 800 stars in
a ‘starburst’ region called 30 Doradus or
the Tarantula Nebula, and were surprised
to count dozens of stars 30 to 200 times
the mass of the Sun.
Their indings, published in the
journal Science, challenge the belief that
small stars comprised the vast majority of
primordial stellar matter. If the indings
from this nearby galaxy hold true for
more distant, early galaxies, it has major
ramiications for understanding the
history of the universe.
After the initial fury of the Big Bang,
cosmologists believe that the early
universe was a cold, dark place populated
by clouds of neutral hydrogen and helium.
The ‘dark age’ ended a few hundred
million years later, as gravitational
attraction between the atoms caused them
to slowly clot and form the irst stars and
galaxies. As these stars ignited, they not
only brought light back to the Universe,
but showered it with ionizing radiation,
stellar winds and shock waves from
exploding supernovae. These pressed
back against the condensing gas, putting
the brakes on the rate of star formation.
This “regulated” the star-forming
process so it continues today, says the
study’s lead author, Fabian Schneider of
the University of Oxford. “Otherwise it
would have stopped early on.”
The discovery of so many superstars
suggests that these giants may have
played a larger role in this process than
previously realised. That’s because the
impact of these massive stars lies not so
much in their size but their brightness.
A star 100 times the mass of the
Sun would be a million times brighter,
Schneider explains.
Such stars are ‘cosmic engines’,
blasting out ionising radiation and strong
stellar winds. They also die young in
massive explosions that create black holes
and neutron stars, and disperse elements
– such as carbon, oxygen, silicon and iron
– necessary to create planets and life.
The biggest caveat to the new ind
is that the Tarantula Nebula may not be
typical of star-forming regions in the
earliest galaxies. For one thing, it has too
many heavier elements, typical of more
mature galaxies.
But if the predictions are correct, and
superstars were common, that means the
universe will also have more black holes
than predicted since they are the end stage
of massive stars. According to Schneider,
the formation rate might be 180% higher.
If the new paper – “An excess of
massive stars in the local 30 Doradus
starburst” – is correct, we should
detect more gravitational waves from
black hole mergers, says Brad Tucker,
an astrophysicist and cosmologist at
Australian National University: “Simply
put, more larger stars equals a more
exciting universe.”
Issue 78
This immaculately preserved fossil revealed a new class of aquatic raptor. It was scanned to generate the digitally reconstructed goosey
A goosey cousin for
A Mongolian fossil reveals the first aquatic
‘raptor’ and a new dinosaur subfamily.
A stunning fossil – swiped from
Mongolia’s Gobi Desert by poachers but
later acquired by scientists – is rewriting
the books on the diversity of body types in
carnivorous dinosaurs.
Newly described species Halszkaraptor
escuilliei is so unlike anything seen before
that a new dinosaur subfamily, the
Halszkaraptorinae, has been created.
According to an analysis published in
Nature, the 75-million-year-old creature
was goose-sized with a duck bill, the
s-shaped neck of a swan and the feet and
claws of a Velociraptor.
The new species belongs to the group
of dinosaurs known as dromaeosaurs
– colloquially referred to as ‘raptors’ –
which includes Velociraptor. It is the irst
known aquatic member of the group.
The shape of its forelimbs suggests
it used them as paddles to propel itself
underwater, much like penguins do today.
The authors of the paper – Andrea Cau, of
the Museum of Geology and Palaeontology
in Bologna, and Pascal Godefroit, of the
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
– believe it would have spent much of its
time in water, snatching ish by darting out
its elongated neck.
Not only is the animal unique but so
was the method used to study it. Rather
than remove the fragile fossil from the rock
that encases it, the team scanned it at the
European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
in Grenoble, France, to create a highresolution digital reconstruction.
It’s “probably the most detailed
synchrotron analysis ever done on a fossil,”
says Cau. The scientists are yet to wade
through six terabytes of scan data. “I am
quite sure that not all the secrets of this
dinosaur have yet been revealed.”
Thomas Holtz, a carnivorous dinosaur
expert at the University of Maryland, says
the discovery is a reminder that the wider
family of raptors “is not made up only of
knife-toed murder-birds like Deinonychus
and Velociraptor” but also contained
“aquatic, toothy pseudo-geese”.
It’s oficial: dogs are
smarter than cats
Counting brain cells reveals the average cat
has fewer than half as many as a dog.
Your cat is not enigmatic and given to
philosophical pondering. It is just dumb
– at least compared to a dog, which on
average has more than twice the number of
neurons in the cerebral cortex, the brain’s
thinking centre. That’s about 530 million
neurons compared to 250 million.
Humans have about 16 billion – so
their number and density is a proxy
for intelligence. This means dogs have
the biological capability to do much
more complex and lexible things with
their lives than cats, says neuroscientist
Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt
University in Nashville, Tennessee.
In the study “Dogs have the most
neurons, though not the largest brain”,
Herculano-Houzel and her colleagues
counted the neurons of eight carnivorous
species to test the hypothesis that
carnivores have more developed brains
than herbivores. The animals studied were
cats, dogs, ferrets, mongooses, raccoons,
hyenas, lions and brown bears.
The theory stems from the assumption
that hunting prey is more cognitively
demanding than munching plants.
This idea – almost a touchstone of
evolutionary theory – did not hold up.
Published in the journal Frontiers in
Neuroscience, the study found that small
to medium-sized carnivores had about the
same number of neurons as their herbivore
prey – suggesting the evolutionary
pressure to out-think a predator is at least
the same as out-thinking prey.
The big hunters have big brains but a
lower ratio of neurons to brain size. The
brown bear has about the same number of
neurons as a cat, in a brain 10 times bigger.
A lion has fewer neurons than a golden
retriever, in a brain three times the size.
Issue 78
By shrinking their genome, flowering plants were able to shrink their cells and pack in more features.
Flower power lies in
genome downsizing
DNA dumping may be the answer to Charles
Darwin’s “abominable mystery”.
Until about 140 million years ago, the
world was dominated by conifers and
ferns. Then lowering plants exploded
onto the scene, conquering the planet with
a speed that Charles Darwin, who liked
his evolution slow, called “an abominable
Botanists have long credited this
success to the lowers’ ability to seduce
diferent animal species into spreading
their pollen.
A diferent and surprising explanation
now comes from Kevin Simonin at San
Francisco State University and Adam
Roddy at Yale University. Success, they
argue in the journal PLOS, resulted from
genome downsizing.
Smaller genomes meant lowering
plants could make smaller nuclei (which
package up the genome inside the cell)
and ultimately make more compact cells,
says Simonin. More compact cells, “like
smaller Lego blocks”, allowed them to pack
their leaves more densely with structures
like breathing pores (stomata) and densely
branched veins.
That explains why lowering plants can
photosynthesise at three times the rate of
ferns and grow much faster.
“They couldn’t do that without the
infrastructure,” says Tim Brodribb, at
the University of Tasmania. “This is what
allowed them to overrun the planet.”
In their study, “Genome downsizing,
physiological novelty, and the global
dominance of lowering plants”, Simonov
and Roddy wondered if the size of plant
genomes was linked to the size of cells.
To ind out, they studied 400 species
of ferns, gymnosperms (“naked seed”
producers such as conifers) and lowering
plants. The smaller the genome, they
found, the tinier the cells and the greater
the density of leaf stomata and veins.
The greatest variation was within
lowering plants. A rare Japanese lower,
Paris japonica, boasts the planet’s biggest
genome at 150 billion base pairs of DNA.
The smallest genome for a lowering plant
is the carnivorous Genlisea aurea, with
63 million base pairs.
Music of the spheres
The orbital frequencies of an exoplanetary
system are arranged in near-perfect fifths.
Exoplanet hunters using the Kepler Space
Telescope have made an extraordinary
discovery: the orbital frequency of ive
planets in the K2-138 system displays an
almost perfect 3:2 ratio, an interval that
musicians call a ‘perfect ifth’. The indings
were reported in the Astronomical Journal
in January.
The ‘orbital resonances’ of K2-138
would make the original Kepler’s heart sing.
His 1619 publication Harmonices Mundi
calculated musical resonances in the orbits
of our Solar System’s planets. The 3:2
interval of K2-138 echoes the perfect-ifth
intervals found in songs such as “Twinkle,
Twinkle, Little Star”.
Exoplanet systems with orbital
resonances have been discovered
before. It has often been seen in compact
planetary systems and relects the way the
The musical scales of the planets were calculated by Johannes Kepler in 1619.
systems develop. Those planets without
synchronised orbits would be unstable and
knock each other out of orbit.
But K2-138 is the most dramatic
example. The ive planets, each between
1.6 and 3.3 times the size of the Earth, are
so close to their star that the longest orbit
is less than 13 days. Like clockwork the
periods are 2.35, 3.56, 5.40, 8.26 and 12.76
days, with one planet completing three
orbits in the time the next one makes two.
There is a hint of a sixth planet orbiting
at about 42 days, raising the possibility
of even more planets in the gap. “If you
continue the chain it would be 19, 27 and
42,” says lead author Jessie Christiansen of
California Institute of Technology.
It is also intriguing that the orbits of K2138 are almost but not quite perfect ifths.
Musicians tune their instruments so
they are not quite perfect-ifth intervals to
avoid the irritating ‘beat’ phenomenon that
happens when tuning is too precise.
According to Christiansen, it is
possible the orbits of the K2-138’s
planets are just slightly of to avoid being
destabilised by the consequences of perfect
Origami nanobots
Floating cell-sized machines unfold
the shape of things to come.
Inspired by origami, a team of physicists
from Cornell University has developed
super-strong shape-changing robots the
size of a human cell.
Described in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences in January,
the so-called bimorphs are created by
“folding them out of atomically thin
paper”, made of graphene and glass.
When these bimorphs are immersed
in a luid and exposed to triggers such as
heat, chemicals or electrical currents, they
fold into 3D structures like tetrahedra and
cubes in a fraction of a second.
Graphene-glass ‘paper’ folds into cell-sized structures strong enough to carry
The bimorphs’ shape-shifting ability
is due to the fact that glass and graphene
expand at diferent rates in response to a
trigger, a diference that can be engineered
into a stress-relieving curve or angle.
Their graphene-containing
exoskeletons mean the bimorphs can carry
signiicant electronic payloads and they
can also be fabricated en masse.
All of which “opens the door to
a generation of small machines for
sensing, robotics, energy harvesting and
interacting with biological systems on the
cellular level,” the study says.
Issue 78
AI beats doctors in
spotting breast cancer
What takes a pathologist hours, machines
do in a wink.
It’s a result that may further jangle the
nerves of doctors already skittish in the
face of machine medicos. Breast cancer is
the latest disease that artiicial intelligence
(AI) can diagnose better than humans,
according to a recent study in the Journal
of the American Medical Association.
Led by Babak Ehteshami Bejnordi at
Radboud University Medical Centre in
the Netherlands, the study pitted diferent
machine-learning algorithms against 11
pathologists in analysing 129 biopsies.
While the pathologists had years of
experience, the algorithms were trained
with just 270 digital scans of lymph
node sections, 110 with malignant cells
meticulously labelled by pathologists to
show the cancers’ locations.
The human pathologists were
given two hours to examine the slides,
mimicking real-life workload in the
Netherlands. On average they spotted just
31 of 49 cancers. One further pathologist,
given no time limit and taking 30 hours,
found 46. The top-performing algorithm,
from the Harvard Medical School and
Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
signiicantly outperformed the timepoor doctors and performed on par with
the pathologist given 30 hours – a time,
the authors note, “infeasible in clinical
Update on mystery
flashes from space
A neutron star near a black hole may be
transmitting Fast Radio Bursts.
Sorry alien hunters. The latest evidence
suggests that Fast Radio Bursts,
millisecond long lashes from deep space,
are not stray beams designed to power
alien spaceships.
According to a study in January’s
Nature, the source of a mysterious
repeating Fast Radio Burst (FRB) could
be a neutron star positioned close to a
supermassive black hole.
The irst ever recorded FRB was
picked up by Australia’s Parkes Radio
Telescope in 2001, a ive-millisecond
lash that blazed with the intensity of
500 million suns. Astronomers spotted
the bizarre signal in 2007 while poring
through archives.
Since then, many FRBs have been
Not alien radio transmissions.
spotted, but that hasn’t solved the mystery
of what could cause such immensely
powerful bursts. Candidates have
included colliding black holes, whiplash
from cosmic strings or, as suggested by
Harvard astrophysicists Avi Loeb and
Manasvi Lingam in 2017, “beams used for
powering large light sails” by extragalactic
FRB 121102 is the subject of the
latest study, “An extreme magneto-ionic
environment associated with the fast radio
burst source FRB 121102”.
This FRB was irst recorded in 2012 by
astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory
in Puerto Rico. Detected 15 times since,
it is the only conirmed repeating FRB.
The fact it repeats rules out colliding black
holes or neutron stars as the source.
Daniele Michilli of the Netherlands
Institute for Radio Astronomy and his
colleagues localised the bursts to a starforming region of a dwarf galaxy three
billion light-years away.
Precise measurements from the
Arecibo telescope – conirmed at the
Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia
– revealed the radio wave signals had
been distorted by passing through an
immensely powerful magnetic ield.
Their best explanation for the bursts?
A neutron star shrouded by an immense
magnetic ield. That ield could be created
by a black hole, a highly magnetised wind
nebula or a supernova remnant.
Seems like there is still plenty of
mystery surrounding FRBs.
Feminisation of
green turtles
Global warming is the culprit.
One of the largest green turtle populations
in the world is at risk of extinction
through feminisation, according to a study
reported in Current Biology.
More than 200,000 females make their
nests in the far north of the Great Barrier
Reef. The temperature and moisture
of the sand determines the sex of green
turtle hatchlings during incubation.
Cooler temperatures and wetter sand
tend to result in more males; warmer
temperatures and drier sand produce more
females. Rising temperatures are skewing
the ratio.
A survey of green turtle numbers has
found a massive sex bias in the northern
region of the reef. More than 86% of
adults are female, while among young
turtles more than 99% are female, says
the study “Environmental warming and
feminisation of one of the largest sea turtle
populations in the world”.
A similar trend has been observed
among sea turtles in Florida.
The researchers from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
in California, the Queensland Department
of Environment and Heritage, California
State University Stanislaus and Worldwide
Fund for Nature say their results indicate
the green turtle rookeries of the northern
Great Barrier Reef have been producing
primarily females for more than two
decades, with “complete feminisation”
possible in the near future.
Issue 78
The number of stars the size the of Sun
required to equal the mass of El Gordo the biggest and brightest galaxy cluster
ever discovered, as published in
The Astrophysics Journal.
The weight in kilograms of poo - mostly
nitrogen and phosphorus - excreted by
the worlds’ seabirds each year. Xosé Luis
Otero of the Universidade de Santiago de
Compostela published the work in Nature
The total number of protein molecules
within a yeast cell. Published in Cell
Systems by Grant Brown from the
University of Toronto, it’s the first time
such an estimate has been made for
any cell.
2.2 - 3.4
The average projected temperature
increase in degress Celsius caused by
doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide
by 2100. Published in Nature, this latest
estimate is midway between the most
pessimistic and optimistic past estimates.
Finding DNA on Mars
Instruments to detect life haven’t been sent on a planetary
mission since the 1970s. Canadian researchers are working
on a solution.
The Curiosity rover has been a star performer. Its onboard science lab discovered that Gale Crater, its landing
site on Mars, was once a water-illed lake that could have
supported life. It drilled into the sandstone rocks and
detected organic molecules, and it snifed methane in the
atmosphere. All of which was tantalising evidence that
Mars might once have been inhabited.
The follow-up act for the Mars 2020 Rover will be to
hunt down more evidence of past life by sampling other
promising locations for biosignatures.
Researchers based at McGill University, Canada,
are upping the ante. In a paper published in Frontiers in
Microbiology, they have provided a proof of concept that
future missions could detect and read DNA sequences –
the deinitive evidence of life.
The McGill scientists built a ‘life detection platform’
that could it on the back of a rover. The star player is
the Oxford Nanopore MiniON. Unveiled to the world
in 2016, it employed new technology that enabled DNA
sequencers to shrink from table-sized to pocket-sized and
run on the meagre power of a laptop. The platform also
contains kits to detect cell metabolism and for culturing
The team showed the platform was successfully able
to detect the DNA of bacteria and metabolic activity
during a mission to Axel Heiberg Island, about 900 km
from the North Pole.
“Mars is a very cold and dry planet with a permafrost
terrain that looks a lot like what we ind in the Canadian
high Arctic,” says co-author Jacqueline Goordial.
There has been no direct life-detection
instrumentation on a Mars mission since the 1970s,
when the two Viking landers tested soil for evidence of
microbes, with inconsistent results. While the Curiosity
rover detected organic molecules, they could have come
from non-living sources.
Successfully detecting DNA in Martian permafrost
would provide “unambiguous evidence of life”, says team
member Lyle Whyte.
Alas, the platform is not yet ready for a space mission
since humans were needed to sample materials and feed
them to the machines. The team is hopeful, though, the
lab will irst be used on other hunts for extreme life on
Earth, and ultimately on other planets.
Selfie shtick: This portrait of the Mars Curiosity Rover was 2,000 days in the making. It was taken high up on the Vera Rubin Ridge
overlooking the Gale Crater in which the rover landed in 2012. The intrepid explorer has now travelled more than 18 km. The image was
made by stitching together multiple ‘selfies’ taken with the camera at the end of Curiosity’s moveable arm. CREDIT: NASA / JPL-CALTECH / MSSS
Issue 78
Breatharian bacteria
discovered in
The world-first discovery opens new
possibilities for ET.
Bacteria in the frozen wastes of Antarctica
can survive on air alone.
Rather than relying on sources that
power other life on Earth – photosynthesis,
sugar, geothermal energy – they split
hydrogen for energy and ix carbon from
carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
The world-irst discovery that bacteria
are capable of such a feat was reported in
Nature by a team of Australian and New
Zealand researchers.
The inding “opens up the possibility of
atmospheric gases supporting life on other
planets”, says team member microbiologist
Belinda Ferrari of the University of NSW.
The Antarctic’s interior ‘deserts’ are
the most barren on Earth. Zero vegetation,
prolonged periods of darkness or searing
ultraviolet radiation, and cycles of freezing
and thawing that can rot the very stones,
make the deserts particularly inclement
locations for life.
Scientists have known since 2000, by
testing for DNA fragments, that microbial
communities somehow survive in the soil.
“But how was a mystery,” says Ferrari.
This time round Ferrari and her
colleagues used metagenomic techniques
to put those DNA fragments together
and discover their genetic secrets.
They collected DNA from two eastern
Antarctic sites: one near Casey Station in
Wilkes Land and the other a few hundred
kilometres from Davis Station in Princess
Elizabeth Land.
The DNA fragments were pieced
together like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal the
near-complete genomes of 23 individual
microbial species, including Acinetobacter
as well as two previously unknown
bacterial phyla, named WPS2 and AD3.
By peering at the individual genes
of these newly identiied bacteria, the
researchers found two big clues that
they had stumbled onto a new form of
life chemistry dubbed ‘trace gas carbon
One was a gene for an enzyme called
high ainity hydrogenase. It is capable of
pulling in trace amounts of hydrogen from
the atmosphere and splitting the molecule
to produce energy.
The other was a set of genes for a weird
form of Rubisco – an enzyme complex
usually involved in photosynthesis.
But not here: the weird Rubisco used
hydrogen power to drive carbon ixation.
The carbon was sucked in by enzymes that
bind trace amounts of carbon dioxide and
carbon monoxide, ixing them into carbon
Ferrari notes they did not detect any
genes for true photosynthesis so trace gas
carbon ixation is the main game for this
extreme community.
“It looks like a process capable of
feeding a whole web of life,” he says.
Bacterial species in Antarctica can split hydrogen for energy. Some belong to the Acinetobacter family shown here.
This jaw from Misliya cave in Israel indicates the exodus of modern humans from Africa took place 100,000 years earlier than
Rewriting the ‘Out of
Africa’ narrative
Fossil jaw from Israel winds back the clock
of human migration.
There has been a lot of rewriting of
anthropology textbooks lately.
For decades the books taught that the
cradle of the human species was Ethiopia,
where Homo sapiens emerged 200,000
years ago. Modern humans got as far as
Israel 100,000 years ago and dispersed
into Eurasia about 70,000 years ago.
The cradle chapter required a rewrite
in June 2017, when modern human
remains from Morocco were dated to
300,000 years ago. Now it is time to
rewrite the next chapter.
A study published in Science reports
that a modern human jawbone found in
Israel’s Misliya cave is between 177,000
and 194,000 years old.
The inding “opens the door” to Homo
sapiens having left Africa not 100,000
years ago but more than 200,000 years
ago, says lead author Israel Hershkovitz of
Tel Aviv University.
Israel is known as the site for the irst
evidence of the exodus of modern humans
from Africa. This has been based on fossils
from Qafzeh Cave, south of Nazareth, and
Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel, dated to
between 80,000 and 120,000 years old.
Misliya cave also lies on the slopes of
Mount Carmel. It is littered with Stone
Age remains, including thousands of tools
and the bones of butchered animals, such
as aurochs, hares and boars.
Archaeologists uncovered the historyrewriting adult upper jawbone, complete
with teeth, in a block of petriied soil in
2002. It has taken until now to complete
the analysis.
Three independent laboratories
used diferent methods to calculate the
startlingly old dates: uranium-thorium
dating, thermoluminescence and electron
spin resonance.
The jaw was also scanned with micro
CT to conirm that it belonged to a modern
human and not to a Neanderthal.
The inding has ramiications down
the chain of human prehistory. If humans
were already in Israel 200,000 years ago,
that supports a 2015 report of 47 modern
human teeth dated as 80,000 to 120,000
years old in a cave in southern China.
The spate of indings from Morocco
and now Israel have anthropologists like
Debbie Argue, of the Australian National
University, holding their breath. “I think
we’re going to ind more fossils and they’ll
probably be older.”
An island is born: Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai rising,
literally, from the ashes in January 2015.
Issue 78
Earth’s newest island
has clues to Mars’ past
Geological similarities could help shed light
on ancient Martian history.
The planet’s youngest island was not
expected to survive more than a few
months. Its survival makes it a geological
treasure trove that may hold clues to
questions about ancient Mars.
Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai, in
the archipelago ßof Tonga, rose out of
the South Paciic ocean in a month-long
volcanic eruption from December 2014
to January 2015 – so fast you could watch
it grow.
A cone of loosely consolidated
volcanic ash formed the island, which
scientists expected the South Paciic
surf to pound back in months. But it
persists, standing 120 metres tall at its
highest point and measuring about two
kilometres across, scientists reported at
a meeting of the American Geophysical
Union in New Orleans in December.
They now think Hunga Tonga Hunga
Ha’apai could last anywhere between
six and 30 years. One reason for this
longevity is the eroded material piling up
in the shallow waters that has connected it
to two neighbouring islands and formed a
more stable barrier.
“That’s allowing the system to
partially survive,” says Jim Gavin, of
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.
The chance to study the island’s
evolution not only helps better
understand the history of Earth but
also of Mars, which has thousands of
geological features with similar size and
Many scientists think those features
might be due to volcanic eruptions
beneath shallow seas about one to two
billion years ago. What were once
Martian islands were left as low isolated
peaks when oceans dried up.
Studying Hunga Tonga Hunga
Ha’apai might help determine the depth
of the water in which these Martian
islands sat and how long that water
persisted. Not that the parallel is perfect;
whatever oceans existed on Mars were
nowhere near as big as the Paciic Ocean.
So the processes afecting the Martian
islands would be much slower than those
afecting the new Tongan island.
Nonetheless, Gavin says, Hunga
Tonga Hunga Ha’apai “will give us
windows onto the times on Mars when
we think there were standing bodies
of water” – one of the “holy grails” of
Martian ancient history.
Issue 78
THE WIND ISN’T what it used to be.
Scientists say surface wind speeds across
the planet have fallen by as much as 25%
since the 1970s. The eerie phenomenon
– dubbed ‘stilling’ – is believed to be a
consequence of global warming, and may
impact everything from agriculture to the
liveability of our cities. It has taken more
than a decade for scientists to get a handle
on stilling, a term coined by Australian
National University ecohydrologist
Michael Roderick in 2007.
Roderick had spent years studying a
50-year decline across Europe and North
America of a climate metric called pan
evaporation. It measures the rate at which
water evaporates from a dish left outside.
With his colleague biophysicist Graham
Farquhar, he found the cause: the sunlight
had dimmed due to air pollution. Less light
equals slower evaporation.
In 2002, after publishing the
explanation in the journal Science, Roderick
received a query from Roger Beale, the
head of Australia’s federal department for
the environment. Was pan evaporation
also declining in Australia? “To my
embarrassment,” Roderick recalls, “I had to
say I didn’t know, because I’d never looked.”
Two years later, he had an answer: the
pan evaporation rate was also falling in
Australia. It was puzzling, however, as air
pollution levels on the continent were lower
than those of Europe or North America.
Roderick went back to basics. The rate
of evaporation depends on four factors:
air temperature, humidity, the amount
of solar radiation and wind speed. After
another three years of combing through
meteorological records, he had pinned
down the culprit: “To my absolute surprise,
we found the main reason for the drop in
Australia was less wind – and by a lot.”
Roderick unearthed other studies from
around the world with similar indings, but
till then no one had joined the dots.
He teamed up with Tim McVicar, a
hydrologist at Australia’s national science
agency, the CSIRO, who was looking for
global wind patterns and their efects on
evaporation. In 2012 this team – led by
McVicar – compiled results from almost
150 regional studies to show stilling was
taking place across much of the world.
In Australia in the 1970s, average wind
speed a couple of metres above the ground
was 2.2 metres per second: in 2017 it was
1.6 metres per second.
Over landmasses from as far north as
Svalbard, 1,050 km from the North Pole,
to as far south as the coast of Antarctica,
“observations show that wind is stilling”,
McVicar says.
Conversely, the wind is getting faster
around the poles and in certain coastal
areas. In a perplexing twist, ocean winds
also appear to be accelerating.
Several explanations have been
proposed for the stilling.
Robert Vautard, who studies climate
change at France’s National Centre for
Scientiic Research, has a benign answer
for some of the change: more vegetation,
spurred by rising temperatures and
carbon dioxide levels. It increases ‘surface
roughness’, which slows the wind.
The planet’s rising temperatures are
another likely culprit.
One projected consequence of global
warming is expansion of the ‘Hadley cell’,
a planet-girdling double doughnut of
atmospheric circulation in which warm
air rises near the equator, loops towards
the poles, cools and falls to the surface at
Calmer breezes across the world are raising concerns among climate
scientists. MICHAEL LUCY explains.
around 30 or 40 degrees latitude, then
heads back to its origin. This circulation,
combined with the Coriolis efect of
Earth’s rotation, causes the consistent
easterly trade winds found in the tropics
and the prevailing westerlies of the middle
latitudes. An expanding Hadley cell means
many common storm tracks are slipping
towards the poles, taking their high winds
– and associated rainfall – away from the
temperate regions.
Roderick takes a more telescopic view:
air movements are powered by diferences
in temperature at diferent places. The
bigger the diference between warm
and cold air, the stronger the wind. One
efect of global warming is to latten those
diferences. The poles are warming faster
than the equator, winters are warming
faster than summers, and nights warming
faster than days. “Everything becomes
more uniform,” Roderick says.
What does the drop in wind speed
mean? The decrease in evaporation has
immediate implications for the precision
calculations used in modern irrigation, and
more complex efects on rainfall patterns.
While less evaporation may be good for
some plants in arid areas, stilling may make
others less able to disperse wind-blown
seed to suitable new habitats, and hence less
resilient to climate change.
Less wind could also hurt city-dwellers.
In what may be a taste of things to come, the
winter of 2016/17 saw Europe becalmed,
leading to smog so bad that Paris banned
cars for six days, and the city of Skala in
Poland briely overtook Beijing atop the
world’s air-pollution tables.
Potential efects on wind power are
another area of concern, though there does
not appear to be anything to worry about
in the short term. Stilling has so far been
detected only at heights up to 10 metres,
while turbines harvest their energy 50 to
150 metres above the ground.
“We certainly haven’t seen anything
that looks like stilling,” says Keith Ayotte,
the chief scientist of Australian wind power
outit WindLab, who monitors more
than 100 sites across the world where the
company has turbines.
Though these higher-altitude winds
will change over the 21st century, Vautard
has used climate simulations to project the
efect on total wind power available across
Europe is unlikely to be more than 5%.
One diiculty with prediction is a lack of
observations. As McVicar notes, accurate
and consistent measurements only exist
“for the past 40 or 50 years”.
Cesar Azorin-Molina, a climate
scientist at the University of Gothenburg
in Sweden, has embarked on an EUfunded archival project with the efortful
acronym STILLING: “TowardS improved
undersTandIng of the worLdwide decline of
wind speed in a cLImate chaNGe scenario.”
His mission is “rescuing historical
wind speed data” like logbooks from
Ponta Delgada in the Azores and Blue Hill
Observatory in the US that go back more
than a century. The age of anemometers –
the devices that measure wind speed – can
afect readings but, by compiling a single set
of quality-controlled data, Azorin-Molina
hopes to determine whether stilling is
purely a recent phenomenon or if similar
declines have happened in the past.
For McVicar, the stilling of the planet’s
winds is a reminder that global warming has
multiple and unpredictable low-on efects.
“We’re dealing with climate change, not
just rising temperatures.”
Issue 78
A bird? A plane? Car, actually.
One dream of automotive futurists has never
really taken off. CATHAL O’CONNELL has high
hopes the latest attempt will fly.
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
PULL OUT OF your driveway, push a button and take of.
The lying car is a futuristic dream that has long been just
out of reach. Now, inally, the new technology that guides
autonomous drones and self-driving cars means the irst
seemingly marketable lying cars could be about to take of.
It has been more than a century since the irst attempt at
a lying car – a sort of station wagon with wings, called the
Curtiss Autoplane. It managed a few hops at an expo in New
York in 1917 but never achieved full light.
Almost every decade since has had its own lying car
designs. Perhaps the closest the idea ever got to market was
in the 1970s when Ford seriously considered the feasibility
of producing the Aerocar, designed by Moulton Taylor. Then
the decade’s oil crisis killed of the idea.
Now American company Terrafugia (from the Latin
words for “earth” and “lee”) is one of a new generation
chasing the dream. Its irst ofering, the Terrafugia
Transition, is already available for pre-order. A two-seater
with foldable wings, it is more ‘driving plane’ than ‘lying
car’. In the air it looks sporty enough, with a top speed of 160
km/h and a range of more than 600 km, but you still need a
runway to get airborne, and a pilot’s licence.
The Transition’s very name acknowledges the model
is a stepping stone. Terrafugia’s next iteration, the TF-X,
promises to be altogether more exciting.
The TF-X is designed to avoid dangerous situations by
automatically skipping around bad weather, and to keep
clear of restricted airspace (such as near airports) and other
air traic. If a driver becomes unresponsive, the TF-X will
ly itself to the nearest pre-approved landing spot. In case of
a more urgent problem, a full-vehicle parachute is packed
away inside the chassis.
Crucially, the TF-X will be able to take of and land vertically.
Forget runways – a level clearing the size of a small helipad
will do. Lift comes from two electric rotors running on
powerful, but light, 500 kilowatt motor pods. Driving the
rotors electrically is critical because it means they don’t need
to be coupled to a heavy engine, like that of a helicopter.
However, you will still need to charge the battery using the
car engine, hybrid style.
In the air the vehicle’s two rotors can tilt forward and, along
with the large rotary fan at the back, will propel the TF-X
up to 322 km/h. The lying, take-of and landing will all be
largely automated, so you won’t need to be a qualiied pilot
to ly it. Terrafugia expects light training could be knocked
of in about ive hours.
Doc Brown, Back to the Future
On the ground, with the rotors neatly packing away inside
the chassis in less than a minute, the TF-X will become a
quite practical car. It will seat four, it in a standard singlecar garage or parking space, and run on regular petrol.
Backed by Geely, the Chinese automotive giant that owns
Volvo and The London Taxi Company, Terrafugia reckons
the TF-X will take another decade to develop. But a price tag
in the region of US$349,000 means the TF-X will be a toy of
the super-rich.
The rest of us might have to be content with ‘lying taxi’
services. Uber is investing in UberAir, which it hopes to have
ready for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics. Buzzing over
gridlock, the company says, could reduce an 80-minute car
journey to just four.
Uber does not plan to design or build the lying taxi
aircraft itself. German company eVolo has already built one
that could do the job. Its Volocopter 2X is not a lying car but
helicopter-meets-drone, with 18 rotor blades.
The multi-rotor design allows excellent hovering
stability, just like a drone, and avoids a helicopter’s
deafening whomp. The fully electric aircraft has a range of
27 km at a cruising speed of 50 km/h, and can ly itself. It
may be be the design direction to take with lying cars.
Uber has already signed deals to convert the roofs of
up to 20 LA properties into landing pads, and another with
NASA to develop software to manage a lying taxi leet.
Management is crucial. The thing about lying cars is that
building the vehicle itself is the easiest part. Much more
diicult will be coming up with regulations to manage air
traic, so that hundreds or thousands of small aircraft can
safely ly low over populated areas.
800 KM
322 KM/H
(500 kW) EACH
8–12 YEARS
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Issue 78
NORMAN SWAN is a doctor and multi-award winning producer and broadcaster on health issues.
If pharmaceuticals can’t save you,
maybe you can save yourself.
HOPES OF A CURE for Alzheimer’s disease
being on the horizon took a blow when
drug giant Pizer announced in January
that, after two decades and millions of
dollars spent, it was pulling the plug on
Alzheimer’s research.
Pizer’s research had focused on trying
to clear away brain deposits of a protein
called amyloid beta. Some researchers
think those deposits might have been the
wrong target. Others think trials failed
because treatments started too late, and
because people who were selected for
treatment might not all have been sufering
from Alzheimer’s disease.
The latest strategy is to try to select
people who show diagnostic markers of an
earlier stage of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is known as the Alzheimer’s
prodrome. At this stage people experience
some memory problems but still fall within
the norms of cognitive function. There are,
however, clinically detectable changes:
samples of cerebrospinal luid show raised
levels of amyloid beta and MRI scans
show shrinkage of the hippocampus, the
structure crucial for forming memories.
One great hope – for vitamin fans
and researchers alike – is that dietary
supplements could prevent the worsening
of Alzheimer’s disease. So far antioxidants,
in particular vitamin E, have been
disappointing but there has been hope for a
supplement called Fortasyn Connect.
Designed to boost brain function,
it contains a cocktail of omega 3 fatty
acids, minerals and vitamins (speciically
DHA, EPA, uridine monophosphate,
choline, vitamins B12, B6, C, E, and
folic acid, phospholipids and selenium).
The concentrations of these nutrients
in the blood and brains of patients with
Alzheimer’s disease are lower than normal.
Animal studies show the cocktail
improves communication between brain
cells, blood low, regeneration of cells in the
hippocampus, and cognitive function.
This hopeful tonic, now marketed by
Dutch company Nutricia as ‘Souvenaid’,
had been previously tested in three clinical
trials on people with mild to moderate
Alzheimer’s disease. The trials, lasting
three to six months, suggested a helpful
efect only in people with mild Alzheimer’s.
So a consortium of researchers in
Europe and the US, including academics
and people from pharmaceutical
companies, decided to test patients at the
earlier, prodromal stage of the disease
– having mild memory problems but
detectable brain changes and elevated levels
of amyloid beta in their cerebrospinal luid.
The same factors
that protect against
heart disease protect
vessels in the brain.
Recruited from memory clinics across
Finland, Germany, the Netherlands
and Sweden, 311 people aged 55 to 85
completed the study. Half got Souvenaid
as a strawberry or vanilla-lavoured daily
drink; half just got a lavoured drink.
The results of the two-year study were
published in The Lancet in December
2017. Neuropsychological tests showed no
diference between the two groups.
There was, however, less shrinkage
of the hippocampus in the supplemented
group, along with a slight but signiicant
positive efect suggested by a secondary
measure of how well the patients were
functioning, a Clinical Dementia Rating
based on structured interviews.
Which may or may not mean
something. The trouble with the study was
that the overall rate of cognitive decline was
slower than expected in both groups. That
suggests there needed to be more people in
the study, and that it might have needed to
go on longer. So it is still an open question
whether this cocktail has an efect. Even if it
does, it is unlikely to be dramatic.
Is there any clear evidence of something
that can forestall Alzheimer’s disease?
A modest bit of good news is that the
same factors that protect against heart
disease – healthy food, keeping your
weight down, exercise, lowering high
blood pressure, avoiding diabetes and not
smoking – protect against blood-vessel
disease in the brain, which it is thought
contributes to Alzheimer’s disease. This is
supported by statistics from Europe that
indicate dementia rates are falling with
heart disease and stroke incidence.
One of the strongest protective factors,
though, is education. A 2014 study
published in Lancet Neurology found the
more education a person received early
in life, the later they developed dementia,
or not at all. That its with the ‘cognitive
reserve’ theory – the more educated you
are, the denser your neural networks, so
you have more brain capacity to start with.
While the evidence isn’t clear, you
certainly can’t do any harm by learning a
language or a musical instrument in midlife, in the hope it will exercise your brain
enough to keep dementia at bay at least for
a little longer.
KATIE MACK is a theoretical astrophysicist who focuses on inding
new ways to learn about the early Universe and fundamental physics.
The same force responsible
for moving oceans will
also rip our galaxy apart.
it good. From anywhere on Earth, on a
very dark night, the band of the Milky
Way can be seen to stretch across the
sky in a sideways view through the disk
of our spiral galaxy. From the southern
hemisphere we can also see the part of
the band where it widens into a bright
bulge of stars, veiled by lanes of dust,
surrounding the supermassive black hole
at the very core of the galaxy.
Also from the south, due to the
orientation of the Earth and the Solar
System, we can see the Large and Small
Magellanic Clouds, dwarf satellite
galaxies caught in the Milky Way’s
gravity. One thing we can’t see, though, is
the Andromeda Galaxy.
Which is too bad, since Andromeda,
with its trillion stars and central black
hole as massive as 100 million suns, is
hurtling toward us at 110 km a second.
Galactic collisions are commonplace
in the cosmos. Our best theories for how
galaxies grow include a healthy dose of
cannibalism, at least for the larger ones.
Here in the Milky Way, astronomers
(known in this context as ‘galactic
archaeologists’) have found long streams
of stars tracing arcs and loops around the
sky, illuminating the remains of smaller
objects unravelled by galactic gravity as
they fell towards us long ago.
The physics of how galaxies rip each
other apart is the same as that which
would be responsible for your grisly
demise if you fell into a black hole, and it’s
why Mars’s moon Phobos will one day be
reduced to a ring of pebbles encircling the
red planet.
It comes down to the tidal force: the
uneven gravitational pull that happens
when one end of an object is closer to the
source of gravity than the other.
The name ‘tidal’ is no coincidence, as
it is also responsible for why the oceans
on Earth respond to the Moon.
The main efect of a tidal force is to
stretch and squeeze an object, elongating
it along the direction pointing toward
(and away from) the source of gravity
and squeezing it in the perpendicular
direction. High tide on one side of the
Earth corresponds with high tide on
the opposite side, with low tide in the
regions in between. Similarly, if you fell
into a black hole feet irst, you would get
much taller from the tidal stretching, but
also thinner, in a process vividly termed
The tidal forces Phobos experiences
When the Andromeda
galaxy hits, in about
four billion years,
it will be the biggest
light show our galaxy
has ever seen.
from Mars are strong enough that the
little moon will be broken apart in a few
tens of millions of years.
In galaxy collisions, tidal forces can
create long streamers of stars stretching
out across the cosmos. When small
galaxies fall into larger ones (which may
one day be the fate of our Magellanic
clouds), the stellar debris creates thin
faint arcs, tracing their inal orbit.
When large galaxies come together,
these streams can be lung out in tails
thousands of light-years long.
The collisions can be dramatic in
other ways as well, as galactic gas coming
together can cause a burst of new star
formation and feed central black holes.
Over time the cores of the galaxies spiral
together and the stars wash back and
forth, blurring out the original structures
to coalesce into an elliptical blob.
We see galaxy mergers all over the
sky, and especially in clusters of galaxies,
where immense masses gather together
into one structure. We also know,
however, that mergers happen less often
than they used to.
As the universe expands, the distance
between galaxies not already tied together
by gravity is getting larger, so they bump
into each other less often. Over time,
that will mean fewer stars, and a darker,
lonelier cosmos.
Meanwhile, we have Andromeda.
When it hits, in about four billion years,
it will be the biggest light show our
galaxy has ever seen. While stars will
be lung about in dramatic fashion, our
Solar System as a whole will probably
be OK. The distances between stars are
so vast that, even in a galactic collision,
individual stars almost always sail right
past each other.
By the time it happens, the Sun will
have already neared the end of its life:
expanding to its red giant phase, boiling
of the oceans and dooming the Earth
to annihilation. Perhaps life will have
another vantage point to watch from by
then. Four billion years is a long time,
and the show will deinitely be something
worth waiting for.
Issue 78
PAUL BIEGLER is a philosopher, physician and Adjunct Research Fellow in Bioethics at Monash University.
A private-vs-public debate may
define the future of health care
winning tagline for the DNA testing kit
‘23andMe’, a product so popular it has
made the top ive of Amazon’s best-selling
It’s also an approach ushering in a new
era of personalised medicine. In theory,
having your DNA read from a simple saliva
sample could be like gazing into a medical
crystal ball. It will list the diseases you are
predisposed to, help you prevent them
or guide you to the best treatment if you
already have them.
For instance, let’s say you’re a woman
and your test shows you carry the deadly
version of the breast cancer gene BRCA1.
You might have a mastectomy, as Angelina
Jolie did. Or not. Not every BRCA1
mutation is equally deadly, and it also
depends on what other genes you carry.
Big data is required to truly realise the
vision of personalised medicine. We need
to contribute our genetic information
and medical histories to databases, whose
daunting complexity researchers try to
decode – increasingly with the aid of
machine-learning algorithms.
The deal breaker is genetic privacy.
Those databases must be hack-proof if we
want to prevent unscrupulous insurance
companies or employers from lifting a
person’s genetic secrets. The current
standard is to de-identify genetic and
medical information so there are no linked
names or other clues that might be crossreferenced to trace identity.
In September 2017 a startling paper
in the journal PNAS suggested genetic
privacy could no longer be guaranteed.
The authors were from Human Longevity
Inc. (HLI), led by its founder Craig Venter,
who was one of the scientists famous for
reading the human genome in 2001.
HLI claimed it deployed a very smart
machine-learning algorithm to reconstruct
a person’s face, with 80% accuracy, from
a tract of their genetic code. Yes, really,
a genetic mugshot. Throw in facial
recognition software and the ubiquitous
Facebook proile and HLI might have a
dealt a coup de gras to genetic privacy.
The result was mind-bending, the
scientiic blowback swift.
Within days, Yaniv Erlich, a Columbia
University computational biologist,
challenged the predictive power of the
HLI algorithm. Former HLI employee
Jason Piper, a co-author on the paper,
went further by distancing himself from
its conclusions on Twitter and accusing
Venter of crafting a result aimed at keeping
genetic data in private hands.
Machine learning could
ring the death knell for
genetic data sharing.
Piper’s logic: highlighting the potential
to put a face to the genes in a public
database may lead to the proposition that
guaranteed anonymity requires keeping
DNA in the shrouded servers of private
companies, such as HLI, which stand to
gain plenty.
How believable is the science? While
perhaps not ready for centre stage, it
would appear to be hovering in the wings.
“Can DNA from a scene-of-crime
semen sample give a picture of what a
rapist looks like? As of now, probably not;
as of three years from now, probably yes,”
says Bob Williamson, honorary professor
at Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s
Research Institute.
The obvious concern is that the rise
and rise of machine learning could ring
the death knell for genetic data sharing.
However, science is racing to ind a
solution in what is akin to a technological
arms race.
US researchers recently showed a
technique called “genome cloaking” that
can conceal most of the genetic code,
revealing only a small subset of interest
to researchers. The true game changer,
though, could be block chain encryption.
Sydney’s Garvan institute, for one, has
signed tech startup E-Nome to secure
more than 15,000 patient DNA data sets
with the technology.
The stakes are high. In recent months,
Australian authorities have published no
fewer than three reports about the beneits
of precision medicine. The US National
Institutes of Health aims to sequence a
million genomes by 2020.
But the real action may well lie to our
north; China has funded its own precision
medicine juggernaut to the tune of
US$9 billion. It will team public and
private sectors and, on one estimate,
sequence 100 million genomes by 2030.
With that vast database, China
could nail many of precision medicine’s
problems – such as the spectrum of cancer
risk from the BRCA1 gene – at least for its
own population.
Will China share its intelligence
with the rest of us? How will the Chinese
program navigate the public-private
debate? As it all plays out, the world’s
scientists and ethicists will be paying very
close attention.
ALAN FINKEL is an electrical engineer, neuroscientist and the chief scientist of Australia.
The queen of rechargeable
batteries shall reign for
the foreseeable future.
WHEN IT COMES TO making computer
circuits, silicon is king. Contenders for
the throne include optical switches, DNA,
proteins, germanium and graphene. Each
has legitimate grounds to be considered
but has struggled in development, while
silicon-based computers have relentlessly
improved, such that the performance gap
between silicon and its potential usurpers
has widened.
A similar widening gap has occurred
in rechargeable batteries. If silicon is the
king of electronic circuits, lithium is the
queen of batteries. I ind it surprising that
one element so thoroughly dominates
battery technology but, like king silicon for
circuits, queen lithium has properties that
make it superior to all the alternatives.
Batteries comprise three essential
components: the negative terminal (also
known as the anode), the positive terminal
(the cathode) and the interior soup of ions
called the electrolyte, usually a liquid or gel.
When the negative and positive terminals
are connected through an external
circuit such as your lashlight, the battery
discharges by driving electrons from the
negative terminal to the positive terminal,
providing the energy to generate light.
Inside the battery, the circuit is completed
by the low of positive ions through the
electrolyte. In a lithium-ion battery, these
positive ions are lithium atoms that have
been stripped of an electron.
Most of the billions of dollars spent
each year to develop better lithiumion batteries are invested in improving
the materials for the terminals and the
electrolyte. The negative terminal has to
act like a sponge, absorbing and storing
as many positively charged lithium ions
as possible. Graphite is most commonly
used, but variations such as graphene
that can absorb even more lithium ions
without swelling are actively being
sought. The positive terminal is often
made from lithium cobalt oxide, though
there are many alternatives in production
and in development. The electrolyte
includes lithium salts such as lithium
What makes lithium special? For
starters, it is the lightest of all metals and
the third-lightest element, sitting in the
periodic table immediately after hydrogen
and helium. Further, of the metals
commonly used for batteries, lithium has
the highest ‘working voltage’ – the voltage
diference between the negative terminal
and the positive terminal.
This combination of a high working
What makes lithium
special? For starters,
it is the lightest metal.
voltage (up to 3.6 volts) and light weight
contributes to lithium batteries having
the highest energy storage per kilogram,
making them ideal for mobile applications.
Thanks to lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries,
a Tesla car can get away with a battery
weight of 600 kg, compared with 4,000 kg
or more if it were to rely on conventional
lead acid batteries.
Unlike lead acid batteries, in use for
more than a century, lithium-ion batteries
can be discharged down to about 10% of
their rated capacity without failure, and do
so thousands of times. They do not carry
the curse of the memory efect that reduces
the working lifetime in nickel-cadmium
(NiCd) and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH)
batteries unless they are fully discharged
before recharging. Further, lithium-ion
batteries left sitting on the shelf will lose
charge at a much slower rate than other
battery chemistries.
Like any chemical at high
concentrations, lithium is harmful to
humans if ingested but is otherwise very
low on the toxicity scale; in fact, it is so
relatively harmless that for more than
50 years lithium carbonate salt has been
routinely used as a medicine to treat
bipolar disorder.
Wonderful as they are, lithium-ion
batteries do have some drawbacks. For
example, they lose peak capacity after a
few years of operation. Further, because
of safety concerns, battery packs must be
made with complex protection circuits to
limit overheating and maximum currents.
It is diicult to predict where the
next big battery breakthrough will come
from. The competition is intense and
advances are announced daily. My money
is on replacing the liquid electrolyte with
a solid-state electrolyte that is a kind
of glass. If successful, the solid-state
electrolyte will allow faster charging,
increased safety, up to three times the
energy density and longer lifetimes.
Sound too good to be true? The latest
announcement from Toyota Motor
Corporation conidently claims it will
introduce solid-state lithium-ion batteries
in 2022. While it is early days, solid-state
lithium-ion batteries can provide a step
change in performance that will give
us electric cars able to go 1,000 km and
smartphones that can be used for several
days between charges.
Issue 78
Synthetic biologists are on a quest to build organisms that
satisfy our material needs in a cleaner, greener way.
Issue 78
IMAGINE A FUTURE where synthetic jellyish roam waterways
looking for toxins to destroy, where eco-friendly plastics
and fuels are harvested from vats of yeast, where viruses are
programmed to be cancer killers, and electronic gadgets repair
themselves like living organisms.
WELCOME TO THE WORLD of synthetic biology, or
‘synbio’, where possibilities are limited only by the
imagination. Its practitioners don’t view life as a
mystery but as a machine – one that can be designed
to solve a slew of pressing global health, energy and
environmental problems.
It’s a plug-and-play approach. Eager researchers
can order DNA sequences online in much the same way
electronics enthusiasts buy parts on eBay. Working
components are listed in inventories of standardised
biological parts. The culture is highly collaborative,
with synthetic biologists sharing data and tools in the
same spirit that drives the open-source, copyleft and
maker movements.
The front man for the ield would have to be the
audacious Craig Venter. In 2010 his team created
the world’s irst synthetic life form – a replica of
the cattle bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. Dubbed
‘JCVI-syn 1.0’, its DNA code was written on a
computer, assembled in a test tube and inserted into
the hollowed-out shell of a diferent bacterium. Its
creators embedded their names in watermarks in the
DNA, along with two quotes. From writer James Joyce:
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out
of life.” From pioneering quantum physicist Richard
Feynman: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
For Venter this was just one of many irsts. He holds
joint credit for the irst sequencing of the three-billionletter DNA code of the human genome in 2001; in 2007
he became the irst human to have their individual
genome sequenced.
In 2016 he announced the answer to the meaning
of life. It’s 473 – at least for M. mycoides. That’s the
minimal number of genes the bacterium needs to
survive. Venter’s team discovered this by stripping
down JCVI-syn 1.0 to create JCVI-syn 3.0. The leaner
life form has about half as many genes as its precursor.
Venter wasn’t just motivated by intellectual
curiosity. A pared-down life form might serve as
a chassis on which to build something useful to
humankind. Bolt on the right handful of genes and you
could have an ecologically friendly microbe factory to
produce drugs or biofuels or artiicial meat.
Such ambitions might seem doomed in a world
where people are terriied by far more modestly
engineered organisms such as GM crops. But synthetic
biologists are an optimistic lot. They are working
hard to win society over with their vision of creating a
smarter, greener, more sustainable world.
“To me it comes back to the idea of sustainability,”
says Claudia Vickers, who runs a synbio lab at the
University of Queensland and heads the CSIRO’s
$30 million Synthetic Biology Future Science
Platform. Ian Paulsen, whose lab at Macquarie
University in Sydney is part of a global project to create
synthetic yeast, concurs: “One could make the case that
the synthetic biology community is the most ethically
engaged scientiic community there has ever been.”
In synbio speak, promoters are called ‘switches’ and
the molecules that regulate them ‘actuators’. Working
circuits of switches and actuators are ‘logic gates’.
Is designing a tailor-made organism as
straightforward as putting together some circuit
components? No, says Vickers, life is much messier.
“We would like to be able to treat biology like it’s
an electrical circuit, but biological complexity is
confounding much of the time.”
Synthetic biologists develop their projects through
standard engineering cycles of ‘design, build, test’.
The design phase involves computer modelling of the
components’ behaviour. The build stage involves the
genetic engineering. The test step assesses if it works
– and all too often unpredicted DNA interactions and
toxicities mean it does not work as expected.
Even the simplest biological organisms have DNA
sequences no one entirely understands. Take Venter’s
A pared-down life form might serve as a useful chassis. Bolt on the
right handful of genes and you could have an ecologically friendly
microbe factory to produce drugs or biofuels or artificial meat.
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY GETS less attention than genetic
engineering but practitioners use many of the same
techniques. There are long-standing examples, like
Golden Rice engineered to produce vitamin A, which
could be tagged with either label.
Historically, genetic engineers have tinkered
with organisms. Synthetic biologists have a far bolder
mindset. As Polish geneticist Wacław Szybalski put it at
a conference back in 1973: “Up to now we are working
on the descriptive phase of molecular biology … But
the real challenge will start when we enter the synthetic
phase … We will then devise new control elements and
add these new modules to the existing genomes or build
up wholly new genomes.”
Finally, Szybalski predicted, the work would move
to building “other organisms”.
Synthetic biologists, quips Vickers, “are largely
biologists masquerading as engineers or vice versa”.
While they work with biology – genomes (DNA codes),
transcriptomes (parts of the DNA that are uploaded)
and proteomes (what proteins are being made) – they
like to translate that work into engineering concepts
and language.
In genetics speak, for example, regulatory
stretches of DNA are called ‘promoters’; they are in
turn regulated by ‘repressor’ or ‘inducer’ molecules.
minimalist life form, JCVI-syn 3.0, with its 473 genes.
While all these genes are necessary for the bacterium
to live, the team – which has spent decades studying
M. mycoides – has no idea what a third of them do. “As
a synthetic biologist I ind this so humbling,” Vickers
If the genetic logic of simple bacteria is mysterious,
synthetic biologists are likely to encounter far more
spanners in the works as they attempt to move up the
evolutionary tree.
Here the ‘Yeast 2.0 project’ may help. This
international initiative is rebuilding the yeast genome
from scratch (see “Why synthesise a yeast genome” on
page 55). Think of it as building a custom model racer
rather than tinkering with a stock car. By starting with
the nuts and bolts, scientists may be able to overcome
the tangled legacy of millions of years of evolution to
engineer a super-sleek genome in which they know how
every gene contributes to life.
At least, that’s the hope.
Life may turn out to be harder to tame than the
synthetic biologists initially thought. Nevertheless,
they have already scored some impressive runs and
their imagination remains unfettered – with a wild
array of projects on the drawing board that span the
solidly utilitarian to the truly fantastic.
Synthetic biology’s greatest success story so far is the
synthesis of artemisinin, the key ingredient in today’s
best malaria drugs. Its large-scale production was
made possible by Jay Keasling and colleagues at the
University of California, Berkeley, who worked out
how to make it using the humble yeast.
Artemisinin was irst isolated from the sweet
wormwood plant, Artemisia annua, in the early 1970s
by Chinese chemist Youyou Tu – a discovery that
would ultimately win her a share of the 2015 Nobel
Prize in Medicine.
When she irst isolated artemisinin, Tu was part
of a secret government project to help China’s North
Vietnamese allies, who weren’t just battling human
foes but strains of malaria resistant to chloroquine,
the most widely used malarial medicine. Searching for
alternatives in traditional Chinese medicine, Tu found
her breakthrough in The Handbook of Prescriptions for
Emergency Treatments, written some 1700 years ago by
physician Ge Hong.
The prohibitions of the Cultural Revolution
prevented Tu from publishing her work till 1981, when
it provided a shot in the arm for the battle against
chloroquine-resistant malaria across Asia and Africa.
By the early 2000s, the World Health Organisation
Issue 78
was recommending artemisinin-based medicines as
irst-line treatments. Its supply, however, was limited
and erratic due to the vagaries of growing sweet
wormwood. In 2001 Keasling and colleagues set out to
ind a cheaper and more reliable way to make it.
The sweet wormwood plant makes artemisinin
from a precursor molecule called farnesyl pyrophosphate (FPP). Yeast cells also make FPP, which they
use as the starting material for ergosterol, a building
block of yeast cell walls.
Keasling’s team turned up the controls on the yeast
genes that make FPP and turned down the genes that
convert FPP into ergosterol. They then took a sweet
wormwood gene that turns FPP into artemisinic acid
and inserted it into the yeast genome. In the lab it was a
small step to turn artemisinic acid into artemisinin.
Keasling and his collaborators established a
company called Amyris to commercialise synthetic
artemisinin. In 2008 it handed the technology over to
French pharmaceutical giant Sanoi.
Yeast-made artemisinin captured hearts and minds
by showing synthetic biology could make a life-saving
malaria drug afordable. For its follow-up act, Amyris
wanted to turn yeast into something equally compelling
and biofuel was the answer. The Amyris scientists
engineered a synthetic pathway that converted FPP
into the hydrocarbon farnesene, the only biofuel
suiciently energy-dense to be approved for use in
aviation fuel. Along with being a substitute for fossil
fuels, farnesene also has the environmental beneit of
not belching particulates and sulfur. When burned, it
smells like green apples.
Venter, meanwhile, has been chasing the holy grail
The Synthetic Genomics team identiied the
genetic switch for producing oil in the algae species
Nannochloropsis gaditana, then tweaked it to produce
oil even when nitrogen is plentiful. The result, reported
in the journal Nature Biotechnology in June 2017, was
a doubling of the algae’s oil content – from 20% to
more than 40% – with no signiicant impact on the
algae’s growth.
It is still not enough for commercial viability,
of turning algae into a commercially robust source of
biofuel. It is a dream that over the past decades has
defeated many biotech companies. Venter’s company
Synthetic Genomics – bankrolled by the world’s largest
oil and gas company, ExxonMobil – turned to synthetic
biology for the answer.
Algae produce oil and require only briny water
and sunlight to grow. But harvesting the oil is still
expensive. To make it economically viable requires
ramping up the algae’s rate of growth and the amount
of oil produced. Until now, it has been an either/or
situation – you can double their oil output if you starve
algae of nitrogen, but that cripples their growth.
but Venter remains upbeat that eventually algae will
provide a viable alternative energy source.
While proits from biofuels might still be many years
away, synthetic-biology startups see more immediate
returns in tooling their living factories to make highmargin commodities.
Yeast-produced farnesene is being used to make
personal-care products such as vitamin E, patchouli
oil and squalene, a compound once harvested from the
livers of sharks, which is prized for its attributes as a
skin moisturiser and other therapeutic beneits.
Issue 78
The chemistry that gives farnesene the smell of
green apples is being leveraged at Vickers’ lab at the
University of Queensland. Her team has gone back to
the drawing board to engineer yeast and bacteria to
produce hydrocarbons like farnesene that, among other
things, emit marketable fragrances.
Length is everything for this class of hydrocarbons,
known as isoprenoids. Vickers says her team produces
10-15 hydrocarbon chains that not only emit nice
smells but can also help make biofuels, insect
repellents, vitamins and hormones used in agriculture
to modify plant structure and growth.
Pare isoprenoids down to a ive-hydrocarbon chain
and you have isoprene, the raw material for rubber,
which was traditionally tapped from the rubber tree.
Synthetic rubber was irst made in the early 1900s, and
now almost all rubber comes from processing close to a
million tonnes of isoprene from crude oil each year.
Genencor, a California-based company, engineered
bacteria to produce isoprene in a more sustainable way.
Dupont bought the company and has produced bioisoprene to make concept tyres with Goodyear.
Synthetic biology also ofers a greener option for
plastics like nylon. Currently, nylon production from
crude oil accounts for 10% of human-made emissions of
nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more
potent than carbon dioxide. Keasling’s lab at Berkeley
has engineered a bacterium that produces adipic acid,
the molecule used to make nylon.
While the competition with petroleum-based
products is ierce and dynamic, these synthetic biology
products – drugs, cosmetics, perfumes and plastics
– are already transforming the way we manufacture
staple commodities of modern life. Synthetic biologists
also have more way-out products on their drawing
Every day an estimated 200 million people drink water
poisoned by high levels of arsenic. If only they had a
quick test to check their wells.
Enter synthetic biology. The Arsenic Biosensor
Collaboration involving researchers from the
universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh is developing
a cheap, reliable arsenic test that exploits the natural
capabilities of bacteria. The microbes can sense arsenic
concentrations of less than 10 parts per billion –
WHO’s threshold for safe drinking.
The technology originates from two projects
undertaken for the international Genetically
Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, where
undergraduate students team up to solve global
problems with the help of synthetic biology.
Chris French at Edinburgh University led a team
that turned the E. coli bacterium into an arsenic
sensor by rewiring two genes. One gene senses arsenic
and activates genes to pump it out of the cell; the
other allows the bacteria to digest the sugar lactose,
producing lactic acid. The rewiring involves putting
the gene for digesting lactose under the control of the
arsenic sensor. When arsenic is detected, the lactosedigesting gene switches on. The lactic acid it produces
makes the water more acidic, which can be detected
using a cheap pH indicator: if the reading is blue, the
water is safe; yellow means it is dangerous.
At the University of Cambridge, a group led by Jim
Ajioka turned the invention into a credit-card-sized
sensor for practical ield use.
“The science is the simple bit,” says French.
The real hurdle now is getting regulatory approval.
Countries that could beneit most from the technology,
such as Bangladesh, don’t have the regulatory
framework to test and approve the biosensor. The
plan is to partner with researchers in the US to get
the biosensor tested and approved there. That should
smooth the path for its acceptance elsewhere.
Timothy Lu earned a degree in computer science
at MIT before moving on to medicine and a PhD at
Harvard Medical School. His lab at Harvard, the
Synthetic Biology Group, boasts a mix of computation,
medical and biology specialists. The hybrid vigour is
resulting in some dazzling devices. At the medical end
of the spectrum, the team has programmed viruses
to boost the immune system’s ability to ight cancer.
So far they have fought of ovarian cancer in mice, as
published in a 2017 paper in the journal Cell.
Cancer spreads when a contingent of the immune
army known as killer T- cells are not doing their job
properly. Sometimes they don’t detect the cancer cells;
other times the cancer cells disarm their weaponry.
To improve their kill rate, Lu’s group loaded a virus
with a gene circuit that carries alarm signals called
cytokines. When the virus infects a cancer cell, the
circuit sends an alarm that alerts killer T-cells to the
cancer. It also releases a compound to stop the cancer
cell from disarming the killer T-cell.
The gene circuit only responds in the presence
of two cancer-speciic proteins – myc and E2F – to
ensure normal cells infected by the virus do not end
up as collateral damage. The genes operate like a ‘logic
gate’ in an electronic circuit, with the virus unleashing
its payload only when both proteins are detected.
“Computing language makes the design process
easier,” says Lu.
While Lu and other synthetic biologists love to use
circuit metaphors to describe their living machines,
Lu’s team has made the metaphor real by designing
bacteria to produce working electronic circuit boards.
As a clinician, Lu knew bacteria shield themselves
from antibiotics by ganging up together and producing
a bioilm. This is made up of proteins called curli
ibres that tangle like velcro to form a tight sheet. As a
synthetic biologist, Lu wondered if the bioilm might be
directed to form the fabric of a living circuit.
Lu’s group re-engineered bacteria DNA so some
of the curli ibre proteins (CsgA) would bind metals –
something many proteins can do. They programmed
diferent bacteria so some produced metal-binding
curli ibres while others did not. This enabled them
to program a pattern into the bioilm – a bit like
imprinting a pattern on fabric. Then they sprinkled
gold atoms onto the bioilm to create pathways of gold
wires. To complete the circuit board, the scientists
equipped other curli ibres to bind to ‘quantum dots’ –
nanoscale semi-conductors that emit light.
Lu describes the work, published in Nature
Materials in 2014, as a proof of concept to inspire what
is possible: think environmental sensors for metals,
sponges to extract gold from tailings and self-repairing
solar panels.
In 2017 Lingchong You of Duke University was
inspired to make a nanoscale pressure sensor. He used
the technique to generate bioilms that form domelike structures the size of a freckle. Each dome was
connected to an LED light bulb through copper wiring.
When pressure was applied to the domes, it changed
the conductivity and the brightness of the bulbs. Hey
presto: a living, self-repairing pressure sensor. Robot
skin, anyone?
Believe it or not, Nina Pollak at the University of
Sunshine Coast in Queensland is synthesising jellyish
to clean up toxic spills.
In 2012 the Austrian-born scientist was inspired
by a bold study, published by Kevin Kit Parker at
Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired
Engineering. Parker’s group had transformed rat
heart muscle cells into a swimming creature dubbed a
‘medusoid’ (medusa being the scientiic name for the
typical form of a jellyish).
Beginning with a computer design, the researchers
laid rat heart muscle cells on a scafold of silicone
polymer shaped like an eight-petalled lower. The
creation could be made to swim with pulses of
electricity: lowing current caused the muscle to
contract; when the current stopped it relaxed and the
medusoid’s elastic silicone pulled it back to its original
shape. The motion echoed that used by jellyish to
propel themselves.
Parker’s goal with the medusoid was to model the
beating of a heart and test new drugs; Pollak envisioned
the possibility of creating an aquatic rover to detect
and clean up ocean pollutants. Her approach relies on
Issue 78
THE SYNTHETIC YEAST Genome Project – Sc2.0 for
short – is a world-first attempt to build from scratch
the genome of the yeast used by bakers and brewers,
Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
It’s no small feat. So far a team of about 200
people in 11 research groups in six countries have
been working for six years to build 16 synthetic
chromosomes encompassing about 12 million base
pairs of DNA. Sakkie Pretorius, whose team at
Macquarie University has signed on to build two
chromosomes, estimates close to $US50 million has
already been spent on the project.
The strategy for building Sc2.0 is similar to the
one used by Craig Venter to make synthetic bacteria.
Pore over the DNA sequence on a computer and
redesign it to streamline and optimise the way the
code is read. Old code, as any software engineer will
tell you, gets addled by redundancies and glitches.
Then punch the new code into a state-of-the-art
DNA synthesiser and deliver the synthetic DNA into
a living yeast. At first you will have a hybrid cell:
synthetic DNA in the shell of a natural yeast. Within
a few generations, though, every component of the
yeast will be reprogrammed by the synthetic yeast
code. There are still some glitches to iron out, but
the project expects to unveil its complete synthetic
genome by late 2018.
Why do it? Scientists can tinker with nature’s
yeast to make all manner of useful things. Pretorius
and his collaborators, for example, have tweaked
wine-making yeast to make red wine more buttery
(thanks to yeast and bacterial genes that convert
malic to lactic acid) and white wine fruitier (thanks to
a bacterial gene that makes the enzyme beta lyase).
The end game is to create a streamlined chassis
organism on which to bolt other synthetic modules.
For one thing, a more streamlined and efficient
chassis might give yeast-made biofuel the edge it
needs to compete with petrochemicals. “If you inherit
a suboptimal factory, all you can do is change a few
taps,” Pretorius says. “But if you purpose-build it
from the ground up, you can design the pipelines and
optimise flow-rates the way you want.”
How do you make a yeast chromosome? First
synthesize 10,000-letter chunks of DNA code in the
lab. Join five chunks to make a ‘megachunk’. Tip
the megachunks into a flask of growing yeast with
chemicals to solubilise the yeast cell membranes.
Some of the megachunks will slip into the cells.
Thanks to a natural process of DNA swapping called
‘recombination’, they will insert themselves like
a cassette into a matching piece of chromosome,
ejecting the natural fragments.
Using this process, the project has swapped out
DNA bit by bit. It has removed about 20% of socalled ‘junk DNA’ – stutters in the DNA code that
seem to have no function – and pared back the
large number of identical copies of so-called rRNA
genes. The coding has been arranged more logically
– including collecting the dispersed set of so-called
tRNA genes, which link code with amino acids, and
putting them on a new 17th chromosome.
The synthetic yeast also boasts some state-ofthe-art design features. Proteins are made by linking
amino acids. More than 100 amino acids are found
in nature, but only 20 are naturally used to make
proteins. Sc2.0 will create novel, distinctly ‘unnatural’
functions by coding for some of these amino acids
that don’t normally make proteins.
More novel functions are expected from a
switchable feature built in to the chromosomes called
SCRaMbLE. It is a form of accelerated evolution that
uses a trigger – say feeding the yeast a chemical – to
scramble the chromosomes. This shuffling of DNA
may also generate useful new traits.
“The cell’s tolerance for massive change is quite
remarkable,” Pretorius says.
“We’ve learned so much from Yeast 2.0,” he
enthuses. “Biology is where chemistry was 70 years
ago. Anything we can dream up, we can write the
DNA to produce.”
coaxing mouse embryonic stem cell to form heart cells
whose beat should provide locomotion. The stem cells
will also be engineered to carry a gene that senses toxic
organophosphate – a pesticide common in agricultural
run-of – and other genes that can then break toxic
chemicals down. The end result: a jellyish-like
organism that can hunt and destroy pollutants.
The ambitious project seems set to consume the
rest of Pollak’s working career – a worthwhile cause,
she says, if it delivers a solution for toxic spills. “There
is heaps going on in synthetic biology. It’s about
combining what we already know to make something
new and great.”
So will the glowing vision of the future ofered by
synthetic biology become a reality? A large part of the
answer depends on how readily society will accept
artiicial life forms in our midst. Another part comes
down to simple economics.
The history of artemisinin and biofuels is
instructive. Large investments in synbio companies to
commercialise these products have failed to deliver the
expected returns.
The price of natural artemisinin in 2011 was more
than US$800 a kilogram. With the cost of producing
synthetic artemisinin about US$350 a kilogram,
pharmaceutical maker Sanoi invested big in facilities
for large-scale production. Then increased cultivation
of sweet wormwood and a series of bumper harvests
saw the cost of making natural artemisinin crash to less
than US$200 a kilogram.
The same forces of supply and demand have
hindered biofuels. In 2008 the future looked bright as
crude oil hit US$140 a barrel, with all signs the price
would only go up. Then the global inancial crisis hit,
followed by the natural gas fracking boom, which
slashed US demand for oil imports. By 2016 the price
of crude was less than $40 a barrel, obliterating the
business case for alternative fuel production.
As Vickers puts it: “The most important -omics is
JAMES MITCHELL CROW is a freelance writer
and editor.
Jefrey Phillips
Issue 78
Athletes looking for the winning edge must master the space
between the ears. RICK LOVETT investigates where the real
ield experiments in sports psychology are happening.
Issue 78
CATE CAMPBELL CALLED IT “possibly the greatest choke in
the Olympic history”. The swimmer was speaking of her sixth
place at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 100-metre freestyle, the
event for which she held the world record. But she might as
well have been speaking of Australian swimming as a whole.
PROJECTED TO TAKE as many as 11 gold medals in
Rio, the team managed just three and was reduced to
watching the Americans win 16 of the 32 events, many
without an Australian even in the top three.
It was the second Olympiad in a row in which a
highly touted Australian team had come up short
– a terrible fate for a nation that invests heavily in
swimming success and where, as John Bertrand,
president of Swimming Australia, puts it, swimming “is
part of our DNA”.
There are several possible reasons. Perhaps some
swimmers underestimated the 11-hour jetlag. Perhaps
training errors caused them to peak too soon. “They
performed very well a month prior,” says Andy Walshe,
an Australian-born sports scientist and consultant now
based in Southern California. Perhaps many of them
just happened to have bad days at the same time.
Whatever the cause, Bertrand’s mission is to make
sure the Rio disaster doesn’t happen again at the 2020
Olympics in Tokyo. To do this, he is focusing on what
he sees as sport science’s inal frontier: the mind. “We
think the biggest gains are between the ears,” he says.
Science has become an integral player in improving
sports performance over the past century. It began
with German physiologist August Krogh’s pioneering
work on respiration and circulation, which contributed
hugely to the development of exercise physiology (he
won the Nobel prize in 1920). It continued with Danish
exercise physiologist Erik Hohwü Christensen’s studies
of carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the late 1930s,
which laid the foundation for sports nutrition.
Since then, science has contributed to knowing
what to eat and drink before, during and after exertion;
how to get the biggest bang for the buck from training;
and how to reine the minutiae of technique – in
swimming that goes all the way down to the positioning
of your ingers to get the most out of every stroke.
It has contributed to the evolution of better
sporting equipment and clothes, such as the suits
elite swimmers wear to reduce water resistance.
On the darker side, it has equipped athletes with a
pharmacopeia of illegal performance-enhancing drugs
that increase oxygen in the blood for more endurance
or boost muscle strength for superhuman performance.
But when it comes to optimising mental
performance, sports science still has a long way to go,
especially in a sport where the diference between
winning and losing is measured in millimetres and
Cate Campbell at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Sports psychologists say ‘choking’ is the result of the brain’s cognitive
resources being wasted on worrying about a task rather than being invested in performing it.
milliseconds. “We think we potentially use 9-10% of
the potential of the human brain,” says Bertrand. “If we
can move that to 100%, it’s a breakthrough.”
Elite-level sports psychology doesn’t advance via
lab tests. The real science, often by trial and error,
is happening out in the ield – in the pool or on the
track. Much is simply one-on-one experimentation
by athletes and coaches, often drawing on life lessons
learned elsewhere.
A lot of what is needed isn’t that arcane. Whether
they fully understood the science of what they were
doing in Rio or not, the Americans did something right.
The Australians didn’t, and Campbell’s word “choke”
is still on everyone’s mind.
WHEN IT COMES to sports psychology, Bertrand knows
what he is talking about. He sailed in two Olympics and
several unsuccessful attempts to win the America’s Cup
before he became a national hero in 1983 as skipper
of Australia II, which broke the Americans’ 132-year
stranglehold on the prestigious yachting event. While
nautical engineering was widely hailed as Australia’s
secret weapon in that victory – with the winged keel of
Australia II kept zealously shrouded – Bertrand says it
was his psychology that delivered the winning edge.
“Having competed in two Olympic Games and
ive America’s Cups, it’s obvious to me the psychology
of performing when it really counts is the major area
of opportunity,” he says. “We are in the business
of endeavouring to understand what a super-high
performance team will look like for the Tokyo Olympics
– and to getting there faster than anyone else.”
Needless to say, Bertrand is not willing to spill the
details of how he plans to choke-proof his athletes. But
he is leaving no stone unturned in his quest for elite
mental training techniques for the Australian swim
team. He is tapping into traditional ‘mindfulness’
techniques [see “Mindfulness in sport” – page 52].
In signature Bertrand style he is also pushing the
boundaries to discover the secrets of other elite
performers. How do SAS commandos train their
mental toughness for life-and-death missions? How do
ballet dancers maintain their focus on technique while
trying to please an audience?
That he has also brought aboard Walshe, whose
methods in other sports have proven both exciting and
unconventional, is another sign of pushing the sportspsychology envelope.
Issue 78
03 | John Bertrand is convinced that psychology is what
delivers the winning edge in sports competition.
Walshe is something of a phenomenon in the
realm of high-performance sports psychology. He has
a PhD in applied biomechanics from Southern Cross
University, New South Wales, but has since specialised
in optimising human performance. Now a full-time
consultant, he spent eight years (from 2009 to 2017)
as director of high performance at Red Bull, a major
marketing player in extreme sports.
Among other things, Walshe helped Felix
Baumgartner prepare for his 2012 dive from a
helium balloon at the edge of space – a feat that made
the Austrian skydiver the irst person to break the
sound barrier without a vehicle. In his 22 years in
the ield, Walshe has worked with big-wave surfers,
mountaineers, corporate executives and surgeons
– anyone trying to expand the boundaries of their
abilities. “We just took the number one cardiac surgery
team in the world through a program,” Walshe says by
way of example.
His approach is grounded in the rite-of-passage
rituals of ancient cultures, where young people face
challenges designed to induce self-relection and
understanding. “It’s a very old tool to which we
are applying cutting-edge technology,” he says, “to
understand more completely what actually happens.”
CHOKING HAPPENS WHEN an athlete focuses too
much on things that should be automatic, says
Mackenzie Havey, a Minnesota-based running coach
and author of Mindful Running.
“Cognitive resources go into worrying about doing
the task, rather than performing it,” says Havey, who
holds a masters degree in kinesiology and sports
psychology. The goal is for athletes to learn simply to
do what they have spent years training themselves to
do, without too much self-scrutiny.
“Do or do not; there is no try,” is how Faulder
Colby, a clinical psychologist and marathoner who
died in 2017, liked to put it. The phrase comes from
the Star Wars Jedi master Yoda. ‘Trying’ is hard work
that robs athletes of energy better spent in the simple
act of racing, said Colby. ‘Doing’, on the other hand, is a
state of mind in which focused action replaces fear and
frazzle. A ‘hollow mind’ is how Bertrand describes the
ideal mental state: “It all comes together in a rhythm.”
He recalls talking to Cathy Freeman after she won
one of the most high-pressure races of all time: the
400-metre inal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in which
she carried the hopes of an entire nation. Bertrand
asked her what had gone through her mind. Freeman
told him about coming out of the starting blocks
perfectly, about her breathing being in harmony with
her running as she entered the back straight, and about
feeling no pain as she ran to the inish line.
“She did not talk to me once about winning
the medal,” Bertrand says. “She talked about the
wonderment of the process.”
This is a fundamental aspect to performing at your
04 | Andy Walshe’s methods apply cutting-edge science
to tools learned from the rituals of ancient cultures.
Intense mental training helped Felix Baumgartner prepare for his 2012 dive from a helium balloon at the edge of space.
best, Bertrand says, “where you’re loving what you’re
doing and freeing the mind from the consequences of
winning or losing”. It is why sports psychologists often
urge athletes to let go of the ‘need’ to achieve a goal.
Freeman’s focus on the details of her running race,
and not on what the race meant, he says, epitomised
that idea of ‘do’, not ‘try’.
It is a peculiar type of focus. Normally in light-oright situations, evolution has conditioned us so that
“the focus goes down to tunnel vision and you’re aware
of nothing other than the oncoming bear or the decision
to run like hell”, Bertrand says. But in competition
more is needed. “We also need to have peripheral
vision way beyond the tunnel.”
Jef Simons, a professor of sports psychology at
California State University, cites Davis Phinney, the
second American cyclist to ever win a stage of the Tour
de France. “If there was a train wreck next to me on the
course,” Phinney told him, “I would know there was
a train wreck but I wouldn’t notice it, because I just
wouldn’t care.”
When an athlete gets this right, Bertrand says,
“everything starts to become slow motion, even
though decisions and situations are happening within
He experienced this during his history-making inal
race in the 1983 America’s Cup, where he estimates he
had to make 1,000 decisions – about one decision every
nine seconds during the course of the 2½ hour race.
The challenge, of course, is iguring out how to
achieve this elusive state of mind. Thousands of hours
of practice play a role, but the pressure of competition
is diferent to practice. Which is where someone like
Walshe comes in.
WALSHE’S METHODS VARY with the needs and time
commitments of his clients, but putting people in
unfamiliar, stressful situations is at the core of his
practice. “Everyone gets stressed by whatever they
fear or don’t understand,” he says. “You identify these
things and use them as training.”
At the opening reception for a conference,
for example, he had participants wear masks and
prohibited them from talking about themselves. It was
probably the most awkward cocktail hour in history,
until people adjusted and got into it – providing
fodder for subsequent, more serious, discussions about
handling stress. What this little exercise revealed is
that the precise situation doesn’t matter: what counts
is that people are pushed far enough out of their
normal comfort zones. Public speaking, for example,
is one of many people’s greatest fears, so Walshe
Issue 78
To most of us “mindfulness” simply means paying
attention to what you’re doing. “Mind the step”, for
example, is simply a caution not to trip. Just as “mind
the ceiling” is a caution to duck, lest you concuss
yourself on a low-hanging beam.
In psychology mindfulness is more broadly
understood as focus on the present.
In sport it also means paying attention, but to
something more speciic; it means training yourself
to recognise what is going on – particularly in your
own head – and to take control of it. What needs to be
controlled varies with the sport, and the athlete, but fear
and associated negative thinking are often part of it.
When it comes to choking under pressure, fear is
almost always a big part of it. Pre-race nerves or panic
are due to the brain’s emotion centre, the amygdala,
hijacking your brain, says Mackenzie Havey.
However, deliberately trying to suppress negative
thoughts is counterproductive because the very process
of trying to force a thought out often invites it in. Better,
says Havey, is to quell the amygdala through a process
psychologists call “afect labelling”. The aim is simply
to recognise thoughts for what they are and not dwell
on them, instead of attempting to shove them aside as
though they don’t exist. “I think of it as putting a Post-It
note on the thought and letting it go,” she says.
Related to this is a psychological concept called
“emotional granularity”, which is how well you
can distinguish related emotions. People with low
granularity may have trouble doing more than
saying they are unhappy, sad or angry. People with
high granularity can distinguish the subtleties of
despondence, despair, grief and gloom when unhappy.
But emotional granularity isn’t just about having
a rich vocabulary, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett,
a professor of psychology at Northeastern University
in Boston; it is about “experiencing the world, and
yourself, more precisely”.
Cognition studies indicate that the ability to discern
and describe feelings is important for athletes trying to
ight of the big choke as much as it is useful for everyday
emotional control such as anger management. Havey
says: “Research shows that the better people are at that,
the better they are in highly emotional situations.”
In fact, she says, research inds that when people
let their minds wander randomly, and therefore
“catastrophise”, the part of the brain that lights up is
something called the “default mode network”.
The whole point of mindfulness is not to buy into
this. There are a lot of ways for athletes to train against
it, including breathing techniques, meditation or
simply learning to sit calmly, observing and labeling
their thoughts. “Anything to anchor your mind to the
present,” says Havey.
might challenge a client to perform stand-up comedy
or improv. Someone without that speciic fear might
instead have to confront a box of snakes.
Though controlled, such experiences can be
powerful lessons. “Stress inoculation is the military
term,” Walshe says. The key is for the challenge to be
scary but not so terrifying that one totally freezes up.
There are more intense programs. In 2013, for
example, Walshe collaborated with US Navy SEALs
to take Australian ironman champion Matt Poole
and three other elite athletes –more at home in surf
or white water – on a nine-day mountaineering
expedition in Chilean Patagonia. There, they leaped
across glacial crevasses, climbed treacherously unstable
slopes and bivouacked in a snowstorm to ultimately
summit a never-before-climbed Andean peak.
The Red Bull-sponsored trip – named ‘Project
Acheron’, after the irst of the three rivers of hell in
Dante’s Inferno – was documented in a one-hour ilm
(you can watch it online). In it, Poole echoes Bertrand’s
belief that the great undiscovered territory for athletes
remains “the thing between your ears”.
“Everybody does the work,” the triathlete says.
“They’re super-it, they train super-hard.” What makes
the diference is “mental strength, the ability to push
even harder when you’ve got nothing else to give”.
Poole and his fellow adventurers all went on,
without any other psychological coaching, to massive
triumphs in their chosen sports. Will Walshe send the
Australian swim team of on some similar adventure?
No one knows, but it’s the type of thing he does, so
anyone on the swim team who doesn’t like snakes or
glaciers or possibly an extended trek into the Outback
might be in for a surprise.
THERE IS A STORY Simons likes to tell about
Australian marathon-runner Steve Moneghetti before
the 1997 world championships in Athens, which the
sports psychologist got irst-hand from the runner.
Moneghetti was one of the great marathoners of
his time but had never earned a medal in the world
championships. Nor did he run well in heat. As the inal
drew near, it became clear the day would be hot. Worse,
a motor scooter clipped him and bruised his Achilles
tendon a week before the race.
But there he was at the inal, so he began his warmup routine, all the while feeling “like crap”. The race
started and he was promptly left behind by the lead
pack. So he igured he would aim for a top-20 inish,
and got into his rhythm.
At about a third of the way through the 42 km race,
someone told him he was catching up. He kept going.
With about 5 km to go, he found himself ifth. He
06 | Steve Moneghetti won a bronze at the 1997 world
championships by deciding he was ‘just going to do it’.
inished third. The bronze medal was the only one he
ever won at a world championship in a long, illustrious
career – and he won it on “a crap day”.
To Simons, this epitomises hanging tough: “But he
would say it was more like: ‘I was just going to do it.’”
Which is exactly what Bertrand hopes his
swimmers will do of the blocks in Tokyo in 2020. If
success lows, the acclaim and medals will deservedly
go to the athletes. But Bertrand, Walshe and a host
of others will have been behind the scenes, working
together to push the envelope of psychology and help
each athlete, in those few deining moments, to master
the “space between the ears”.
RICK LOVETT is a Portland, Oregon-based science
writer and science iction author.
01 Philippe Caron / Getty Images
02 Gabriel Bouys / Getty Images
03 Courtesy of John Bertand AO
04 Brian Arh / Getty Images
05 Yasser Al-Zayyat / Getty Images
06 Tony Marshall / Getty Images
The Micius satellite traces a green line across the
sky as it communicates via laser with a ground
station in north China in this long-exposure photo.
Using quantum entanglement, Micius allows
perfectly secure, unhackable communication.
Issue 78
A quantum internet may be only 10 years away, which
raises an important question: what is a quantum internet?
MICHAEL LUCY investigates.
Issue 78
FOR A FEW MINUTES each night in certain parts of China,
the brightest light in the sky is the lurid green glow of
the Micius satellite, shooting a green laser down to Earth
as it swings through space 500 kilometres above. When
conditions are right, you might also see a red beam lancing
back through the darkness from one of the ground stations
that send signals in reply.
MICIUS IS NOT YOUR average telecommunications
satellite. On 29 September 2017, it made history by
accomplishing an astonishing feat, harnessing the
mysterious qualities of quantum entanglement –
what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’ – to
‘teleport’ information into space and back again. In
doing so, it enabled the irst intercontinental phone
call – a video call, in fact, between Beijing and Vienna –
that was completely unhackable.
The weird science of quantum physics that powers
Micius is at the heart of a technology arms race. On
one side are quantum computers, still in their infancy
but with enormous potential once they grow in power.
Among their most prized, and feared, applications is
the capacity to cut through the complex mathematical
locks that now secure computer encryption systems
– the ones that mean you can conidently conduct
inancial transactions over the internet. On the other
side is the only sure defence – encryption techniques
that also rely on the laws of quantum physics.
Until recently scientists had managed to make
quantum encryption work only across distances of
a hundred kilometres or so. The Chinese scientists
behind Micius have now reached around the world.
It brings the ultimate prize tantalisingly closer. “I
envision a space-ground integrated quantum internet,”
says Pan Jianwei, whose team became frontrunners
in the quantum communications race after Micius
switched on.
That quantum internet will be both unquestionably
secure and disconcertingly strange, opening new
windows for science and computing.
PAN JIANWEI IS used to thinking small. The Chinese
physicist made his name with groundbreaking
explorations of quantum entanglement, that curious
kind of telepathy between subatomic particles that
Einstein famously derided.
At the same time Pan thinks very big. He has led
China’s massive quantum technology program for
more than a decade.
After Micius launched from Jiuquan spaceport on
the remote plains of Inner Mongolia in August 2016, it
began to perform a series of experiments that steadily
escalated in complexity. At their core was a crystalbased gadget that produces pairs of entangled photons
and sends them via tightly focused laser beams to
receiving stations on the ground.
The Tiangong-2 space laboratory, launched after the groundbreaking Micius satellite, will extend China’s quantum
communications program, bringing a global quantum network closer to reality.
Pan’s team irst established long-range entangled
connections between ground stations inside China.
Then they succeeded in transmitting the quantum state
of a particle – so-called quantum teleportation, which
will be a vital technique for quantum computers to
communicate. An extraordinary year was capped with
the unhackable international videoconference, in which
dignitaries from the Chinese and Austrian academies of
science exchanged congratulations.
Pan has no shortage of resources at his disposal.
Quantum technology is a key research priority for the
Chinese government, as for many others.
The best estimate of the scale of global eforts
comes from consulting irm McKinsey & Company.
It reported in 2015 that about 7,000 researchers
worldwide were working in the ield, with about
US$1.5 billion a year being spent. Those numbers
are undoubtedly bigger now, and will only grow as
governments and corporations chase the advantages of
quantum technology.
High on their list of motivations: protecting secrets.
“Security is the big selling point,” says Jacq Romero,
a photonics expert at the University of Queensland
(see p.130). A quantum network could also be used to
realise more exotic proposals, such as super-telescopes
that combine light from multiple telescopes to
massively enhance astronomical observations.
THE WORK PAN and other scientists are doing
now is part of what some call “the second quantum
revolution”. The irst quantum revolution began in the
early decades of the 20th century with the discovery of
the bizarre laws of the subatomic realm – in which an
object can be both a wave and a particle – by pioneering
scientists like Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Einstein.
Applied to technology, these ideas ushered in the era of
modern electronics with devices such as the transistor,
the laser and the solar cell.
In the second quantum revolution, scientists
are applying the quantum rules to the basic ideas of
information technology.
Classical computing relies on binary information,
represented by bits that are either 1s or 0s. Quantum
information uses quantum bits, or qubits, which can be
in both the 1 and 0 states at the same time. This can be
done using the magnetic spin of electrons, for example,
which can be ‘up’ , ‘down’ or some combination of up
and down.
Issue 78
This combination quantum state, known as a
‘superposition’, is the irst of several concepts that form
the foundation of the second quantum revolution.
A qubit only ‘chooses’ one state or the other – at
random, though the probability depends on how
much up and down are in the superposition – when
it is measured. Until then qubits inside a quantum
computer can efectively perform multiple calculations
The second important concept is entanglement,
where the behaviour of distant particles can be
inextricably connected – or ‘entangled’. When one
entangled particle is measured – and hence ‘chooses’ a
state – its partner is immediately bound by that choice,
no matter how far away it is. Entanglement is the key to
quantum communication.
The third concept is the ‘no-cloning theorem’,
which says the information in a quantum particle can
never be fully copied without changing the state of the
particle. A hacker can make a copy of your email now
without you ever knowing; a hack of a quantum system,
however, is bound by the laws of physics to leave traces.
Together, these phenomena pave the way for
quantum computers able to crunch through big data
problems that involve inding optimum solutions from
vast numbers of options. That includes eiciently
reverse-engineering the encryption keys that protect
your internet banking sessions. At the same time, they
make possible hack-proof quantum communication, in
which eavesdropping can always be detected.
THE SEEDS OF A quantum internet were irst sown
in the 1970s by a physicist named Stephen Wiesner.
As a graduate student at Columbia University in
New York, Weisner realised how the strange laws of
quantum mechanics could be used for new kinds of
Wiesner’s ideas were developed into a detailed
protocol for secure communication in 1984 by Charles
Bennett and Gilles Brassard. Many cryptographic
schemes involve a piece of information – known as a
key – that is shared by the sender and the recipient of a
message, but by no one else. The Bennett and Brassard
scheme sought to solve the problem of sharing the key
itself in a secure way.
Their idea involved a sender (conventionally known
as Alice in cryptography) sending a long string of 1s
and 0s to a recipient (call him Bob) that is encoded in
photons in such a way that if an eavesdropper (Eve,
naturally) conducted any measurements on it, Alice
and Bob would know (because measuring a quantum
particle changes its properties). They would then throw
out any afected 1s and 0s, and be left with an ideal
cryptographic key – a long random number they both
know but no one else does.
Quantum cryptography suddenly became more
relevant in 1994, when mathematician Peter Shor
showed that quantum computers might one day be
able to use quantum indeterminacy to break through
existing cryptographic schemes with alarming ease.
Cracking such schemes – like the ones that keep
your internet banking sessions safe from prying
eyes – involves inding the factors of extremely large
numbers. Shor showed that a quantum computer would
be able to do it much more quickly than a classical one.
Meanwhile, further developments in the theory of
quantum communication – the practice was still some
years of – made use of the even stranger phenomenon
of entanglement, which can bind together the fates of
objects separated by any distance.
This quantum connection turns out to be very
handy for Alice and Bob in their quest to have a quiet
chat without Eve interrupting. A pair of entangled
particles is in a sense a single entity, no matter how far
Alice must destroy the quantum state of her photon.
Bob then uses that information to create a photon
with the same attributes as Alice’s, including any
Physicists call this teleportation because the
properties of a subatomic particle, such as its position,
momentum, polarisation and spin, are all there is to
know about it. If a particle with a particular set of
properties disappears at one location and one with
exactly the same properties appears elsewhere, how can
anyone say they are not the same particle?
This kind of weirdness highlights the deep
connections between cryptography, information theory
and fundamental physics that the quantum internet
will exploit. Anton Zeilinger, an Austrian physicist who
was Pan Jianwei’s mentor and is now his collaborator,
put it bluntly in a 2005 essay in Nature: “the distinction
between reality and our knowledge of reality, between
reality and information, cannot be made.”
If a particle with a particular set of properties disappears at
one location and one with exactly the same properties appears
elsewhere, how can anyone say they are not the same particle?
apart they are. This insight was extended to its logical
yet absurd conclusion by theorist David Bohm, who
noted that, as a consequence of quantum mechanics,
“the entire universe must, on a very accurate level, be
regarded as a single indivisible unit”.
In 1991, Oxford physicist Artur Ekert igured
out exactly how entanglement could improve on the
Bennett-Brassard scheme. Suppose Alice generates
a stream of entangled photons and keeps one of each
pair for herself, sending the other to Bob. She measures
the polarisation of her own photons, and writes down
a 1 every time it is horizontal and a 0 every time it is
vertical. Eventually she will have a string of numbers.
Thanks to entanglement, if Bob has done the same
measurements he will have the identical string. If Eve
has intercepted any photons, if will make detectable
changes to the correlations between Alice and Bob’s
Another use for entanglement was discovered in
1993, when Bennett and Brassard, along with others,
igured out that it could be used to transport the
quantum state of a particle – a qubit, essentially – from
one place to another. If Alice has a photon in some
unknown superposition – the particular combination
of 1 and 0 states – this ‘quantum teleportation’
technique lets her send information to Bob so he can
create an identical photon. To collect this information,
WHILE THE THEORY behind the quantum internet
is mind-bending, building it is largely an engineering
exercise. Even John Stewart Bell, the Belfastborn physicist who dreamed up the entanglement
experiments that killed the idea of any kind of
common-sense reality beneath quantum mechanics,
described himself as a “quantum engineer”, and said he
only had time to contemplate principles on Sundays.
So it is for today’s practical quantum scientists.
Devices must be calibrated, experiments must be
reined, noise must be reduced. Questions of why give
way to iguring out how.
It is the ability to solve those discrete engineering
problems that impresses Vikram Sharma, head of
Quintessence Labs, a company based in Canberra,
Australia, that builds quantum security systems.
Quintessence Labs is putting quantum technology
to use in a network security system built around a
device that uses quantum unpredictability to spit out a
billion random numbers a second.
One of the company’s key achievements is to shrink
the device. “We used to do it on an optics table with
lasers and electronics and all kinds of equipment,”
Sharma explains. “It was probably a metre by a couple
of metres. Now we have reduced it to about the size of a
cell phone.” He says it with an engineer’s pride. “It just
slots in to a standard server.”
Issue 78
Next on the agenda is to “fully mature” a secure
system that uses the properties of a whole laser beam to
transport encryption keys, rather than single photons,
making it a little less fragile. Sharma says he hopes to
have a version on the market in early 2019.
Even when carefully engineered to maturity,
however, Quintessence Labs’ system will be limited
by an obstacle that is very diicult to work around,
one that hinders all the competitors in the race to take
quantum communications to the world.
THE MAJOR OBSTACLE that must be overcome to
create a global quantum network is in the ‘global’ part:
long distances are a real problem.
As entangled photons are beamed through air or
an optic ibre, they are slowly picked of by encounters
with other particles. After at most a couple of hundred
kilometres, 99.99% will be gone and the signal will be
too weak to use for communication.
erbium atom. “If you put the information on a nuclear
spin, it can hold for much longer,” Ahlefeldt says. This
is because the nucleus of the atom is insulated from the
outside world.
The atom can then be stimulated to release a new
photon identical to the one that went in. “You can store
the polarisation, the arrival time, the pulse shape, the
direction,” Sellars says. “The photon that went in is the
photon that comes out.”
Crucially, this includes any entanglement of the
original photon. A chain of repeaters connected with
optic ibre could extend entanglement indeinitely.
Sellars and Ahlefeldt are hoping to demonstrate
the basic functions of a repeater in the next year or
two. After that, says Sellars, “It becomes a case of
engineering and how much money you throw at it.”
One uncertainty is how much demand there will be:
“No one’s had a quantum internet before.”
Similar technology will be needed to plug quantum
How long before a mature global quantum network is possible?
Pan believes that progress will be rapid. “Maybe it will take 10
years,” he guesses.
One way around this is Pan Jianwei’s scheme: make
connections via a satellite that orbits the world and ires
photons down from space via laser beam.
Another approach is to use repeaters to retransmit
faded signals. A ‘half-quantum’ system establishes
quantum connections along a chain of ‘trusted nodes’
that decode and re-encode the signal. The longest such
link in operation is a 2,000 km long pipeline running
from Beijing to Shanghai via Jinan and Hefei, also built
by Pan’s team. These trusted nodes are useful for key
distribution – a potential hacker could only read the
key by accessing a node itself. However the nodes do
not extend the reach of entanglement.
That will require the creation of a so-called
‘quantum repeater’: a device that can receive a
quantum signal and transmit it again without
destroying the quantum state, like a relay station that
passes a package from a tired courier to a fresh one
without opening it.
Some of the most promising research is being done
at the Australian National University, where Matthew
Sellars and Rose Ahlefeldt have found a way to use
crystals doped with erbium atoms to store and release
photons with a wavelength (about 1550 nanometres)
that works neatly with existing ibre-optic cables.
When a photon is absorbed, its quantum state is
mapped on to changes in the spin of the nucleus of the
computers in to the quantum internet. “If we set up this
global-scale quantum network, we want to be able to
connect things to it,” Ahlefeldt says.
Getting qubits out of a quantum computer – where
they might be stored as electron spins or the magnetic
lux of a superconducting loop – is a feat in itself.
“There are three problems to solve,” according to
Sven Rogge, who works on quantum computers at the
University of New South Wales. “First you have to
be able to control one qubit and read it out. Then you
have to couple two of them that are close together, for
two-qubit operations inside the computer. Then you
have to do that two-qubit operation over a much larger
distance. That’s the holy grail, the really hard part.”
HOW LONG BEFORE a mature global quantum
network is possible? Though many of the underlying
technologies are still in prototype form, Pan believes
that progress will be rapid. “Maybe it will take 10
years,” he guesses.
A team based at the Delft University of Technology
in the Netherlands, however, hopes to have a small
network connecting four Dutch cities – over distances
in the tens of kilometres that will not require quantum
repeaters – operating by 2020. After that? Even
visionaries like Pan can only speculate about the the
eventual uses of the quantum internet.
Rose Ahlefeldt and Matthew Sellars at work on a ‘quantum repeater’ to extend the range of quantum communication.
Right now secure communication is the killer app –
the thing that makes governments and banks pour
cash into research. Another likely use is connecting
to quantum computers, which are expected to be
expensive and cumbersome machines for some time
to come. Much as people once dialled in to massive
mainframes to get their computing done, a quantum
link would allow remote access to quantum computers
with the added twist of ‘blind computing’, in which the
quantum computer can never know what calculations it
has performed or what sensitive data it has handled.
Quantum communication will also allow distant
clocks to be synchronised within 10–20 seconds, about
a thousand times as precise as the best current atomic
clocks. This precision will allow orbiting satellites to
improve GPS systems, map Earth’s gravitational ield
in unprecedented detail and even catch the tiny ripples
of passing gravitational waves.
Better optical telescopes are another potential
fringe beneit. Radio telescopes such as the nascent
Square Kilometre Array combine signals from distant
dishes to efectively form a single, huge telescope. A
quantum internet could make this possible for visiblelight telescopes, too, by teleporting photons from
distant telescopes.
Pan sees his work as part of a continuum in the
human imperative to communicate and exchange
information. It was, he says, the deining character of
early Homo sapiens. “They created basic symbols and
languages so that they could interact efectively and
form a co-operative group. Information exchange is a
key factor in human evolution”.
The next stage in that evolution will occur through
the patient labour of small, incremental steps:
improving the Micius technology to make the satellite
work in daylight, replicating it in other satellites,
learning how to make multiple satellites function
together. He may have opened the door to a global
quantum internet, but Pan still thinks in the measured
terms of an engineer. “We will study how to build a
more eicient network.”
MICHAEL LUCY is features editor of Cosmos.
01 Xinhua / Jin Liwang / MCG
02 VCG / Getty Images
03 Stuart Hay / ANU
An ancient thylacine etched in
stone on the Burrup Peninsula.
Issue 78
Few extinct animals capture the imagination like
the Tasmanian tiger. Geneticists have taken
the irst steps to bring it back from the dead.
JOHN PICKRELL explains what comes next.
Issue 78
ON THE ISLANDS OF the Dampier Archipelago, just of the
coast of north-west Western Australia, giant piles of rusty,
iron-rich boulders tumble into the brilliant turquoise waters
of the Indian Ocean. Six thousand years ago, these islands
were hilltops emerging from a wide coastal plain teeming with
life. Aboriginal people recorded these animals by carving
petroglyphs into the deep-red rocks.
AMONG THE IMAGES are more than 20 thylacines,
also known as Tasmanian tigers. These wolf-like,
carnivorous marsupials carried their young in a pouch
like kangaroos, sported tiger-like stripes on their backs
and had jaws capable of an impressive 120-degree gape.
They were once common across much of Australia and
New Guinea.
The thylacine vanished from the Australian
mainland about 3,000 years ago, probably as a result
of a drying climate and the loss of dense vegetation. It
maintained a toehold in forested Tasmania, only to be
hunted to extinction by Europeans from the 1800s. The
last known tiger died in Hobart Zoo in 1936.
Australia’s roll call of extinct species includes carsized relatives of the wombat, lion-like predators and
giant lightless birds. But the thylacine holds a special
place in the public consciousness. Frequent ‘sightings’
and quests to ind evidence of a living thylacine
manifest hopes it might not really be lost.
In recent times, that hope has translated into
possible ‘de-extinction’ through cloning.
Specimens from 450 thylacines are in museums
around the world. Most are skin and bones, but 13
pouch young (joeys) were preserved in alcohol or
formaldehyde. The Melbourne Museum has one so
well-preserved that a team led by Andrew Pask at the
University of Melbourne announced, in 2017, the
successful sequencing of its entire genome. It is the
most intact genome obtained for an extinct species.
The Melbourne joey’s own life might have been cut
short, but its DNA may be a blueprint to resurrect the
entire species. No one thinks it will happen soon but,
as University of New South Wales palaeontologist and
incurable ‘de-extinction’ champion Michael Archer
puts it: “It’s a brave geneticist these days who’ll say
what’s impossible in the next decade or two.”
ARCHER WAS PERHAPS the irst person to dare to
dream of cloning the thylacine. In 1996, when Dolly the
sheep made history as the irst mammal to be cloned, he
declared doing the same with a thylacine was “a matter
of not if but when”.
Dolly’s DNA originated from the mammary cell
of an adult ewe. The cell’s nucleus, containing the
DNA, was sucked out and transferred into a sheep egg
whose own nucleus had been removed. The transferred
nucleus ‘rebooted’ the egg’s development, creating a
clone of the original ewe.
Issue 78
Keeping hopes alive: Andrew Pask reconstructed a thylacine genome from the pup in the bottle in what may be the
first step in resurrecting the species.
There is no chance of doing the same with a
thylacine. Museum specimens can deliver thylacine
DNA but not a viable nucleus or egg. So how do you
clone something without these seemingly essential
ingredients? Geneticist George Church, at Harvard
University, has pioneered a way.
It is somewhat like the cloning strategy imagined in
Jurassic Park. The ictional genetic engineers source
dinosaur DNA from amber-preserved mosquitoes that
dined on dinosaur blood. Gaps in the dinosaur DNA are
illed by reptilian, bird or amphibian DNA.
In a similar manner, Church is heading an efort
to clone the mammoth by using the DNA of its closest
living relative, the Asian elephant, to ill in the missing
bits of mammoth DNA.
What takes the scenario from iction to reality is
CRISPR. This latest tool in the genetic engineer’s kit is
a set of enzymes used by bacteria to target and destroy
foreign DNA. In 2015 genetic engineers co-opted
CRISPR to target and alter DNA within living cells.
Church’s goal is to ‘edit’ key tracts of elephant code to
convert them into mammoth code, rather like turning a
modern novel into medieval-era prose.
Church’s team have identiied 1642 genes that
difer between the species. In February 2017 Church
announced the successful conversion of 45 of those
genes. “We already know about the ones to do with
small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood,” he said,
predicting a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo “could
happen in a couple of years”.
Once an edited facsimile of a mammoth nucleus has
been created, it could be placed into an Asian elephant
egg and then into a womb. Church is also looking into
technologies for artiicial wombs.
BY THE TIME DOLLY the sheep was cloned, acquiring
a thylacine’s DNA blueprint from a museum specimen
was a tantalising possibility. Short sequences of
DNA were already being extracted from mammoths
and other long-dead specimens. Archer, then at the
Australian Museum in Sydney, attempted to extract
DNA from a thylacine in the museum’s collection – a
six-month-old pup preserved in alcohol in 1886 – but
the DNA was too fragmented to be useful.
Given those diiculties, Pask in Melbourne thought
sequencing the thylacine genome would be impossible.
His team focused instead on sequencing the genomes
of living species – the platypus, tammar wallaby and
04 | Thylacine DNA is so intact it can function in a mouse embryo. The blue pattern shows where the DNA is trying
to direct the development of the skeleton.
dunnart. The goal was to compare their blueprints to
placental mammals like us and trace how genes had
evolved since these mammalian relatives had diverged.
Success at reading marsupial genomes emboldened
the scientists to take another shot at the thylacine. In
2008 they reported a milestone: isolating a fragment
of thylacine DNA so intact its code was still readable.
A computer program recognised the DNA as the code
for a gene – Col 2A1 – that directs the development
of cartilage and bone. The researchers inserted the
gene fragment into a mouse embryo, together with a
chemical tag that made the gene glow blue wherever
it was active. Blue patterns appeared in the embryo’s
developing skeleton, meaning the code was good
enough to work in a living creature.
The inding was encouraging. Even if scientists
could never read a complete thylacine genome, they
might glean important information from studying
its genes – such as clues about how this cousin of the
kangaroo evolved the body shape of a wolf.
Pask’s team spent 10 years taking samples from 40
thylacine specimens worldwide. “Most of the museum
samples had really, really badly damaged DNA,” he
says. He had almost given up hope when, in 2010, he
came across a specimen on his doorstep. In a dusty
cabinet in the bowels of the Melbourne Museum,
preserved in a jar of ethanol, was a four-week-old joey
taken from its dead mother’s pouch in 1909.
Pask’s team sampled its DNA. Unlike all the other
specimens, the joey retained strings of DNA 1,000
letters in length – long enough to mean the entire
three-billion-letter genome might be puzzled back
together. Pask believes the DNA’s good condition
might be due to the specimen missing the standard
formalin ixation, instead going straight into ethanol.
The sample not only yielded long strings of DNA
but plenty of them. Crucially that allowed Pask’s team
to read every bit of the DNA sequence 60 times over
using diferent strands. This enabled them to correct
inevitable errors in the century-old material.
Imagine inding an old car manual with many pages
missing. You would struggle to make use of it. But
with 60 tattered incomplete copies you could probably
compile a whole manual. Pask is similarly conident the
blueprint is accurate enough to instruct the building of
a thylacine. So too is Archer, who has lost none of his
enthusiasm for bringing back extinct species. “It’s the
roadmap for getting a thylacine back,” he says.
Issue 78
For millions of years, Thylacines roamed
across Australia and Papua New Guinea. A
drying climate led to the loss of forest habitat
and wiped out most thylacine populations on
the mainland around 3,000 years ago. The
island of Tasmania remained the last refuge.
Though thylacines looked much like dogs, they
last shared an ancestor with canines about
160 million years ago. The resemblance is an
example of convergent evolution, in which
animals develop similar features to fill similar
ecological niches.
Thylacines were marsupials, carrying their
young in a pouch on their bellies like other
iconic native Australian animals including
koalas and kangaroos.
Thylacine brains show a well-developed
frontal cortex, indicating good memory
and capacity to learn. This is common in
animals that must hunt prey to survive.
The arrival of Europeans in the 19th century
spelled the end for Tasmanian thylacines.
They were hunted to extinction; the last
known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936.
Unlike most marsupials, both male and female
thylacines had pouches. The males used their
pouches to protect their reproductive organs.
By studying the bodies of preserved joeys,
scientists have reconstructed the thylacine
genome – a blueprint for the possible
resurrection of the species.
Issue 78
CLONING A THYLACINE will be more challenging
than Church’s project to resurrect the mammoth using
the Asian elephant. Their ancestors diverged just six
million years ago, and they share about 99% of their
genes. There is no equivalent species for the thylacine.
Pask suggests Western Australia’s numbat, whose
genome he plans to sequence, might provide the best
starting DNA blueprint. It is one of the thylacine’s
closest living relatives, last sharing a common ancestor
30 million years ago. The diminutive termite-eating
creature has stripes, but that’s where the similarity
ends. Adult numbats are slightly bigger than a squirrel,
whereas adult thylacines weighed about 30 kg. Despite
this, Pask says as much as 95% of their DNA may be
That still leaves an awful lot of numbat DNA to
edit, making it an expensive proposition. But, as with
all other genetic technologies, the costs are likely to fall
fast. Pask will wait and watch while other de-extinction
projects, particularly that of the mammoth and a
similarly advanced efort to resurrect the passenger
pigeon of North America, perfect the technologies.
The next series of steps are the most unpredictable:
cloning an embryo, implanting it into a surrogate and
gestating the pouch young.
Getting cloning to work is a major challenge.
The techniques used to create Dolly are notoriously
diicult to apply to diferent species. It was only in
2017 – more than 21 years after Dolly – that it was
successfully replicated in a primate, with Chinese
scientists producing two genetically identical longtailed macaques.
Once researchers get a thylacine-recoded numbat
egg to start developing into an embryo, gestating it is
also far from straightforward. For humans and sheep,
both placental mammals, the science of implanting
embryos into a womb is well-established. Not so for
marsupials, where implantation takes place much later.
In placentals we know how to prime a mother with
hormones to accept an embryo, but this knowledge is
completely lacking in marsupials.
To master assisted reproduction in marsupials,
Pask has turned to a diferent thylacine relative, the
tiny mouse-like dunnart. They breed well in captivity
and produce a litter of up to 20 young twice a year.
Nevertheless, he says, “it will be a decade before we get
a really good handle on a lot of this stuf in marsupials”.
Pregnancy is also a very diferent proposition to
placental mammals. A marsupial still looks something
like a foetus when it is born, typically two weeks
after conception. About the size and shape of a pink
jellybean, it must crawl up its mother’s abdomen and
into her pouch, where it latches onto a teat to suckle. Its
mother’s milk, like a placenta, changes its composition
to guide most of the joey’s development.
This two-stage gestation does ofer intriguing
possibilities. A thylacine embryo might be gestated in
the uterus of a smaller marsupial, and then transferred
to the pouch of a larger one – perhaps a kangaroo.
Cross-fostering is a well-established technique to help
bolster the populations of endangered rock wallabies.
In 2014 a rock wallaby successfully fostered a baby tree
kangaroo in its pouch.
Another option is hand rearing, already widely
employed for rescued kangaroos and also for
Tasmanian devils captive bred to save the species
from the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) that has
decimated wild populations.
ONCE A THYLACINE joey has weaned, at about nine
months, there would be a new set of hurdles. Would it
behave like a thylacine?
Little is known about natural behaviours, such
as hunting or mating, as the thylacine was scarcely
observed in the wild. “Many behaviours are innate,”
Pask says, “but there would be a large subset that
they probably learnt from individuals around them.
Learned behaviour is more common in species that use
complex decision-making to hunt prey, and preserved
thylacine brains reveal a well-developed frontal cortex,
indicating good memory and capacity to learn.”
We do know thylacines did not fare well in captivity.
The Royal Zoological Society of NSW noted in 1939:
“The thylacine does not take kindly to captivity, and
rarely lives under such conditions for any length of
time.” From 1850 to 1931, 224 were kept at zoos in
cities including Washington DC, New York, Berlin
and Paris. London Zoo had 20 over the years. Some
died during journeys, others stopped eating and fell
ill. None bred. While our skill at keeping animals
has increased enormously, there is no guarantee
resurrected thylacines would do better.
Understanding how a species might fare is
important, says Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary
biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz,
and author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of
De-Extinction (2015). “Populations living in captivity,
possibly for decades, need not only to survive but must
also learn how to live,” she says. “They need to learn
how to feed and protect themselves, how to interact
with others, how to avoid predation, how to choose a
mate, and how to provide parental care.”
You also need a population with genetic variety,
Shapiro says. Pask suggests it might be possible to
edit such variation into the genome. “If you can get
over the hurdle of making all those millions of edits
A few tweaks to turn a numbat into a thylacine? The striped termite-eating numbat, about the size of a large squirrel,
will have its DNA edited to resemble that of its long-lost cousin.
to the genome to make it look like a thylacine in the
irst place,” he says, then introducing variability into
immune system genes “is nothing”.
IF ALL THESE HURDLES can be overcome, the end
goal of any de-extinction efort surely must be to
reintroduce animals to the wild. One potential issue for
some de-extinction candidates – appropriate habitat –
is not a problem. Reserves cover about half of Tasmania
today. “The habitat is the same, the animals they ate are
still there,” says Archer. “There’s no question it could
be put back into the bush of Tasmania.” There is also
good reason to do so: “The thylacine was Tasmania’s
key carnivore. Getting it back is about restabilising
ecosystems currently under threat.”
That still may not be enough to convince everyone
we should bring back thylacines. Many argue deextinction projects take the focus away from the vital
work to save other species from extinction.
“If you have the millions of dollars it would take
to resurrect a species and choose to do that, you are
making an ethical decision to bring one species back and
let several others go extinct,” Canadian conservation
biologist Joseph Bennett has said. “It would be one
step forward, and three to eight steps back.”
Yet what is true today may not be true tomorrow.
Pask agrees that, right now, resources should go to
saving endangered marsupials. “If, however, in 10 to
15 years’ time it becomes relatively inexpensive, then
I think it is deinitely worth pursuing.” Having hunted
the thylacine to extinction, he says, “we owe it to the
species to bring it back”.
It may not be entirely thylacine, but one day, a
century or so from now, a creature that looks and
behaves like one might be found quietly slipping
between piles of rusty rocks that bear its likeness,
etched millennia ago.
JOHN PICKRELL is a Sydney-based science writer
and author.
01 Nick Rains / Australian Geographic
02 Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
03 Rod Start / Museums Victoria
04 Andrew Pask
05 Vac1 / Getty Images
06 CraigRJD / Getty Images
Issue 78
Global warming threatens our reefs. Some marine scientists have
a controversial plan to save them. ELIZABETH FINKEL explains.
Issue 78
THE AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE of Marine Science is a glorious
place. From sultry Townsville in far north Queensland,
it’s a lush 50 km drive east through sugar cane and mango
plantations, across an estuary and through scrub till inally you
crest a hill and are hit by the blue expanse of the Paciic Ocean.
A PRIMEVAL ATMOSPHERE reigns at Cape Ferguson.
Signs on the dock warn of crocodiles, sharks and
snakes. Everything is protected and thrillingly feral.
Something quite wild is happening inside the
buildings too. Here, marine biologist Madeleine
van Oppen and colleagues are pursuing a bold, and
controversial, goal – to speed up the evolution of corals
to ensure the survival of the world’s reefs, particularly
the one on the institute’s doorstep, the 2,300 km-long
Great Barrier Reef.
Their research, once considered fringe, has gone
mainstream. In January the Australian government
committed $6 million to a study on the feasibility of
helping the reef adapt to climate change. AIMS and
CSIRO, the national science agency, are leading this
study, which brings together leading reef conservation
and research bodies: the Great Barrier Reef Marine
Park Authority (GBRMPA), which manages the reef;
the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which raises funds
for scientiic research; the University of Queensland;
the Queensland University of Technology; and James
Cook University.
Assisting the evolution of coral is a radical
departure from the historically conservative agenda
of the reef’s custodians. Mostly the eforts have been
to combat local threats, like agricultural runof and
predatory starish. But the back-to-back bleaching
events of 2016 and 2017 rammed home the greater
existential threat from global warming. “The narrative
that it will be our kids who have to deal with climate
change is obsolete,” says Paul Hardisty, the head of
AIMS. “We’re out of time; action has to happen now.”
The funding is just one-tenth of a $60 million
reef protection package announced by the federal
government, with the bulk dedicated to reducing
industry impacts on water quality and managing
starish. But the results of the feasibility study may
open the funding lood gates.
How much is it worth spending to save the reef?
Its ecological value is immeasurable, but its economic
value can be calculated. According to an analysis by
Deloitte Access Economics, reef tourism contributes
more than $6 billion a year to the Australian economy.
Add in the services to isheries and coastal protection,
and it is an asset valued at $56 billion. Surely, worth a
sizeable chunk of research dollars to save it.
Worth trying to save?
Marine scientists, however, are hardly comrades in
arms on the merits of accelerated evolution.
While some feel compelled to try and preserve a
‘functional’ reef, others think the ambition is lawed
and futile. They say the scale of the reef is too vast
for science to slow its decline, and any success may
well defeat the purpose. Rather than preserving the
diversity of its 400-plus hard coral species, it might
produce a reef dominated by a few coral ‘superweeds’.
“One of my main objections is it’s more likely to do
more harm than good,” says Andrew Baird, an ecologist
at James Cook University.
Yet others point to the dazzling march of
technology and say we must at least explore outlandish
possibilities. The advent of CRISPR gene editing is
an oft-cited example. Six years ago no one would have
predicted there would be a cheap, precise, universally
deployable tool for rewriting the code of genes, or that
‘gene drives’ would be capable of rapidly altering the
genetic makeup of entire populations.
Maybe within the next few decades, the argument
goes, science will deliver the tools to drive evolution
just where we want it to go.
Of course nothing will save coral if greenhouse
gas emissions don’t cease. Coral is the canary in the
coalmine. It is exquisitely sensitive to increases in
water temperature – just a degree above the normal
maximum for several weeks is enough to cause
bleaching and death.
If the Paris climate accord holds and emissions
cease by 2050, the hope is assisted evolution will buy
time for corals to adapt to 1-2 degrees of warming.
The scientists contemplating such possibilities say
it is not just up to them to decide; they are looking to
the public for permission. “We try to engage the public
at forums and talk openly to the media. It’s about being
transparent,” says van Oppen.
So sooner or later, we’re all going to have to ask this
question: How far should we go to try to save our reefs?
enough proposition. We know the Great Barrier Reef is
a resilient ecosystem. Around 100,000 years ago, there
was no Great Barrier Reef. Vast ice sheets had locked
up the planet’s water and left an ancient earlier reef
high and dry. As the ice sheets thawed and sea levels
Coral breeding experiments at SeaSim,
the world’s most sophisticated aquarium.
Issue 78
Issue 78
rose, the reef slowly returned over the last 8,000 to
9,000 years with species adapted to the new conditions.
No doubt the reef will ultimately evolve new species
and recover this time too, but we don’t want to wait
9,000 years.
We have been assisting the evolution of species ever
since we began domesticating crops and animals some
10,000 years ago. Today’s wheat varieties, for example,
bear little resemblance to their weedy ancestors.
Coral, however, is not wheat. It is the keystone species
of a wild ecosystem, and the ethos for conserving
wilderness – forests, savannahs, seagrass meadows or
reefs – has always been to preserve, not change.
Historically the custodians of the Great Barrier
Reef have adhered to this ethos. They cordoned of
areas, stopped overishing, regulated tourism, tried to
keep waters clean and battled outbreaks of the Crown
of Thorns starish. The strategy seemed to be working.
In 2010, for example, global bleaching events
triggered by warm oceans hammered reefs across
the Paciic, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and the
Arabian Gulf. But the Great Barrier Reef was largely
spared. Some thought the reef was too big to fail.
Not so. The back-to-back bleaching events of 2016
and 2017 delivered the global coral apocalypse to
Australian shores. The 2016 event, like previous mass
bleachings, was linked to the warming of Paciic waters
produced by an El Nino weather pattern. The second
was not. It took everyone by surprise.
Adding up the damage from the onslaught,
GBRMPA estimates about half the reef has died.
“The scale at which these impacts are operating
is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” says David
Wachenfeld, GBRMPA’s director of reef recovery. For
Wachenfeld, business as usual is no longer an option.
“It’s a moment in history where [when it comes] to the
protection of reef systems, even one as big and robust
as the Great Barrier Reef, we have to rethink how we’re
doing this.”
When it comes to assisting the evolution of coral,
van Oppen, an athletic and afable woman in her early
50s, has been ahead of the curve. “I felt it was just a
matter of time,” she says.
Originally from the Netherlands, one of her irst
projects led her to East Africa’s Lake Malawi to plumb
the mystery of how its 700 species of cichlid ish had
evolved so rapidly. She never dreamed that 20 years on,
she would use her knowledge to speed up the evolution
of the corals of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
In 2008, based at AIMS, she began trying to
interbreed the more heat-resistant Acropora millepora
corals of Orpheus Island with their southerly
relatives in the Keppel islands. With the irst attempt,
04 | Madeleine van Oppen has pioneered research to
speed up the evolution of coral.
loodwaters washed away the experimental hybrids,
and yet again the following year. It was hard to ind the
funding to repeat the experiment – the key focus at
the time was managing the clear and present dangers
of the Crown of Thorns invasion and the run-of from
rivers that clouded and contaminated the waters of the
in-shore reefs. Corals, especially juveniles, need clear,
clean water to thrive and repair the incessant damage
wrought by starish and cyclones.
Van Oppen found a like mind in coral researcher
Ruth Gates at the University of Hawaii. Hawaiian reefs,
though never as biodiverse as the Great Barrier Reef,
had been decimated by bleaching events and sewage
In 2013 the collaborators attracted the attention
of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s philanthropic
foundation, winning a small $10,000 exploratory
grant. Two years later in 2015, after a 2014 bleaching
event had hammered corals in Kane’ohe Bay, the
foundation kicked the research into high gear with
a $4 million, ive-year grant to “develop a biological
toolbox for creating a stockpile of corals with improved
environmental stress resilience, which can then be used
to stabilise and restore reefs”.
When the irst bleaching event hit Australia in
2016, van Oppen found herself in the right place at the
right time. As the global media reported apocalyptic
scenes of mass bleaching, tepid waters thick with the
ooze of dying corals, weeping scientists and widespread
reef grief, van Oppen’s once obscure research was
showcased by the BBC’s David Attenborough and the
Australian ABC’s Catalyst program.
But it wasn’t just the media that began taking
serious interest in her work. As the reef’s custodian,
GBRMPA wrestled with how to manage the national
treasure in the face of a coral apocalypse and began to
take note of van Oppen’s work, helping to recast it from
fringe to trailblazing.
The current 18-month feasibility study is a hardheaded assessment of the tools available to help the
reefscape adapt, how it could be done at scale, and at
what cost. Besides larval seeding, underwater fans
and shade cloth, these tools also include the biological
toolbox developed by van Oppen.
So what exactly does the coral biological toolbox
contain? Lots. It involves tweaking the genes of coral,
as well as the community of organisms that resides
within it. The problem is that no one has ever tried to
diverse microbes within its body tissues. “Life did not
take over the world by combat but by networking,”
wrote evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. Corals
take networking to a whole new level.
What that means is that researchers have to
consider more than just the coral’s genes if they want to
speed up their evolution.
For starters, there are the genes of their most
famous cohabitants – various types of single-celled
algae, collectively known as zooxanthellae or the
Symbiodinium. Juvenile polyps swallow these algae
but instead of digesting them, they usher them
into purpose-built compartments within the outer
cells of the polyp. Like all plants, algae make sugar
from sunlight via a set of chemical reactions called
photosynthesis and they provide their coral host with
90% of its calorie requirements. That powers the corals’
monumental limestone-building project waters that are
If the Paris climate accord holds and emissions cease by 2050,
the hope is that assisted evolution will buy time for corals to adapt
to 1–2 degrees of further warming.
tweak these genes before. “We have to be careful not to
overpromise,” says van Oppen.
LET’S BE CLEAR. Coral is not a wheat plant. We’ve
had thousands of years’ experience tweaking the genes
of wheat. We can make cross-breeds at will, map out
desired traits in the DNA and usher them into new
varieties. Breeding has produced fantastic successes.
Modern wheats have more than doubled their yield
since the 1950s, and every few years breeders bring
out new varieties better adapted to the latest strain of
fungus or better able to tolerate drought or salt.
Nothing like this is possible with any coral species
– let alone the hundreds of Great Barrier Reef species
one would want to assist. Van Oppen and colleagues
are hoping to contract thousands of years of wheattweaking experience into a decade.
Their source of optimism lies in the fact that coral
naturally has some tricks up its sleeve. On any bleached
reef, some corals will survive. The question is why.
It all comes down to ecosystems. A mature coral
head is a colony of millions of genetically identical
polyps – tiny, delicate, anemone-like organisms that
build limestone ‘houses’ around themselves, which
form the structure of coral reefs. Every tiny pinprick in
the limestone is a place a living polyp calls home.
Each polyp houses an invisible community of
otherwise low in nutrients. The need for sunlight is why
corals are so vulnerable to poor water quality, which
can smother the coral in sediment and block the sun.
But heat is the worst stress of all. When
temperatures stay high for more than a week or two,
the vital coral-algae partnership starts to break down.
The heat plays havoc with the algae’s photosynthetic
reactions, causing them to release increased amounts
of damaging chemicals called oxidants. In the face of
this toxic assault, the polyps begin evicting the resident
Symbiodinium. Some corals luoresce a dazzling shade
of electric blue in the process, perhaps an attempt to
soak up the excessive energy of the oxidants. But the
show is short-lived. Once the algae are evicted, the tan
brown colour of healthy coral bleaches to white. It is
possible for the polyps to be recolonised; if they are not,
the coral starves to death over a few weeks.
But eviction is not always the outcome, and there’s
evidence to suggest that the genes of the algae play a
role in determining how well the partnership survives.
For instance, back in 2006, van Oppen and colleague
Ray Berkelmans transplanted temperature-sensitive
corals from the Keppel islands to the warmer waters of
Magnetic Island, 600 km further north. The corals that
survived had traded their old algal partners, Clade C,
for the more heat-tolerant Clade D types.
The Symbiodinium partnership is crucial to the coral
Issue 78
juvenile coral
and egg
Mature coral
polyp but it is not the only one. Turns out, microbes
play an important role in polyp health, much like they
do in human health. Once considered invaders, the
microbial community that inhabits our body’s oriices
– the microbiome – is now linked to an ever-growing
list of vital functions including taming our immune
system and contributing to the health of the gut, liver
and even the brain. The latest thinking is that the coral
polyp, sitting right at the base of the evolutionary tree
next to sponges, also relies on its microbiome for its
health and immunity.
The coral microbiome resides in the coral’s mucus
coating, gut and skeleton. It is efectively a chemical
factory that produces a diverse range of products,
including nitrogen and sulfur-containing compounds.
Van Oppen suspects the repertoire extends to antioxidants – chemicals that could neutralise the oxidants
produced during coral bleaching. If that’s the case, it
AWAY FROM THE CROCODILES , sharks and snakes,
scientists can safely carry out their experiments in what
may be the world’s most sophisticated simulation of
the sea – the $40 million SeaSim aquarium, which has
a state-of-the-art control room with the same design
specs as those in a nuclear reactor. Scientists can
observe remarkable things by programming the slowramping rhythms of the sea, the waxing and waning
of daylight and temperature, and the CO2 levels that
climb gradually at night as plants cease photosynthesis
and their consumption of the gas. The computers can
also precisely simulate the deposition of ine sediments,
a feat that revealed for the irst time how corals shed
their mucus coating like a glove to rid their surface of
sediment. Before scientists unleash any evolutionarily
fast-tracked coral on the reef, its impact will be
simulated at SeaSim irst.
SeaSim may be safer than the waters of Cape
The latest thinking is that the coral polyp, sitting right at the
base of the evolutionary tree next to sponges, also relies on its
microbiome for its health and immunity.
might just be the genes of the coral microbiome that
help it survive heat stress.
Finally, corals seem to have one more trick up their
sleeve. Some colonies appear to adjust to heat stress
in the same way that tomato plants do: they gradually
get used to it. Gardeners harden tomato seedlings
by gradually exposing them to warmer and warmer
temperatures. The mechanism, dubbed epigenetics,
does not alter the DNA code but reprograms it (by
attaching chemicals such as methyl groups). There
are glimmers of hope that corals can acclimatise
to gradual change based on what happened to the
reefs exposed to the devastating Indian Ocean mass
bleaching event that occurred in 1998. When the
2010 bleaching event arrived 12 years later, those
corals that had survived the earlier event appeared to
be more resistant.
However, the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017
dashed any such hope for the Great Barrier Reef;
whatever hardening took place, it was not enough to
protect the reef.
Van Oppen and her colleagues are now tinkering
with these four components of the coral genetic
toolbox – coral genes, algal genes, microbial genes and
epigenetic hardening. Most of the tinkering is taking
place at AIMS in the wilds of Cape Ferguson.
Ferguson, but things get pretty feral here at spawning
season. Once a year, generally on a November night
after the full moon, corals spawn. On the reef it
happens en masse, the waters turning cloudy with
trillions of eggs and sperm. Before November,
scientists from around the world pluck corals from the
reef and bring them into SeaSim. But not every coral
species joins in on cue; they may be out of sync by hours
or weeks. So breeders will stay up all night watching
and waiting for the irst signs that the coral are about to
eject their tiny bundles of sperm and eggs. They collect
the bundles, strain the sperm from the eggs and wait for
the next species to spawn. It’s a harrowing wait: they
have only a couple of hours before their captured sperm
and eggs die.
AIMS researcher Lesa Peplow shows me a tank
bearing the results of cross-breeding experiments with
four species of Acropora: tenuis, loripes, sarmentosa and
lorida. She, van Oppen and PhD student Wing Chan
have tested juvenile corals under the conditions of
today and those predicted for the middle of the century
(+1 degree and 685 ppm CO2). Encouragingly, some of
the hybrid crosses showed greater survival than their
parents under both conditions.
In another corner of SeaSim, I am guided by Line
Bay, a Dane who visited the Great Barrier Reef on
Issue 78
a snorkelling holiday in 1994 and never left. Bay,
together with Kate Quigley, is testing the genes of
corals that survived the February 2016 mass bleaching
of the northern reefs. They took cuttings of Acropora
survivors and brought them into SeaSim. When they
spawned, they were crossed with Acropora from a more
southerly locale. The ofspring are being tested to see if
they have inherited the heat-resistance genes.
Bay also takes me into an external area of SeaSim,
where the tanks are covered by shade cloth. Here
hardening experiments are under way in an experiment
dubbed Evolution 21. A mix of reef species will be
followed under diferent climatic conditions, for ive
years. Bay has a long-standing interest in “how corals
tune to their local environment”. She points out that
coral larvae the size of rice grains can last for up to
100 days in the ocean and are attracted to the smell of
coral. They may reach another reef with conditions
quite diferent to those of the parents. Perhaps, like
what used to be the botany building – an ivy-covered,
redbrick pile with cross-hatched white window panes
and gothic oversized wooden doors set into a stone
archway with the year 1929 carved above. It is a quaint
setting for some decidedly avant garde experiments.
You’ve heard of probiotics for human health –
concoctions of healthy bacteria to be taken as yoghurt,
pills or even faecal transplants to treat conditions
like inlammatory bowel disease? Here the goal is to
develop a probiotic for coral.
The model animal upon which these probiotics will
be tested is the starburst-like pale anemone Exaiptaisia
pallida, best known as an aquarium pest. Like its
coral polyp cousins, it relies on symbiosis with algae,
and bleaches when temperatures rise too high. In its
mucus, tissue and stomach, it also houses a community
of bacteria. PhD student Leon Hartman has been
learning how to grow these pretty creatures for the
past two years. It’s a major job: iltering Melbourne’s
“What we’re facing now is the terrible realisation that, by not doing
anything, we’re risking the reef as much as if we intervene.”
tomato seedlings, corals rely on hardening for local
tuning? And could such tuning be inherited? The Spiny
Damselish, for instance, appears to pass on its heatacclimatisation to its ofspring.
To test coral hardening and inheritance, Bay
is studying the coral species Acropora loripes and
Platygyra daedalea, reared under extreme climatic
regimes. If she can establish heat-hardening of the
larvae, it could have an impact. More than 90% of
larvae die in their irst nine months, so seeding reefs
with heat-hardened larvae could boost populations.
Beyond the futuristic contours of the SeaSim
facility lie some more ordinary looking buildings.
One houses a lab where van Oppen and her colleagues
are trying to breed algae that hang in there with their
coral partner when the heat is on. They extracted algae
from corals and then grew them for 80 generations
at temperatures of 31 degrees – conditions that
should select for heat-tolerant individuals. These
survivors were inoculated into coral larvae, then the
partners tested for their heat tolerance. So far only
a small beneit has been seen. The next step will be
to accelerate the mutation rate of the algae using
mutagenic chemicals.
FOR THE FINAL tool in the kit, I visit van Oppen at the
University of Melbourne lab that she runs jointly with
microbiologist Linda Blackall. It is nestled away in
water, adding sea salt and hatching brine shrimp to
feed them – they prefer their food live. He is growing
the anemones under elevated temperatures to see what
sort of bacteria associate with the survivors.
Ashley Dungan, another PhD student, takes
Hartman’s carefully tended anemones and mercilessly
squashes them – pretty easy given their skin is only
four cell layers thick. Dungan streaks out the anemone
soup onto agar-coated petri dishes, spreading it so
thinly that single bacteria will grow into round pinkbrown colonies. Did any of these bacteria help their
anemone host resist bleaching? Dungan is testing each
bacterial clone for its ability to neutralise oxidants. The
hope is to ind a soothing concoction that can make
coral less prone to boot out hot and bothered algae.
Van Oppen and her colleagues are testing all four
coral tools to see if they can tighten the nuts and bolts
of the multi-component coral organism to create
individuals that can withstand conditions predicted for
the rest of the century. How many fast-tracked coral
species would be needed to maintain a functional reef?
Van Oppen guesses several dozen, spanning the range
of morphologies – branched, massive and encrusting.
Seeding strategies, like one now being tested on
a degraded patch of reef at Heron Island, would be
scaled up to deliver the genetically, epigenetically or
microbially hardened new recruits. To disperse them
across the vast distances, a strategic set of reefs would
Reseeding a damaged reef at Heron Island. Most coral larvae drift away. Peter Harrison at Southern Cross University
is trialling ‘curtains’ to contain aquarium-grown larvae on this 10 × 10 metre patch of degraded reef.
be targeted – those known to be part of an ocean
highway whose currents connect key reefs within the
3000-strong chain.
Though it is very early days, many researchers hope
science can deliver a solution that buys coral time.
AIMS’ Paul Hardisty says simply: “I’m an optimist.”
neighbour, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral
Reef Studies at James Cook University, it’s not hard to
ind researchers deeply sceptical of assisted evolution.
The director, Terry Hughes, has expressed concerns
that any idea of an engineered solution for threatened
reefs distracts from the main game, which is reducing
carbon dioxide emissions.
But the key scientiic riposte is that assisted
evolution represents a futile ambition. JCU ecologist
Baird ofers a reality check. “Think of how much time
and money it took for Monsanto just to engineer a
soybean, probably more efort than has gone into
ecology in the history of the universe.” He concludes, “I
honestly believe the time, energy and intellect required
is well and truly beyond anything the reef community
can muster.”
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a bleaching expert and
now Director of the Global Change Institute at the
University of Queensland, sees the merit of both
positions. While he likens the assisted evolution
project to “gardening on the scale of Italy”, he’s not
willing to turn his back on anything. “All options are on
the table and we’ll put a ruler over them.”
Emma Johnson, a marine ecologist at the University
of NSW, has felt the weight of divided views more than
most. As a GBRMPA board member, she had to decide
whether to back the option of assisted evolution. She
chose to support it. “What we’re facing now is the
terrible realisation that, by not doing anything, we’re
risking the reef as much as if we intervene,” she says.
But that decision wasn’t easy. “I’ve had to struggle,”
she says. “I think all these people are right.”
ELIZABETH FINKEL is the editor in chief of Cosmos.
01 Christian Miller / Getty Images
02 Romolo Tavani / Getty Images
03 Marie Roman / AIMS
04 The University of Melbourne
05 Aviva Reed / Visual Ecology
06 Peter Harrison
Issue 78
A FRACTAL IS A SHAPE “made of parts similar to the
whole in some way”, according to the mathematician
Benoit Mandelbrot, who coined the term. In a perfect
mathematical fractal each pattern is made up of
smaller copies of itself, and those smaller copies are
made up of smaller copies again, forever.
Many objects in nature are approximately fractal. Here
are images of some of the most striking.
The shell of a nautilus follows a shape known as a
logarithmic spiral, composed of many chambers of
the same shape but steadily increasing in size. The
angle between a tangent line and a radial line stays
constant as the shell grows, which is what makes
the shapes consistent.
When the nautilus outgrows its current chamber, it
creates a new and larger one to house itself.
The network of veins that move
fluids inside a leaf shows clear
fractal structure, as larger vessels
repeatedly branch into smaller
ones. Animal circulation is similar.
Issue 78
Issue 78
Known as Romanesco cauliflower, Romanesco
broccoli or even brocciflower, this relative of
more common brassicas has a strikingly fractal
appearance. The conical protrusions are composed
of spiral on spiral of tiny buds. Like the nautilus shell,
the intricate designs of the Romanesco are made
from repetitive structures that build up logarithmic
spirals as they increase in size.
The geometry of river networks is
fractal, showing similar patterns at
a wide range of scales from massive
torrents to tiny rivulets.
Issue 78
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The science
of Lego
Kathryn North’s sequential life 94
Games that machines now play best 96
Solving a lengthy border dispute 97
From modelling quarks to travelling to Jupiter, Lego and science
fit snugly together like, well, you know. ANDREW P. STREET
takes a trip around the blocks..
Deining the problem of purpose 98
Issue 78
The science
of Lego
Lego’s new Women of NASA set, featuring four of the
space agency’s pioneering female scientists, has been a long
time coming. It is an iconic step in popular culture that
redresses the lack of recognition given to the women who
have helped all of us reach for the stars.
The addition to the Lego lineup continues the strong
mental and emotional connection between the toy blocks
and the exploration of space that any Lego lover has been
likely to share since the 1970s.
From the moment the venerable company rolled out
its debut Lego Space set, in 1978, generations of future
scientists took their irst steps toward the stars by building
moon bases and lunar rovers with those relentlessly smiling
red, white, blue and yellow-clad astronauts.
That relationship has never stopped. The Danish
company, which began in 1932, enjoyed its highest-ever
revenues in 2016, due in part to its Star Wars toy line, with
The beauty of Lego in public outreach and education
is its sheer familiarity. Nearly everyone messed
around with it as a kid, and thus it is comfortingly
familiar in the often confusing world of physics.
the iconic Millennium Falcon spaceship its best-selling toy.
But it isn’t just fantasy that ties Lego to space. Since 2011
the Lego Ideas project, which turns submissions from users
into new products, has led to a handful of sets based on reallife space exploration. The Hayabusa asteroid probe was the
irst, followed in 2014 by the Mars Curiosity Rover set, a
design submitted by NASA rover engineer Stephen Pakbaz.
In mid-2017 came the Apollo 11 Saturn V kit, which is a
metre tall and made of almost 2,000 pieces. The Women of
NASA set is the latest in the line, based on a submission to
Lego Ideas by science writer Maia Weinstock.
There are four miniigures in the box: astronomer,
NASA administrator and Hubble telescope champion Nancy
Grace Roman; Apollo program software engineer Margaret
Hamilton; and pioneering space shuttle astronauts Sally
Ride and Mae Jemison. All come with career-appropriate
accessories and dioramas in keeping with their expertise.
Weinstock’s original proposal included a ifth igure:
Katherine Johnson, who calculated the trajectories of
rockets that put NASA’s irst men into space. Her story,
along with fellow African-American mathematicians Mary
Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, was the basis of the 2016 ilm
Hidden Figures. The toy company was unable, however, to
secure permission to include Johnson in the set.
02 | Sally Ride was the first American woman in space and
Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space.
Lego isn’t just into space but in space. Even as you read
this, there are three Lego miniigures orbiting Jupiter:
there’s Jupiter (the king of the gods in ancient Roman
mythology), his wife Juno and Galileo Galilei, the man who
irst described the four great moons of Jupiter. They are on
board NASA’s Juno probe, cast in aluminium rather than
plastic to withstand the rigours of the journey – although
they’re unlikely to survive the craft’s planned descent and
disintegration in the atmosphere of Jupiter scheduled for
July 2018. It is something of a call-back to 2011, when the
inal light of the space shuttle Discovery took place with a
Lego version of itself on board.
The relationship between the cosmological sciences and
Lego goes much deeper than some cool toys and space-probe
stowaways. The interaction goes the other way as well, with
scientists using Lego to design, teach and conceptualise
some very complex questions.
The beauty of Lego in public outreach and education is
its sheer familiarity. Nearly everyone messed around with
it as a kid, and thus it is comfortingly familiar in the often
confusing world of physics. If you are trying to explain a
range of methodological challenges inherent to conducting
practical experiments, Lego is an unthreatening medium
with which to do it. This was the basis of a 2017 paper in
the American Journal of Physics, by lecturers from Flinders
University in Adelaide, which outlined the use of Lego race
cars in introductory physics courses as a fun and easy-tograsp way of teaching experimental uncertainty, limits of
experimental equipment and the importance of starting
with fundamentally strong experimental design. The use of
Lego was credited with a signiicant drop in the number of
students quitting the course.
Staf at the School of Physics and Astronomy at Queen
Mary University of London have illustrated the fundamental
particles of the early universe via Lego. They have created
teaching materials and classroom posters that illustrate the
04 | Nancy Grace Roman is known as the ‘Mother of Hubble’
due to her key role in creating the Hubble Space Telescope
03 | Margaret Hamilton was the lead software designer for the
Apollo 11 moon landing.
way subatomic particles form atoms and how fusion works,
even putting together physics kits for teachers using storebought bricks.
A team of chemists at New York University used Lego
as the inspiration for the shape and function of microscopic
“patchy particles” that can be used to build complex but
tiny structures, described in a paper published in the journal
Nature in September 2017. In a similar vein, the versatility
of Lego has inspired engineers to develop multi-use modular
pieces to build complex structures such as photon detectors,
with an eye toward a future of low-cost, of-the-shelf science.
The programmable system called Lego Mindstorms
has also been a favourite in various robotics and outreach
programs. Developed by MIT’s media lab back in the late
1980s, the system has enjoyed a devoted following among
programmers, academics and people who make robots that
ight each other to the death.
It has also led to rather more helpful creations including
a crowd-sourced robot named Jitter, deployed on the
International Space Station to locate and pick up loating
litter in the station’s zero-gravity environment.
Similarly, the physics outreach team at CERN’s ISOLDE
facility in Geneva, Switzerland, used a Mindstorm build
as a way to help students understand the conditions and
challenges of nuclear research. The system has also been
useful in undergraduate engineering courses by giving
students hands-on experience of programming in an
understandable, tactile way.
Who knows what world-changing innovations are being
seeded by kids playing with some coloured bits of plastic and
thinking: “Hey, how about we do it this way?” More than
likely some of those kids will be future women of NASA, or
some other space agency.
ANDREW P. STREET is a journalist and non-iction author
based in Sydney, Australia.
01 CJmacer / Getty Images
02-04 Nathalie Saldumbide / Saldumbide Photography
Issue 78
A life in sequencing
Kathryn North wants make genomic medicine a household
name. She shares her passion with PAUL BIEGLER.
FANCY LOOKING FOR A single spelling mistake in 1,000
hand-typed copies of War and Peace?
If so, you are likely to get on well with Kathryn North, the
redoubtable, razor-sharp yet decidedly congenial director of
Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI),
Australia’s largest organisation investigating childhood
illness. North has made it her life’s mission to delve deep into
the three billion bases that make up the human genome as she
hunts for the errors that cause disease.
The 57-year-old greets me at her home in a leafy inner
suburb of Melbourne. Her black dress and dark-rimmed specs
is all-purpose corporate kit for someone wielding a $100
million-plus research budget and whose job includes meetings
with the likes of the institute’s founding patron Rupert
Murdoch and spouse Jerry Hall. (For the record, Hall “was
really warm” and “just relaxed everybody”.)
But North has a softness of tone and benevolent air that
speaks to her past as a paediatrician in Sydney in the 1990s,
where she specialised in neuromuscular disorders. However,
the lure of the children’s clinic would face stif competition
from her profound love for research.
She honed her early skills as a geneticist at the University
of Sydney where, in 1994, she earned a doctorate in
neurogenetics. Barely taking a breath, she was of to Harvard
University for a postdoctoral fellowship under Louis Kunkel,
famous for discovering the gene for dystrophin and the
mutation that causes Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy.
North returned to Sydney in 1995 with a grant to launch
her own lab at the newly minted Westmead Hospital.
During this time, a plum position opened up as a paediatric
neurologist. But North’s career card was already signed to
research. “Everyone said: ‘Your job’s come up, Kathy,’ and I
didn’t even apply for it.”
Her own reputation took of with her 1999 discovery of
the ‘gene for speed’ – a variant of the ACTN3 gene that codes
for a protein producing the explosive fast twitch muscles
of elite sprinters. Her CV now bristles with achievements,
including nearly 300 journal articles, assorted professorships
and a membership of the Order of Australia.
But there have been hurdles, one deeply personal. In a
freakish fall from a swing aged three, one of her eyes was
irreparably gouged by a piece of metal, leaving her disigured
and subject to endless playground taunts.
Buoyed by her mother, the experience was ultimately
galvanising. “I’d come home and be a bit upset about it,”
North recalls. “Mum just said: ‘What is there that the other
kids can do that you can’t do? Just show them.’”
North clearly took the advice.
Her work includes heading up Australian Genomics, a
collaboration of 70 Australian institutions whose mission is to
bring precision medicine – knowledge of how an individual’s’
genes inluence their health – into standard medical practice.
She was one of the experts behind The Future of Precision
Medicine in Australia report, commissioned by the federal
government and published in January. At the report’s launch
in Melbourne, she introduced Louis Clarke, a four-year-old
boy diagnosed at ive months with a rare genetic disease.
Doctors did not expect him to live for more than a few years.
But in 2014 he participated in a research study that
sequenced his genome. “Very quickly we were able to identify
that he had a change in a gene, a disorder that afects 1 in 10
North’s work includes heading up Australian
Genomics, a collaboration of 70 institutions
whose mission is to bring precision medicine
into standard medical practice.
million, afecting the transport of thiamine and biotin in the
brain,” North says.
Immediate treatment with high doses of those two
vitamins, which play key roles in cell metabolism, could
not reverse Louis’ brain impairment but did stop further
deterioration. His death sentence has been removed and his
parents Martin and Amy still have their little boy, North says
with clinician’s pride.
She is something of a crusader for the genomics cause, and
both eicacy and economics appear to be stacking up behind
her. A recent study of “diicult to diagnose” children, led by
Zornitza Stark at the MCRI, found that traditional testing,
which often includes painful tissue biopsies, unearthed
diagnoses in 11% of cases at an average cost of more than
$27,000. Gene sequencing, by contrast, snared the problem
in 55% at a little more than $6,000 a pop.
The tests are getting faster, too. “We’ve just inished
a pilot,” North says, “where we can use genomics in the
intensive care setting, and we can do the sequencing acutely.”
The study reduced the time from blood pull to sequencing to
just 65 hours.
Aspects of precision medicine are particularly data
hungry. Researchers are using machine learning to trawl
vast, pooled genetic databases to link tiny errors in DNA with
disease, a humanity-wide project that promises to greatly
reine diagnosis.
02 | Dr Zornitza Stark (right) used genomic sequencing to
diagnose Louis Clarke’s rare disease, much to his parents’
relief (left).
So should we all be sequenced at birth, a la Gattaca? “If
we started now and just did blanket sequencing, there is a big
question mark over the beneits to the individual,” North says.
One problem is that sequencing every newborn
could yield a Pandora’s box of genetic variations whose
health implications are unclear, a potential nightmare for
counsellors tasked with explaining it all to parents.
When it comes to the issue of storing all that data,
there is also the problem of public concern due to a lack of
understanding about how DNA information is kept. “People
who haven’t been fully informed watch CSI and think their
DNA could be planted at a crime scene,” North says.
Improving awareness of genomic medicine is therefore
one of her goals. She relates the experience of patients at
Melbourne hospitals invited to have genome sequencing.
When well informed and reassured of their privacy, she says,
98% have agreed to share their data for use in research.
It is hard to say how much North’s schoolyard trials have
shaped her. What is clear is that her relentless approach to
discovery springs from a serious appreciation for inclusion.
“I love networks,” she says. “Bringing people around a
table and getting them to be greater than the sum of their
PAUL BIEGLER is a philosopher, physician and adjunct
research fellow in bioethics at Monash University.
01 Courtesy of MCRI
02 Inga Feitsma
Issue 78
JASON ENGLAND is a magician based in Las Vegas and
a renowned authority on casino gambling and card handling.
Now they are the champions
Self-taught artificial intelligence
draws closer to game perfection.
HAD YOU ASKED ANY serious chess
player on 5 December 2017 what the
strongest commercially available chess
software on the market was, mostly likely
you would have heard names like Houdini,
Komodo or Stockish. The correct answer
happened to be Stockish, but all three
programs certainly play chess better
than any human, including current world
champion Magnus Carlsen.
On 6 December that all changed.
DeepMind, a British company now owned
by Google that specialises in artiicial
intelligence, published a paper detailing
the explosive entrance of a new champion
in the computer chess arena. According to
DeepMind, its AlphaZero neural network
was taught only the rules of chess, then
allowed to play against itself for a mere
four hours. With that, AlphaZero had
learned enough to obliterate Stockish.
In a 100-game match, AlphaZero scored
28 wins and 72 draws, a staggering
achievement even for advanced AI.
Traditional chess engines have long
depended on massive opening theory
‘books’ and endgame ‘tablebases’ that the
software consults at appropriate points
during a game. Middlegame decisions
are made using a process known as a
search tree, looking ahead to see millions
of possible candidate moves and then
numerically evaluating and ranking
them. The criteria an engine uses to
decide its best move in a given position is
programmed into the software by humans.
AlphaZero used neither opening
databases nor endgame tables, and nothing
about the game was pre-programmed. It
simply ‘taught’ itself chess. In a few hours,
playing through (presumably) millions of
games against itself, the AI remembered
its successes as well as its failures,
continuously updating its knowledge of
the game.
While DeepMind hasn’t released
enough information to fully calculate
AlphaZero’s chess-playing strength, it
appears to be vastly superior to anything
carbon-based. Chess prowess is measured
using the Elo rating. A beginner who has
just learned the rules might have an Elo
rating of 400 to 700. A player with a few
months’ experience could play at about
1,000. An expert player is rated 1,800
to 2,000. Grandmasters are 2,500 and
higher, with the top players in the world
rated 2,700 to 2,800. The best ratings
ever achieved by a human are in the 2,880
range. Stockish was estimated to be in the
3,300 range, as it routinely trounced all
human opponents with ease. AlphaZero,
when inally assessed properly, could well
be in the 4,000 range.
Chess isn’t the first
ancient strategy game
turned upside down.
Chess isn’t the irst ancient strategy
game DeepMind has turned upside down.
In 2016 its AlphaGo program defeated the
reigning world Go champion, Lee Sedol.
AI experts had previously predicted a
program capable of beating a 9-dan (the
highest possible ranking) Go professional
was at least a decade away.
When Go supremacy was wrested away
from human beings, it joined an evergrowing list of strategy games now played
better by computers.
In the chess world, Garry Kasparov
famously lost a match under normal chess
time controls to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997.
Backgammon software was playing at or
near world-champion level as far back as
the late 1980s. Checkers, or 8x8 draughts,
fell to the machines in 1995 when the
University of Alberta’s Chinook program
defeated then world champion Don
Laferty. Chinook would go on to ‘solve’
checkers in 2007 by proving the game
would always end in a draw with perfect
play from both sides.
As recently as last year, a poker-playing
program specialising in heads-up no-limit
hold ’em, called Libratus, soundly defeated
a team of four world-class hold ’em experts
during a multi-day tournament in which
more than 120,000 hands were dealt.
A slightly simpler version of the game,
limit hold ’em, had been solved two
years before (again by researchers at the
University of Alberta).
Other solved board games include
Connect Four, in which the irst player can
always force a win. Othello is, technically,
not yet solved, but proper play by both
sides will almost certainly result in a draw.
Chess and Go, due to the complexity
of the two games, are not expected to
be fully solved for years to come. The
prediction for chess is a draw with perfect
play, although some experts claim a win for
white (with its irst-move advantage) may
be inevitable. Go is still too complex for
any meaningful guesses as to a solved state.
At least we humans still have table
tennis, right? Well, we did.
At the 2018 Consumer Electronics
Show in Las Vegas, Japanese technology
company Omron unveiled Forpheus, a
table-tennis robot using advanced cameras
and artiicial intelligence to track and
return any ball hit its way. By interpreting
body language, Forpheus could even
predict when its opponent intended to
‘smash’ the ball back over the net. I heard
no reports of it losing a single game.
PAUL DAVIES is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and best-selling author.
How geometry resolved
a lengthy border dispute
The length of a boundary depends
on the scale at which it is measured.
the irst circumnavigation of Australia
in 1803, he readily established it as the
world’s largest island. How large exactly is
harder to answer. The 1978 Year Book of
Australia, for example, gives the length of
the country’s coastline as 36,735 km. The
Australian Encyclopaedia, published from
1925 to 1996, quotes the wildly diferent
igure of 19,658 km. What is going on?
Lewis Fry Richardson was an English
physicist and meteorologist. He was also
a Quaker and paciist. Appalled by the
slaughter of World War I, he decided
to analyse conlict mathematically.
Following a hunch that the risk of a lareup might depend on the length of two
countries’ common borders, he ploughed
through some statistics, and noticed that
many countries gave highly discrepant
estimates. Richardson carried out a careful
study to get to the bottom of the confusion.
He soon put his inger on the key point that
the length of a boundary depends on the
scale at which it is measured.
When Flinders sailed around Australia,
you might think his journey would be
somewhat longer than the length of actual
coastline, given the ship was out at sea. In
fact the opposite is true. If a ship visited
every little bay and inlet, and hugged the
coast around every promontory, it would
clock up many more kilometres than
simply sailing by ofshore. If a surveyor
walked along every beach and coastal path,
measuring the distance around each rocky
outcrop, the length would be greater still.
The length just seems to go up and up
the smaller the scale used to measure it,
because the wiggliness doesn’t diminish.
Contrast this with a smooth curve, like a
sagging rope, where the line gets straighter
and straighter on smaller scales, and the
total length converges to a deinite answer
as the segment size of each measurement
shrinks to zero.
So does it make any sense to even talk
about the length of a coastline? Richardson
recognised the boundaries of countries
with very wiggly features, like Norway,
would in some sense be longer than those,
like South Africa, that have relatively
smooth coastlines.
How to make this precise? Although all
coastlines are longer the smaller the scale
on which they are examined, the rate at
which that length grows as one zooms in
to ever iner scales varies from country to
country. Richardson determined that if the
ruler length is l, then the total length varies
like lD, where D is a number depending
on the degree of wiggliness. For a smooth
curve, like a sagging rope, D = 1. But for
a line that gets ever longer on smaller and
smaller scales, D will be greater. A careful
analysis shows that D = 1.52 for Norway
and 1.05 for South Africa, conirming
one’s intuition that South Africa is
somehow ‘smoother’ than Norway. Using
the same formula, Britain comes out at
1.25 and Australia at 1.13.
Richardson’s proposal went
largely ignored until 1975, when the
mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot
recognised his predecessor had tapped
into something mathematically profound.
He argued that Richardson’s scaling
parameter D could be interpreted as
the dimension of the line. In elementary
geometry, smooth lines (e.g. sagging
ropes) have dimension 1 and areas have
dimension 2. An ininitely wiggly line,
however, is somehow trying to ill out an
area but failing. D, a number between 1
and 2, is a measure of how close the line
gets to being an area.
Mandelbrot coined the term ‘fractal
dimension’ for D. Thus Australia has a
coastline with fractal dimension 1.13 –
bigger than a smooth curve but less than
Norway’s coastline.
Following Mandelbrot’s work, fractals
became all the rage, inspiring works of
art as well as advances in scientiic areas
such as chaos theory. The concept can be
extended to any dimension, such as areas
that strive to become volumes, or solids
full of holes trying to become areas.
Once you start looking, fractals (or
at least good approximations) crop up
everywhere in nature, wherever there are
irregularities over many scales of size – the
shapes of fern leaves, the iligree patterns
of capillaries or the tributary system
of river deltas, the jagged outlines of
mountain ranges, and the spiky pathways
of lightning, snowlakes and sponges. The
concept also has practical value across
engineering and medicine, from image
data compression to retinal damage in
‘Fractal Nature’ gallery, see page 80.
Issue 78
THE ODDS, THEREFORE, are negligible
that we live in the origin universe, and
considerable that we are quite a few steps
down the layers of reality. Everything
you know, everything you have ever seen
or experienced, is probably not what it
appears to be. The most alarming notion
is that someone – or everyone – you
know might be an avatar of someone a
level up; they know that you’re a game
piece, that you’re invented and they
are real. Perhaps that explains your
sense of unfulilled potential: you truly
are incomplete, a semi-autonomous
relection of something vast. And yet, if
so, what does that say about those vast
ones beyond? Are they just replicating
a truth they secretly recognise about
themselves? Russian dolls, one inside the
other, until the smallest doll embraces
the outermost and everything begins
again? Who really inhabits whom, and
who is in control?
Penguin Random House (2017)
RRP $32.99 Paperback
Probing the
of purpose
On Purpose
Princeton University Press (2017)
RRP $27.95 Hardcover
I ONCE ATTENDED a seminar on the
philosophy of laughter, which turned
out to be a very grim afair indeed. The
event left me with a nagging sense that
philosophers might be doing the pursuit
of wisdom a disservice by training their
intellectual sights on things the townsfolk
just know in their bones.
In his new book On Purpose, Michael
Ruse, a highly regarded philosopher of
science and professor at the University of
Florida, could at irst glance appear guilty
of a similar misdemeanour.
Most people, after all, seem pretty
content with the notion of purpose, its
place in their lives and the existential
disquiet that pervades in its absence.
Ruse is not one of those people.
His crusade is to elevate purpose to its
proper status in the world of ideas. His
opening gambit is to note a distinction
that rarely troubles the layperson but has
preoccupied metaphysicians for a good
couple of millennia. Why does my thumb
hurt? Because I hit it with a hammer.
This, explains Ruse, is an example of a
cause that exists in the past, something
Aristotle called an “eicient cause”.
But what causes me to study
journalism, invest in a stock or invite
friends to dinner? These causes –
Aristotle termed them “inal causes” – lie
in the future. They are mysterious to Ruse
because they can motivate action even
when their object never comes to exist.
The aspiring journalist might study for a
career that becomes obsolete before they
even graduate.
The commonsense reader will, no
doubt, respond that our purpose-driven,
“teleological” behaviour simply stems
from the fact we’re conscious beings.
We can hold rewards in mind and strive
towards them.
What then, to use Ruse’s example,
of the lion that hides behind a thicket
to launch a surprise attack on a buck?
Antelope meat is surely good for the
lion, so does it attack with purpose? Or
consider the Venus lytrap. Catching a
ly would also seem good for the plant, so
could there be purpose in its entrapment?
If purpose slides along some kind
of spectrum, might it permeate the
non-living world too? Ruse thinks the
Stellenbosch region in South Africa is
about as pretty as it gets and, if some
mining company wanted to lop the top of
its mountains, he “would be ahead even of
the ecofeminists in crying ‘rape’”.
“If that is not a value cry, one made for
the sake of the mountain and not for me, I
don’t know what is,” he writes.
Could intactness really be good for
the mountain? If so, is there some kind of
mountain-centred purpose in preserving
it? Ruse ranges wide seeking answers.
His bedrock is three of the greats of
philosophy. Plato was for a designing
God, or ‘demiurge’, that stage-directed
all things to goals ultimately bound to the
‘Form of the Good’. Aristotle plumped for
‘unmoved movers’, forces sufusing the
cosmos with objective purpose. Kant saw
purpose as a ‘heuristic’ or guide, imposed
by humankind on the biological world as a
means to understand it.
So far, so obscure, you might say.
Ruse aims to illuminate these theories
by weaving them through a dizzying array
of more modern, if equally contentious,
views. The Platonic demiurge re-emerges
in a discussion of intelligent design. How,
argue people such as US biochemist
Michael Behe, could the lagella-driven
propulsion system of certain bacteria
arise merely by Darwinian selection?
Its very complexity seems to rule out
any preceding, intermediate form,
opening a door to the existence of an
all-guiding hand.
If you think unmoved movers are
Issue 78
improbable, there is increasing support,
including from Australian philosopher
David Chalmers, for the idea of
panpsychism, the notion that even nonliving forms could have consciousness.
If thinking needs molecules, Ruse
explains, maybe it scales up and down
depending on how many you have, “like
red paint getting redder and redder as
you add more pigment, so consciousness
becomes more and more aware as it is
added to”. If purpose hinges on consciousness, perhaps it soaks the cosmos more
thoroughly than we have thought.
Ruse seems most sympathetic,
however, to a Kantian view in which
we ascribe purpose to the world for
our own pragmatic ends. With this
view, Ruse says, the plates on the back
of a stegosaurus have the purpose of
regulating temperature because, well,
we say they do, and that aids the goal of
biological inquiry. But purpose borne of
humankind is, the professor notes, prone
to hijack. Psychologist Justin Barrett
has called humans “hyperactive agency
detectors”, driven to see faces in just
about everything as a “better safe than
sorry” strategy to detect foes. If we can
ind faces in the Moon, car fronts and even
burnt toast, it is hardly surprising we see
purpose in all kinds of places where there
is none.
One quibble is that purpose and
function seem often conlated. On
stegosaurus plates, why not say
temperature control is just their evolved
function rather than purpose?
This is, nonetheless, a deeply
intelligent book that treats key thinkers
in philosophy, religion and the sciences
fairly, humorously and with a virtuosity
relecting more than half a century in the
ield. Towards the close he ponders his
own quest for purpose approaching the
business end of life. His evident love for
the teaching and practice of philosophy
would appear to ill the void. As moral
philosopher Susan Wolf notes in the
book: “A life is meaningful insofar as it
contributes to something larger than
A Different Kind
of Animal: How
Culture Transformed
Our Species
Princeton University
Press (2018)
RRP $36.00 Hardcover
TRADITIONALLY THE PURVIEW of the humanities, “culture”
is taken increasingly seriously by the natural sciences. There
are three major schools of thought: behavioural ecology,
evolutionary psychology and the lesser-known “cultural
evolution” perspective. The irst has been quietly working
away, with some interesting progress, while evolutionary
psychology, the best-known of the three, has been making
grand claims, none of which bear up terribly well to scrutiny.
In the third camp one inds Robert Boyd, of the School
of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State
University. At the heart of his new book – based on his
presentations at Princeton University in 2016 as part of the
annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values – is the claim
that culture makes humans unique. Humans are outliers:
we have, unlike any other animal, adapted to every available
environment because of the accumulated culture of our
societies, not the evolved contents of our minds.
Large complex brains alone, Boyd suggests, are not
enough for human societies to thrive in diferent habitats
because it is beyond the ability of any individual to know,
let alone devise, all necessary survival techniques. Instead,
he argues a theory of cultural evolution in which societies
survive because humans imitate and learn from the
behaviour, techniques and beliefs of others, often despite
not understanding exactly why. He calls the process of
transmitting cultural norms, enforced via sanctions, ‘cultural
group selection’. When such selection produces successful
results, societies build up a store of useful behaviours, a
process he calls ‘cumulative cultural adaptation’. “Norms
causing a group to survive,” he says, “will become more
common compared to those that lead to extinction.” This will
cause some groups to thrive and some to wither in an extragenetic analogue of Darwinian evolution.
Boyd’s book is thoughtful and compelling, illed with
interdisciplinary insight, methodology derived from
population biology and ample evidence; but there are, of
course, nits to be picked. The last part is taken up with
criticism and commentary from four thinkers from other
disciplines, including the august Australian philosopher Kim
Sterelny, followed by Boyd’s responses. The back and forth
is as entertaining as is it insightful, and reveals a research
program rich with promise.
A Diferent Kind of Animal is a fascinating introduction
to a fertile ield of cultural research that should be betterknown. Approachable and clearly argued, it is a brave revival
of the autonomy of culture and a breath of fresh air for those
tired of the narrow claims of evolutionary psychology.
STEPHEN FLEISCHFRESSER is a lecturer at the University
of Melbourne’s Trinity College.
The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire
The Cyberiad Stories
Princeton University Press (2017)
RRP $35.00
Penguin (2014)
RRP $19.40
“EXPLANATIONS FOR the fall of Rome
have never been lacking,” writes Kyle
Harper early on in this magisterial
investigation into the end of the most
powerful civilisation in the pre-industrial
world. “There is a traic jam of contending
theories. A German classicist catalogued
210 hypotheses on ofer.”
Now there are 211 – although this one
is going to take some beating.
Harper is professor of classics and
letters at the University of Oklahoma. His
previous books have covered slavery and
sexual morality in the Roman world. In
this one, however, he joins his extensive
knowledge of Roman-era texts, and the
more recent scholarship that builds upon
them, with equally impressive forays into
climate and epidemiology.
Bugs and changing weather patterns,
he asserts, were major inluences on the
early success and later failure of Rome.
On the matter of climate change, he is
on pretty irm ground, able to deploy
evidence to posit a fortuitous period
known as the Roman Climate Optimum
that underpinned what Edward Gibbon
termed “Rome’s happiest age” (Gibbon,
naturally, is a frequent reference), followed
by less stable conditions around the time
of the sacking of Rome itself and, later, the
decline of the empire in the east.
On the matter of the inluence of
pathogens, he is sometimes on more
speculative ground – DNA evidence of
plagues notwithstanding – and relies on
perhaps contentious interpretations of
passages from Roman writers. The totality
of his argument, however, is persuasive,
and his approach elegant and eloquent.
“Biological change was even more forceful
than the physical climate in deciding the
fate of Rome,” he writes. “Of course, the
two were not, and are not, unconnected.”
In the course of the book – heavily
armed with maps, graphs, endnotes,
appendices and a bibliography – Harper
uses climate and disease data to inesse the
two leading theories of Rome’s demise:
“inherently unsustainable mechanics of
the imperial system and the gathering
external pressures along the frontiers of
Both have much merit – and acquire
more with climate and pathogens added.
In so doing, Harper resets other favoured
causes for the end of empire, diminishing
some in the process. “The coming of the
Huns,” he notes, “did not, by itself, spell
the doom of the western empire.” The
Huns did not conquer much; the entire
Asian steppe “shifted its weight”.
The Fate of Rome should probably sit on
shelves next to Gibbon’s masterwork. In
time, one feels, it will be seen every bit as
much an essential text.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN Polish in 1965, The
Cyberiad is a series of short stories about
two ‘constructor’ robots named Trurl and
Author Stanisław Lem plays fast and
loose with physics, creating a world that
revels in technological mayhem and still
feels fresh, yet strangely grounded, today.
He has lots of fun with eastern European
literary traditions; there are echoes of
Kafka and Gogol here, and perhaps a nod
to Czech writer Karel Capek, who irst
coined the word ‘robot’ in 1920.
The modern appeal of The Cyberiad
might lie in the quiet inluence it has
had on other science-iction authors –
Asimov was a huge fan, for instance. But
Lem’s literary boldness shares much with
contemporary writers in diferent ields.
There are similarities in tone and style
to absurdist dramatists, such as Beckett
and Ionesco. One story, Trurl’s Machine,
revolves around an “eight-storey thinking
machine”, trimmed in lavender but lacking
a “mentation muler”. When asked to
calculate two multiplied by two, it answers,
after a long wait, “seven”. Correctly or
not, it seems a distant ancestor of Douglas
Adams’ Deep Thought.
The Cyberiad is no historical curiosity,
however. It is arresting and bizarre and
brilliant. A treasure.
Guinness World Records:
Science & Stuff
Pan Macmillan Australia (2018)
RRP $34.10 Hardcover
and capsule texts, this book
jumps around and jabbers like a
hyperactive child – and is perfect
for every young geek.
Propelled by the same
relentless humour and energy
of the Guinness team’s popular
Oicially Amazing television
series, the topics range far and
wide, from extreme sports to
extremophiles, robots to rollercoasters, mole rats to mutant
Along the way it raises
wonderful topics for curious
minds, such as what happens
when you burp in space and how
to start a dinosaur poo collection.
There is also a collection of DIY
experiments guaranteed to wreck
the kitchen.
The collection is introduced
by Robin Ince, a comedian who
is Brian Cox’s co-host on the
popular BBC radio show The
Infinite Monkey Cage.
Issue 78
Issue 78
The Phantom Sense
& Other Stories
Strange Wolf Press (2012)
RRP $20.99
What a Plant Knows:
A Field Guide to
the Senses
Scribe Publications (2017)
RRP $29.99
THE SCI-FI SHORT STORY is a less common form
these days. This collection, irst published in
2012, makes a compelling case for it to be revived.
One of the authors, Rick Lovett, has since
become a valued contributor to Cosmos, both in
print and online. This book highlights his abilities
as a iction author.
Lovett cut his teeth as a writer by contributing
to US science iction magazine Analog, a venerable
publication going (with the odd name change)
since 1930. In its glory days it ran works by the
likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. It is
still a robust and popular magazine, and Lovett’s
many contributions have scored him (so far) eight
readers’ choice awards. Niemann-Ross has two.
The four co-written stories in this volume were
all irst published in Analog, and provide the sort
of engrossing short-form exploratory speculative
entertainment that the magazine’s readers love.
The irst yarn – by far the longest – is a dark
irst-person exploration that opens on a former
soldier’s eforts to cope with life after active
service ends. In this case, however, demobbing is
much more complex than simply handing back a
service irearm.
Sergeant Kip McCorbin is a former member of
a high-tech intel squad, in which operatives control
swarms of insects, achieving almost god-like
surveillance abilities in the process. Adjusting to
life without the assistance of one’s own personal
swarm turns out to be a hellish journey that echoes
with the tropes of addiction recovery.
Eventually, the protagonist is ofered the
opportunity to reconnect with a bug cloud in
civilian life – a move that might underpin his sanity
but also cost him the people he loves.
The remaining three yarns – “A Deadly Intent”,
“New Wineskins” and “NetPuppets” – explore
diferent aspects of human-tech interaction with
a calm detachment that emphasises dystopian
“NetPuppets” is intriguing, positing
unauthorised use of an apparently abandoned
online psychological test that is eventually
revealed to have real-life implications for complete
strangers. It speaks to the skill of the authors that
the narrative does not turn on something appalling
happening to these strangers but on the realisation
that anything, good or bad, is rendered disturbing
when imposed by others.
The Phantom Sense and Other Stories is available
across a range of on-demand print platforms.
SOMETIMES SCIENCE IS about being wrong, and
sometimes honesty is about admitting it.
The irst condition is an unavoidable
consequence of inquiry: you make indings and
build theories on the available evidence. Later, if
more evidence becomes available that doesn’t it,
the theory must change.
US-born biologist Daniel Chamovitz, now dean
of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at
Tel Aviv University, is an honest scientist.
His pop-science book What A Plant Knows:
A Field Guide to the Senses was irst published
in 2012. A detailed and witty examination of
plant genetics and physiology, it became a global
hit, arguably the best-selling botany book since
The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and
Christopher Bird in 1973.
Given the book’s success, it is not surprising
Chamovitz and his publishers opted for a revised
edition. However, what does raise eyebrows – and
elicits respect – is the statement by the author
in the prologue “that the new edition contains
groundbreaking information that completely
contradicts conclusions made in the irst”.
The details of these contradictions need not
concern us here, but something more general
should be underlined. Despite altering his analysis
from time to time, Chamovitz does not alter his
approach, which is that of a rigorously disciplined
geneticist. There is much enthusiasm in his
writing, but it is always bolstered by research,
broadly conducted and meticulously referenced.
As with the original edition, Chamovitz
explores plants ranging from algae to Douglas irs,
characterising their responses to environmental
stimuli and genetic mechanics in terms of ive
human senses, as well as memory and sense of
place. It is a device that works very well.
What A Plant Knows is a fascinating read. “My
book is not The Secret Life of Plants,” Chamovitz
writes. “If you’re looking for an argument that
plants are just like us, you won’t ind it here.”
Plant Minds:
A Philosophical Defense
Routledge (2017)
RRP $24.30 Paperback
Ten Great Ideas about
Princeton University
Press (2017)
RRP $27.95
DO PLANTS HAVE MINDS? Obviously not, you’ve
possibly already thought, it is crazy to even ask
the question. In this little book – just 127 pages –
Chauncey Maher shows the notion isn’t bizarre. He
doesn’t end up concluding plants do have minds but
does say it is plausible.
The question hinges on what plants do that
could qualify them as having minds, and what
having a mind entails.
In terms of what they do, Maher covers things
well-known, such as growing towards light, and
other facts less familiar, such as releasing chemicals
when attacked by pests to alert surrounding plants.
We take plants for granted, so it is good to have
these things explained at a level of detail that
enables us to appreciate how sophisticated they
really are. But if you’re looking for a book about
the amazing abilities of plants, this isn’t it. Instead
Maher concentrates on ideas about what the mind
is, testing these against the evidence from plants.
It makes the book a concise overview of the
philosophy of mind, from Aristotle through to the
present. That’s a lot to cover. Maher writes clearly,
though at a pace where much gets left behind.
These are weighty ideas, so if you’re new to this
topic you might want to take it more slowly.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS you knew the idea of chance
was, until the 16th and 17th centuries, more
mystery and magic than mathematics?
I had thought the Greeks would have been all
over mathematical probability, but they put it all
down to Tyche, the goddess of luck.
The real foundation work was done by an Italian
gambler and mathematician. Gerolamo Cardano
(1501-1576) thought chance could be measured.
His book Liber de ludo aleae (“Book on Games of
Chance”) was the irst systematic treatment of
probability. It also included a section on cheating.
Cardano’s work was followed by Galileo Galilei,
Blaise Pascal, Pierre de Fermat, Jacob Bernoulli
and others, all seemingly ixated on better
understanding the roll of dice or the toss of coins.
Slowly the study of chance moved away from the
gaming tables towards the ields of law, politics and
medicine. That work was done by philosophers
and economists including David Hume, Immanuel
Kant and Karl Popper. Thus this book is, as the
authors put it, part history, part probability and
part philosophy.
The book gets even more interesting when
What is particularly nice is that Maher brings
us up to date with a very recent theory of mind.
Most of what you will ind on this subject settles
on an explanation in terms of representations
and computation. This approach is pretty
much assumed by cognitive scientists and most
philosophers too. Under it the case for plant
minds is weak. But a quite diferent approach –
enactivism – is getting some attention.
Enactivism starts by thinking about living
things, which encompasses everything we are
sure has a mind. Living things create themselves
– they maintain their own bodies and produce
more of the same. In doing this they engage with
environments containing some things they need
and others they must avoid. They change things
in their environments to their advantage. In these
interactions lies a latent idea of mind. If this idea
is right, plants could have minds – proto-minds,
anyway. It is a nice challenge to consider.
JIM ROUNTREE is an Australian science journalist.
it looks at the work of psychologists Daniel
Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who studied how
we commonly make mistakes in reasoning about
chance and probability, using mental shortcuts,
biases and framing to overstate or underrate the
likelihood of things occurring. That the physiology
and logic of chance are diferent subjects is one of
the 10 great ideas to which the book’s title refers.
Much of the text involves quite complex
mathematics, but the authors generally ind
practical examples to explain the concepts – such
as the chapter on inverse inference, which explains
the reason so many published research papers are
non-replicable is an overemphasis on p-values.
This book will not increase your odds of
winning at games of chance, but it will give you
some greater understanding of why you lose.
CRAIG CORMICK is president of Australian
Science Communicators.
Here, have a tissue
IF YOUR IDEA of a great day out
is wandering around examining
displays of infected or deformed
tissue, the Museum of Human
Disease at the University of New
South Wales in Sydney should be
very high on your to-do list.
The museum, situated in the
university’s school of medical
sciences, contains more than
2,000 specimens – most of them
organs removed either during
operations on the living or
autopsies on the dead.
Admittedly not for the
squeamish, the museum’s
displays permit a rare glimpse
into the stark actuality of
infectious and non-infectious
diseases. Ever wondered what
diphtheria and typhoid look
like from the inside? How
about HIV? It’s all here, in
hermetically sealed threedimensional gory glory.
Many of the displays serve
as useful aids to understanding
for medical students as well as
objects of enjoyably morbid
curiosity to visitors. Some,
however, are just plain weird,
such as a preserved teratoma – a
kind of ovary tumour that, in this
instance, has sprouted its own
hair and teeth.
Under the guidance of
director Derek Williamson,
the museum is open Monday to
Friday, between 9am and 4pm.
Adult entry is just $10. Museum
policy requires all children under
the age of 15 to be accompanied
by an adult – which, given the
gruesome nature of the exhibits,
is probably a very good idea
Museum of Human Disease
Sydney, NSW
The circle of life
IN 1977 NASA launched two probes –
Voyager 1 and 2 – into space on a journey
with no end. They are still going, and still
transmitting information back to base.
As you read this, they are about 16 billion
kilometres from Earth, whacking along at
55,000 km/h.
The Voyager craft embodied the
peak of technology when they were
launched. Each included an informationpacked gold LP record. The duplicate
artefacts, designed as a greeting card from
humanity, are intended to be decipherable
by any alien civilisation able to igure out
that a pin in a moving groove renders
an audible (and visual) translation of the
lumps and bumps therein.
There were only half a dozen or so of
the original gold records ever made, but
now the rest of us can own our very own
copy – sort of – thanks to a tiny US record
company called Ozma. After a massively
over-subscribed Kickstarter campaign,
the company released a box set comprising
the original recordings (now spread over
three gold-coloured vinyl albums), a book
containing photographs also encoded on
the original, and (as a bonus for recordcollectors) a turntable slip-mat showing
the crafts’ routes out of the Solar System.
The run sold out in seconds. Available
for the moment only on resale platforms,
the Ozma Voyager box set is already a
much sought-after collectors’ item.
The content, decided by a committee
headed by astronomer Carl Sagan,
includes music from societies around
the globe, the sounds of nature – whales
singing, birds calling, that sort of thing
– and people relaying greetings and best
wishes in many diferent languages.
Unfortunately, in retrospect, the irst
greeting is from the then United Nations
head Kurt Waldheim, who shortly after
endured the disgrace of being exposed as
a WWII intelligence oicer complicit in
German war crimes. Aliens are unlikely
to care much about this, but it does make
for a slightly awkward moment for human
listeners now.
It isn’t really something you will want
to play more than once. You may, however,
still cherish it and, in time, bequeath it to
your children.
Nathalie Saldumbide / Saldumbide
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THE OBJECT HAD BEEN hurtling through the Solar
System for years by the time astronomers spotted it,
just 33 million km away – 20 million km closer than
Mars ever comes to the Earth. Highly elongated and
about the size of a WWII battleship, its trajectory
proved it was an interstellar interloper – our Solar
System’s irst identiied visitor from deep space.
Astronomers named it `Oumuamua – Hawaiian
for “a messenger from afar arriving irst” – because
Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS telescope was the irst to
spot it, in October 2017. Was it, as some armchair
scientists speculated, an alien emissary? Such wild
conjecture turned out to be a stretch. Analysis
pointed to it simply being an oddly shaped asteroid.
Ultimately there was nothing to hint it was more
than “a big chunk of rock”, says astronomer Olivier
Hainaut, of the European Southern Observatory.
Too bad for alien enthusiasts. So how did
scientists work out what it was? If it had been an alien
spaceship, how would we have known?
Issue 78
02 | An artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua, the first
interstellar asteroid to be identified, by the
Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on 19 October 2017.
The irst thing that stood out about
‘Oumuamua was its orbit. Though
passing through the Solar System,
it was not captured by the Sun. “It
is the only object seen so far with
a strongly hyperbolic orbit,” says
David Jewitt, an astronomer at
the University of California, Los
Angeles, “meaning it is travelling
so fast that the Sun’s gravity cannot
hold it back.”
This indicated it could be
something novel, says Jonti Horner,
an astrobiologist at the University
of Southern Queensland. But
“extraordinary claims require
extraordinary evidence, so people
across the planet went into a frenzy
to get more observations and lock
things down”.
A key observation is to determine if
an object is surrounded by a fuzzy
cloud, or ‘coma’, of dust and gas: this
is the signature of a comet heating
up and releasing gas as it approaches
the Sun. ‘Oumuamua didn’t show
any such activity, ruling out it being
a comet, though that didn’t prove it
was an alien spacecraft.
The next thing to look at is how an
object’s brightness changes over
time. Asteroids have irregular
shapes and tend to spin, so they
appear brighter or dimmer as
they tumble in the sunlight. The
brightness of a spaceship, on the
other hand, would be more stable.
‘Oumuamua showed signiicant
luctuations in brightness,
suggesting it was an asteroid. .
An object that is rotating might be a
hint it is creating artiicial gravity –
think the rotating ring of the Hermes
spacecraft in Andy Weir’s The
Martian, or Discovery One in 2001:
A Space Odyssey. Spin produces a
centrifugal force that can mimic the
efect of gravity. The faster the spin,
the greater the force. Astronomers
could see ‘Oumuamua was rotating
but each rotation took seven to eight
hours – way too slow to replicate
any meaningful gravitational efect
for an object its size. To produce
artiicial gravity similar to what we
experience on Earth, it would need
to rotate more like once a minute.
An obvious giveaway could be found
by listening for radio transmissions
across a range of wavelengths. Says
Hainaut: “Narrow radio emissions,
especially if they are modulated in
some way, don’t really happen in
nature.” Listening for signs of alien
civilisations is not a new idea –
programs like SETI have long been
monitoring distant solar systems
for life – but we rarely have cause
to tune into our own. In December
2017 the Breakthrough Listen
program focused the 100-metre
Green Bank Telescope on
‘Oumuamua but found no indication
of artiicial signals.
Astronomers can also learn about
the object’s surface by analysing
the spectrum of relected light.
Unexpected signatures could point
to materials such as spacecraft
paint. Seeing bright, short lashes
might indicate an artiicial polished
surface. ‘Oumuamua was found to
have a dark reddish hue, perhaps
indicating a surface covered with
dense, metal-rich rock, reddened
from cosmic ray bombardment.
A spacecraft might give of a heat
signature from an engine or an
internal energy source, visible
to us in the thermal infrared. Its
engine could also give of detectable
emissions. Another indication
of an engine might be an object
straying of the path of a natural
gravitationally driven orbit.
However, outgassing can also
disturb the orbits of comets, so it
would take a large variation to signal
an artiicial spacecraft.
The path of ‘Oumuamua, showing the point at which it was spotted. CREDIT: NASA / JPL-CALTECH
An alien spacecraft could easily visit our Solar System
without us ever noticing. Astronomers estimate at least
one interstellar asteroid similar to `Oumuamua passes
through our Solar System every year, but it is hard to
recognise a faint, fast pinprick of light in the vastness of
space. Indeed, ‘Oumuamua was already on its way out
of the system by the time it was spotted.
The only reason we now have any chance of spotting
interstellar objects is thanks to new automated surveys
like Pan-STARRS, the Catalina sky survey and the
ATLAS survey, which scour the sky for moving objects.
Horner says: “We’re only just reaching the
technological level to have a good chance of catching
these things.” If ‘Oumuamua had come along just a
fortnight earlier or later, he believes Pan-STARRS
probably would have missed it, due to it being too far
from Earth or too close to the Sun to see.
Future technology will expand our abilities to spot
and study these far-lung visitors. The much more
powerful Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
being built in Chile, UCLA’s Jewitt says, should detect
interstellar objects “by the bucket-load”.
Identifying and carefully studying these objects will
allow us to build up a database of their properties. If an
alien-built interstellar visitor does arrive, we’ll have a
better chance of recognising its true nature.
Then the real fun will begin.
LAUREN FUGE is a freelance science writer based in
Adelaide, Australia.
01 Brian Dominiecki / Getty Images
02 ESO/M. Kornmesser
Issue 78
‘Firehawks’ are rewriting the history of ire on the continent
as scientists conirm Aboriginal lore about the only known
animal to intentionally light ires, JOHN PICKRELL writes.
HUMANS AND LIGHTNING have long been thought
to be the only ire starters in Australia. However,
ornithologist Bob Gosford has come to a diferent
conclusion after decades of working with Aboriginal
people in the Northern Territory and conirming their
native bird knowledge in a recent study.
Published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, the paper
collected witness accounts from across Australia’s far
north, which strongly suggest that three diferent types
of raptor species use smouldering branches to spread
ires and scare prey into their waiting talons.
“This behaviour, often represented in sacred
ceremonies, is widely known to local people in
the Northern Territory,” Gosford and his fellow
researchers note in their paper.
Over the past few decades, Gosford, a lawyer with
the Central Land Council based in Alice Springs, has
gone hunting and walking throughout the ‘Top End’
with local people, who would tell him about birds that
occasionally spread ires.
Gosford was particularly intrigued by a passage in
a 1964 biography about Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts,
a member of the Alawa people of Arnhem Land, in the
territory’s north-east.
“I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in
its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half
a mile away,” he says in the book, “then wait with its
mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened
rodents and reptiles.”
A few years ago Gosford tracked down Roberts’
family, who conirmed the passage recorded a wellknown behaviour.
Aboriginal lore from many parts of the Top End is
replete with references to birds carrying ire, and some
traditional ceremonies even depict the behaviour.
Black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites
(Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco
berigora) all regularly congregate near the edges of
bushires, taking advantage of an exodus of small
lizards, mammals, birds and insects. Furthermore, they
have apparently learnt to control it as well.
“At or around an active ire front, birds – usually
black kites but sometimes brown falcons – will pick up
a irebrand or a stick not much bigger than your inger
and carry it away to an unburnt area of grass and drop
it in there to start a new ire,” says Gosford. “It’s not
always successful, but sometimes it results in ignition.”
Gosford and his fellow researchers report that
the birds light these ires individually or as part of a
cooperative efort.
Scientists have observed black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons spreading fire across northern Australia, the
first evidence of such behaviour by non-human animals. CREDIT: DICK EUSSEN
Gosford points to two Dreaming ire ceremonies
in particular – the ‘Lorrkon’ and ‘Yabuduruwa’ rituals
from the Arnhem Land – that re-enact birds spreading
ire from place to place.
“Most of the Aboriginal groups that we talked to
in the NT, particularly in the Top End, are entirely
comfortable with the idea that this happens,” Gosford
says. “For a lot of people, it is accepted as a fact.”
However, European scientists have shown a
reluctance to accept the observations of Aboriginal
Australians, which explains why this seemingly
widespread behaviour has not been scientiically
documented until now.
To this end, Gosford and his co-authors, including
geographer Mark Bonta at Penn State Altoona in the
US, spent six years collecting more than 20 witness
accounts from traditional owners, land managers and
indigenous rangers across the Top End.
The accounts suggest ire-starting behaviour may
be very widespread. “We’ve got records from the
eastern coast, in the tropics of Queensland, right across
to Western Australia,” Gosford says.
“There appears to be a particular cluster through
the savanna woodlands of central northern Australia.”
It is a “fascinating phenomenon”, says Alex
Kacelnik, an expert on animal tool use at the University
of Oxford. “Many species may have learned to respond
to natural ire by escaping from it or exploiting it to
hunt leeing prey, but these hawks are showing a form
of ire control.”
It is the irst time Kacelnik has heard of such
behaviour in non-human animals. It adds to
the evidence, he says, that birds are very good
at “generating innovative solutions to foraging
problems”. He speculates the skill could be periodically
rediscovered in diferent locations and then copied by
younger hawks in the same population.
Gosford says the next stage of research will involve
setting controlled ires with the help of Aboriginal land
managers so scientists can capture the avian irebugs
in action. “We are looking at gathering as much data
on as many ire fronts as we can, and hope to record the
behaviour on ilm.”
There is now “cause to re-examine our
understanding of ire history and how ire works in the
landscape,” he says.
Issue 78
Edward Teller’s love of mathematical
and quantum abstractions helped make
armageddon a practical possibility.
THE WORDS ON the telegram sent by Edward Teller in
December 1952 appeared to herald life-airming news:
“It’s a boy.”
The message, however, was in code. To those in the know,
the message wasn’t about new life at all but the possibility of
human extinction. It meant the world’s irst test of a hydrogen
bomb – a thermonuclear 'fusion' weapon 500 times more
powerful than the atomic 'ission' bombs dropped on Japan –
had not only worked but exceeded expectations, transforming
the Paciic island of Elugelab into one giant crater.
This event was primarily responsible for Teller – a
Hungarian émigré, physics professor, member of the
Manhattan Project and at that point co-founder of the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California –
being forever dubbed “the father of the hydrogen bomb”.
It was a nickname he resisted right up until his death
from natural causes in 2003, at the age of 95. He remains
one of the most controversial scientists of the modern era:
a brilliant physicist but also a vigorous hawk obsessed with
the threat of Communist domination, a vocal advocate of
nuclear and hydrogen-based thermonuclear weapons, and the
key architect of the American plan in the 1980s for a missile
defence system known as the Strategic Defence Initiative.
It was a billion-dollar boondoggle that increased Cold War
tensions before it was abandoned.
Teller was born in Budapest in January 1908 to Max
Teller, a wealthy lawyer, and his wife Ilona. The family hit
hard times after World War I under the brief Communist
regime run by Bela Kun, an experience that was to mark
young Edward for life.
He deferred to his father’s request that he pursue chemical
engineering, enrolling at a university in Budapest in 1925,
then migrated to Germany the following year to study at
the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe. While doing so he
continued to read maths. After graduating he moved to the
University of Munich in 1928, where he studied physics, and
had his foot amputated following a streetcar accident. He
then moved to the University of Leipzig, where he studied
quantum mechanics and received his doctorate under Werner
Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame).
By the early 1930s, he was teaching physics at the
University of Göttingen. When Adolf Hitler came to power,
Teller, who was Jewish, quickly perceived that Germany
had suddenly become a very dangerous place. He sensibly
led to Copenhagen, funded by a grant from the Rockefeller
Foundation. After a short time in Denmark, he moved briely
to Britain, then to the US in 1935, taking a position as a
physics professor at George Washington University.
By then, age and experience had arguably made the man.
He was a big fan of the French novelist Jules Verne. He was
also a pianist – in later years his neighbours would complain
that he played loudly late at night.
In the US, his pursuit of mathematical and quantum
abstractions transformed into the development of very real
weapons systems. He joined the Manhattan Project, which
was racing to develop the irst atomic bomb, and worked with
Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer –
whom he would later denounce as a security risk. He was,
according to his biographers, a diicult man, unable to work
efectively in a team.
After World War II, he switched his attention to
the prospect of developing a hydrogen bomb, a project
he continued to champion long after its irst appalling
demonstration. He became a prominent Cold War warrior,
using his inluence to campaign for the development of more
atomic weapons and missile systems.
He had the ear of successive US presidents, and by 1983
had helped convince US president Ronald Reagan to commit
to funding an improbable system of satellite and missilebased X-ray, particle beam and laser weapons. Not a single
bit of the Strategic Defence Initiative (dubbed ‘Star Wars’)
had been completed by the time was abandoned at the end of
Reagan’s tenure in 1989 – despite having cost US$36 billion.
Teller remained a vocal proponent of nuclear deterrence
right until the end. His death, following a stroke, ended his
inluence – but not the debate surrounding his legacy.
ILLUSTRATION – Jefrey Phillips
Issue 78
Is Wi-Fi dangerous?
THERE IS A STORY about an experiment by a group of Danish
schoolgirls, involving watercress seeds in two adjacent rooms.
In one room the seeds germinate and thrive; in the other room,
which has Wi-Fi routers in it, the seeds fail to germinate.
This is cited as proof that electromagnetic ields (EMF)
generated by Wi-Fi kill things.
We’ll come back to the watercress in a minute, but irst
let’s address the big question to which it leads. Can Wi-Fi
technology damage humans?
Good science rarely, if ever, comes up with an unassailable
yes-or-no answer, and scientiic investigation always remains
open to new data. So far, however, after scores of studies,
there is no uncontested evidence electromagnetic ields cause
any damage to human tissue.
This didn’t appear to be the case, however, in 2011,
when the World Health Organisation’s International
Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced it had
“classiied radiofrequency electromagnetic ields as possibly
carcinogenic to humans based on an increased risk for glioma,
a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with mobile
phone use”.
Headlines based on this one sentence were startling.
The agency’s own report, however, noted evidence linking
phone use and gliomas was “limited”, and evidence for links
with any other kind of cancer “inadequate”. Even with these
qualiications, however, some researchers suggested the
IARC’s position was based on poorly designed studies.
The IARC position was not supported by a 2012 study
published in the British Medical Journal. Researchers from
the US National Cancer Institute found no change in US
glioma rates between 1992 and 2008 – “a period coinciding
with a substantial increase in mobile phone use from close to
0% to almost 100%”. One of the main studies used by the IARC
had predicted a 40% rise with widespread mobile phone use.
A 2011 British study did ind a slight increase in temporal
lobe cancers, but that trend began in the 1970s, long before
mobiles and Wi-Fi were invented. Overall it found no increase
in brain cancers with the spread of mobile phones.
The largest investigation into the matter – published
in 2013, looking at almost 80,000 middle-aged British
women over seven years – found “mobile phone use was not
associated with increased incidence” of brain cancers.
Despite these (and many other) studies, fears about Wi-Fi
and EMF continue to lare up from time to time. Why might
this be so? One clue comes from a study, published in February
2018, by scientists at the National Cheng Kung University in
Taiwan. It found the number of people presenting to doctors
with self-diagnosed EMF-related symptoms rose and fell with
media reports about EMF dangers. In other words, the likely
cause of EMF symptoms was fear.
Now, briely, back to the watercress experiment. The mark
of any good experiment is that other researchers can replicate
it, right? In 2016 a Canadian scientist who is also a consultant
to a company that sells EMF ‘protection’ devices repeated
the work of the Danish schoolgirls. She reported the routerexposed cress grew just as well as the stuf in the other room.
Cristian Mihai Vela / Getty Images
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Solargraphy captures cosmic time in a single frame.
LAUREN FUGE explores how such a simple technique
inspires a sense of connection to the universe.
AS DARKNESS FALLS over the Payette River in central
Idaho, Chuck Bueter makes his way along the riverbank
to what appears to be an oddly decorated tree. Nine
assorted aluminium cans are duct-taped to the slender
trunk. They are neither rubbish nor art – these cans
are pinhole cameras, and they’ve captured something
spectacular about our world that Bueter wants to share.
It is 21 August 2017. A few hours earlier, at 11.28
am Mountain Daylight Time, a total solar eclipse
shrouded this part of the US in shadow. A record of the
momentous event is curled inside each can on a strip of
photographic paper: a solargraph.
Bueter, an amateur astronomer, set up these
long-exposure pinhole cameras by the river with the
help of local children the previous day. Before sunrise
he opened the ‘shutters’ – pieces of tape over the
pinholes. “I was the only one up before the Sun; it’s
hard to sleep on eclipse morning!” Bueter laughs.
02 | Pinhole cameras set up by Chuck Bueter along
the Payette River in Idaho to capture the total solar
eclipse of 21 August 2017.
Now, after sunset, Bueter takes down the cans and
removes the photographic paper inside. Their images
capture the Sun’s movement across the sky from dawn
to dusk. Its journey is scrawled on the paper in a bright
blazing arc, marked by a fuzzy gap where the Moon has
passed in front and blocked its light.
“It’s like Christmas,” Bueter says. “It feels like I’m
opening presents.”
One of the nine eclipse solargraphs in particular
was “pretty damn cool”. So cool, in fact, that he sent it
to NASA, which featured it on the agency’s website as
Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). Friends and
strangers alike wrote to him to express enthusiasm and
support. “I got lucky,” he says.
Lucky or not, Bueter’s image is part of a resurging
interest in the art and science of solargraphy. Its roots
can be traced back to 19th century British photography
pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, the irst to record
an image on light-sensitive paper.
Patrick McCauley, a PhD candidate in solar physics
at the University of Sydney, says photography has been
applied to the Sun almost since it was invented, “and its
importance to solar science can’t be understated”.
The speciic technique used by Bueter emerged in
2000 in a project called Solaris1, creating solargraphs
with pinhole cameras – without lenses – and lightsensitive paper that immediately reveals the image
without chemical development.
British ilmmakers and keen solargraphers Wendy
Bevan-Mogg and Austin Capsey explain that using a
cylinder for the pinhole camera enables a wide ield of
Issue 78
of view, “which means in the winter we can capture a
complete track of the Sun from sunrise to sunset”.
Since very little light enters the camera, it must
be securely attached to a irm place – like a fence or
tree – and left for a period that ranges from a day to
six months. A day is all you need to capture an eclipse;
six months will show you the full extent of the Sun’s
changing path through the sky, from a low bump
in mid-winter building up to a soaring loop in midsummer. The images are both eerie and beautiful.
“We’re used to the idea of high-speed photography
capturing a small transient moment in time, while
solargraphy is actually the opposite of that,” Capsey
says. It captures “the slow and steady seasonal
heartbeat of the Earth”.
The Sun’s difering trajectories relect the Earth’s
orientation as it orbits the star: in winter its axis tilts
‘away’ from the Sun, which therefore follows a low path
in the sky; in summer the axis tilt ‘towards’ the Sun,
which appears higher in the sky.
Of course, as solar physicist McCauley notes,
solargraphs are not used for cutting-edge research:
“For that we use high-resolution telescopes that track
the Sun as it moves across the sky, along with nonphotographic instruments like radio telescopes and
particle detectors.”
But since pinhole cameras are cheap and easy
to make, and only patience is needed to capture a
snapshot of cosmic time, solargraphy is a great way to
introduce people to the grand scale of our universe and
the mathematical dance of the Sun and the Earth.
Bueter, for example, is passionate about using
solargraphy to teach his community about astronomy.
He began in 2016 for Indiana’s bicentennial
celebration, when “there was a big question posed:
how do you capture the essence of time?” He turned to
solargraphs as a visual way to capture time’s passage,
planting cameras atop a baseball stadium, on a lagpole,
in parks, outside his barber’s shop, and on the rooftops
of a church and several schools.
“I love telling a bunch of kids: ‘Let’s do something
dangerous that your parents have told you never to
do: let’s look at the Sun!’” Bueter says. “It’s great to
start a dialogue with them, to try to eke out what they
can discern by looking at a solargraph. We ask them to
think about what the lines represent, why the Sun is
sometimes high or low, why there might be missing or
dotted lines like Morse code, how that might be related
to the weather or seasons.”
Bueter also runs workshops on how to make
solargraphs. “Each solargraph is unique and
personal, which makes it fun for the person doing the
investigation,” he says with infectious enthusiasm.
In Britain, Capsey and Bevan-Mogg also involve
This solargraph made in Glastonbury, England, covers a six-month period, from summer solstice to winter
solstice in 2015. A 35 mm film canister was used for the pinhole camera.
the public in solargraphy. They have held several
exhibitions and workshops, and created a short ilm
about the way solargraphs connect them to the natural
world. “To most people solargraphy is a completely
new process and genuinely does show people the world
in a way they’ve never seen it before,” Capsey says.
Another British photographer, Matt Bigwood, has
used solargraphy to explore how to see the world in a
diferent way. First hooked on pinhole photography
as a child, he set up pinhole cameras at his daughter’s
school to produce ethereal solargraphs.
“The children have all been raised in an instant,
digital world,” Bigwood says. He enjoyed showing
his daughter’s class a completely diferent style of
photography of the natural world.
On a larger scale, Finnish artist Tarja Trygg ran an
international project between 2006 and 2012 to get
the public involved in solargraphy, setting up pinhole
cameras across the world to record how the Sun’s path
changes at diferent latitudes. The result was a gallery
of 300 solargraphs on her website, a short ilm and a
wealth of teaching material. During this period she also
teamed up with the European Southern Observatory
(ESO) to combine her artistic approach with a scientiic
point of view. Solargraphs were made over six months
at ESO’s telescope sites in Chile.
“Curiosity is a human trait,” Trygg says.
“Solargraphy made me interested in the universe
and made me see how our planet Earth is a tiny part
of a whole.”
McCauley, whose PhD is focused on solar physics,
sees astronomy capturing the public imagination in a
way most other sciences don’t. “Astronomy has also
taught us that Earth really is a special place,” he says.
This message is central to the work of many
solargraphers, who aim to get people talking about
the world around them, so perhaps they will take an
interest in protecting it.
Bueter wants to promote a culture that embraces
solar energy. “When I talk about solar panels I get a
lot of pushback from people who just dismissively say
that it’s always cloudy here,” he says, “but if they create
their own record of the Sun they can quantify how often
the Sun shined or not. Evidence is more compelling
when it’s evidence that you yourself have derived.”
LAUREN FUGE is a freelance science writer based in
Adelaide, Australia.
01 Matt Bigwood
02 Chuck Bueter /
03 Austin Capsey / Wendy Bevan-Mogg,
Knapp Ridge Films
Issue 78
Want to snap a photo that captures months in a single frame? Solargraphs
es are a fusion of art and science. With a few basic materials and
nerous helping of patience, you can capture the grand scale of the
iverse in your own backyard. As solargraphy enthusiast Chuck Bueter
ays: “It’s visceral, it’s fun, it’s science.”
A clean, empty drink can
Matte black spray paint
A sewing needle or pin
d of the can and spray the inside with black paint to
wing needle or pin pinched in pliers, punch a hole in the
can from the inside outwards. The hole should be about 3
cm from the sealed bottom end of the can.
In a dark room or wardrobe, using your red light to see, take a piece
of photographic paper and trim it to it inside the can. It should curl
around the inner walls but not cover the pinhole. Make sure the lightsensitive side is facing the pinhole. Secure the paper with a small piece
of duct tape.
Close of the top of the can with duct tape, making sure no light can get
in. Then use a piece of tape to cover the pinhole (your ‘shutter’).
Mount the can securely outside (e.g. on a pole or fence) with the hole
facing the Sun. Choose a place where you will not only capture the Sun
but also some interesting foreground objects. When you are ready,
peel of the ‘shutter’ and the exposure will begin. It is recommended to
start at either the summer or winter solstice, and let the exposure go
until the next solstice.
When you are ready to take down the can, cover the pinhole ‘lens’
again with tape. Before you open the can, prepare for the next step.
Have your scanner switched on and ready to scan. Ensure the room is
as dark as possible. Extract the photographic paper and quickly scan
it; you only want to scan your paper once, as the scanner’s light will
expose your ‘ilm’ further.
Once scanned, use digital editing tools to adjust contrast and
brightness. Now you have a stunning image to share!
• A red light (e.g. a torch covered in
red cellophane)
• Black and white photographic paper
• Black duct tape
• Access to a photo scanner
Because of the ultra-long
nature of the exposure,
creating solargraphs can be
risky. Cans taped to trees or
poles invites the possibility
of theft or tampering by
curious people or animals.
The elements might not
be kind either – leaves
can grow in front of a lens
and ghostly images can be
formed when wind shifts the
camera. Try to set up your
cameras on private property
and in hard-to-reach places,
like a few metres of the
Your paper will probably still
be blemished by moisture
or furred by mould. But
part of the charm comes
from ‘ruination’ – the
unpredictable colouring
can be as aesthetically
interesting as the Sun trails
There is only one university course in Australia dedicated to the
art of natural history illustration. Its output is stunning.
NATURAL HISTORY ILLUSTRATION combines hyper-real detail with
aesthetic appeal, but the results are often admired more than their
makers are remembered. Who now recalls Horace Knight, the English
artist who drew highly detailed moths and beetles for the British
Museum in the early 1900s? Or Nicolas Huet the Younger, the French
artist who drew colourful exotic birds and mammals for Napoleon?
Perhaps the students in the University of Newcastle’s
Bachelor of Natural History Illustration course will fare
better, given the evident talent of convenor Andrew Howells
and his charges.
Cosmos presents this selection from the next generation
of Australian wildlife artists.
Issue 78
The leafy seadragon is a uniquely ethereal creature. Capturing the
delicacy, translucency and elegance of this unusual fish was my primary
approach in creating this artwork. Working digitally allowed me the
flexibility to play with colour and contrast in a way that would mimic the
other-worldly nature of the leafy seadragon without having to surrender
to the permanence of traditional media.
Phycodurus eques
Digital rendering
42 × 29.7 cm (A3)
This elephant was one of many I spent time observing and drawing
while completing my PhD. I became fascinated by the interactions
between elephants, their movement, mannerisms and awesome presence.
I experimented with many media and materials in developing a style that
would enable me to capture the true form, surface quality and essence of
these magnificent creatures.
Elephas maximus
Watercolour wash and graphite pencil
42 × 29.7 cm (A3)
Issue 78
The Australian white ibis is often considered a pest – a ‘flying rat’ or ‘bin
chicken’ – due to the fact that it cohabits with humans in urban areas. Few
people stop to consider why there are so many of these birds in built-up
environs. It was not until I decided to illustrate this animal that I realised
how intricate and beautiful they truly are. The goal of this painting it to
make people re-evaluate these unique birds and to stop and consider what
effect the destruction of their natural habitats has had on the way they are
Threskiornis molucca
Watercolour on paper
42 × 29.7 cm (A3)
The insect was measured and sketched out on paper before being
scanned into Adobe Photoshop. A series of layers were created allowing
each major part of the beetle to be worked on independently. After
modelling the form in grey tones, texture was applied and colour added
over the top. A graphite version was produced on clayboard, instead of
paper, to develop skills in this media and to allow fine detail to be picked
out of the surface. The colour image won first prize in the Australian
Entomological Society competition.
Dynastes hercules occidentalis
Adobe Photoshop
28 × 35.6 cm
Issue 78
Send us a pic
of where you’re
reading Cosmos to
Who Said?
win a prize pack!
“I couldn’t possibly have become a member of this
institute if I hadn’t founded it myself.” (5,4)
Abbie Kitchin from Ballarat, Victoria, attending Rainbow Serpent Festival in
Lexton, Victoria.
Whose Law?
Decode where i = P
The quantum mechanics law was formulated
in 1926 by a German physicist.
Email your answer to
with your name and address by 30 June.
Five correct entries will win a copy of
Science and Stuff by Guinness World Records.
See review page 102.
Put the answers to each of the clues in columns
from 1 to 9. Row V reveals the answer.
1 In addition to Hamilton, who is
commemorated in the only mechanics
equation in which the motion of a particle is
represented as a wave? (6)
2 Which adjective means “kidney-shaped”? (8)
3 In biology, what is asexual reproduction,
especially agamospermy, where all the
ofspring have the same genetic makeup? (8)
4 Linguistically, what is a scientiic name when
the generic and the speciic are the same, as in
Chloris chloris? (8)
5 What is a pit or depression in a bone? (5)
6 What is the statistical paradox that appears in
diferent groups of data and disappears when
these groups are combined? (7)
7 Which Australian won the 2009 Nobel Prize in
Physiology or Medicine? (9)
8 What type of plane is formed when a cone
is cut obliquely by a plane which does not
intersect the cone’s base? (7)
9 What is the common name of the large
grasshoppers of the family Tettigoniidae,
known for their loud sound? (7)
Cosmos Codeword
Codeword requires
inspired guesswork.
It is a crossword
without clues. Each
letter of the alphabet
is used and each letter
has its own number.
For example, ‘A’ might
be 6 and ‘G’ might be
Through your
knowledge of the
English language you
will be able to break
the code. We have
given you three letters
to get you started.
A 1
B 13
C 12 15
D 16 14
Peter Agre
It Figures
Using the clues below
place the numbers 1
to 16 correctly in the
grid. How many clues
do you need?
1 Six pairs of numbers with a diference of 10
are adjacent to one another.
2 The descending prime numbers on the
down sloping diagonal (A1 to D4) have a
product of 1430.
3 The largest single digit prime begins a
column with three even factors of 12.
The range for the irst three numbers in Row
B is 15.
5 The three ascending numbers that begin the
bottom row add to 23.
6 There is an even square number in the bottom
left corner.
7 Both the inner and outer pairs of numbers in
Column 3 have a product of 80.
9 The irst two numbers in Row C add to 29.
10 The second number in Column 3 is double the
11 Multiplying the irst two numbers in Column
1 creates a prime number.
Every point to which a
luminous disturbance
reaches becomes a source
of a spherical wave; the sum
of these secondary waves
determines the form of the
wave at any subsequent time.
Christiaan Huygens
Three lucky winners will
receive a copy of Life at
the Edge of Sight by Scott
Chimileski & Roberto
Michael Astill,
Northcote, VIC
Jonathan Chan,
Lugarno, NSW
Stephen Thyer,
Lesmurdie, WA
Issue 78
Jacq Romero,
woman of light letters
QUANTUM PHYSICIST Jacq Romero was among ive
recipients of the 2017 L’Oreal Women in Science awards,
bringing a welcome funding boost to her research. And she
is determined to demonstrate to young women that it is
possible to balance family life with a career.
“I see the fellowship as an excellent opportunity to bring
out the story that mothers can succeed in science,” she says.
“It’s important for young girls to see there are women who
can succeed in the face of caring responsibilities – because
men have been doing it for all of time.”
Romero has been hooked on quantum physics since
the age of 16, when she encountered it at high school in the
“I was a geek from a very young age – I learned algebra
when I was eight years old,” she says. “We were bombarded
with science courses and I loved them all, but physics was
my favourite.
“I love quantum physics because, when you think about
all its philosophical implications, it really is crazy. You have
heard of Schrödinger’s cat, who is both dead and alive, or an
electron that is both here and there; these things are against
what we perceive of our world. It’s so counter-intuitive!”
Romero researches the quantum information encoded
in the diferent shapes light can take.
“If you think of a laser beam, it’s usually a bright spot
in the middle, but then you can also have diferent shapes
of light,” she explains. “Once you shape the light, you
introduce higher dimensions. It’s like having an alphabet
where you can have as many letters as you want.”
In the quantum world, efect doesn’t always follow
cause. “My project right now is showing that you can
have two events, A and B, and an experiment where the
statements ‘A before B’ and ‘B before A’ are both true,” she
explains. “It’s like having two questions, and an experiment
where you can ask both questions at the same time.”
IMAGE Scott Needham
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