New Scientist

New Scientist 21-sep-19

New Scientist covers the latest developments in science and technology that will impact your world. New Scientist employs and commissions the best writers in their fields from all over the world. Our editorial team provide cutting-edge news, award-winning features and reports, written in concise and clear language that puts discoveries and advances in the context of everyday life today and in the future.

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51 Issues

in this issue

2 min.
the lightness of being

WHAT is it like to be a bat? Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 1974 question has evolved to dominate our thinking on consciousness. Nagel’s point, simply put, is that even if we could fly, and navigate using sonar, we would never grasp what it feels like to be a bat. The argument has become the “hard problem” of consciousness, the intractability of explaining subjective experience. Consciousness isn’t something you can measure or weigh; its ethereal quality is so fascinating as to verge on the mystical. Certainly it attracts plenty of mystical explanations. So it is unsurprising that, despite decades of thought, we have been unable to explain how our brains create the conscious experience. Even if we might insist that the hard problem is illusory, or that consciousness is simply the way information…

2 min.
spring fires in australia

IT IS only just spring in Australia, but bush fire season has already begun, raising concerns that there may be worse to come. At their height earlier this month, around 140 wildfires were raging across eastern Queensland and north‑east New South Wales. They have destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to flee. Some of the blazes spanned hundreds of kilometres. While there are now fewer fires, this could lull people into a false sense of security, says Philip Stewart at the University of Queensland. The latest weather forecasts say the chances of fire are “high” and “very high” across affected areas in the coming days. A change in the wind direction or its strength could stoke fires or cause them to alter course, says Stewart. “Until fires are completely out,…

1 min.
force often part of first sex experience

ONE in 16 US girls and women were forced into their first experience of sex, either physically or through other kinds of pressure. The figure comes from an analysis of a national survey run by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Laura Hawks of Harvard Medical School and her team analysed the responses from 13,000 women aged between 18 and 44 who answered the survey in the past eight years. The team used the term “forced” for those who said their first experience of sex with a man was “not voluntary”. About half of those who responded this way said they had been held down. About a quarter were physically harmed and a quarter physically threatened – with overlap between the groups. About half reported being verbally pressured, such as…

2 min.
the sound of a black hole

TRY as we might, we can’t prove Albert Einstein wrong. One prediction of his general theory of relativity is that black holes are simple objects. Now listening to them “ring” suggests this is true. According to general relativity, any black hole can be described by three properties: its mass, spin and electrical charge. In practice, this boils down to the first two, because we don’t expect black holes to accumulate charge. All other information about a black hole – like the properties of objects that have fallen in – can’t be observed from beyond the event horizon. This information is called “hair” and so the idea is known as the no-hair theorem. Observations of black holes have all been consistent with this idea. But Maximiliano Isi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and…

2 min.
bots defy laws of physics to win at hide-and-seek

NEVER play games with a bot – it will find a way to cheat. A team from OpenAI, an artificial intelligence lab in San Francisco co-founded by Elon Musk, has developed artificially intelligent bots that learned to cooperate by playing hide-and-seek. The bots also learned how to use basic tools and that defying the laws of physics could help them win. In April, a team of bots known as the OpenAI Five beat the human world champions at team-based video game DOTA 2. Bowen Baker at OpenAI and his colleagues wanted to see if the team dynamics of the OpenAI Five could be used to generate skills that could one day be useful to humans. The hide-and-seek bots use similar principles to learn but the simpler game allows for more inventive play.…

1 min.
vikings probably wiped out iceland’s walruses

ICELAND was once home to many walruses – and now we have the clearest evidence yet that Norse settlers hunted them to extinction. We already knew these animals once lived on Iceland, but opinion is divided on whether they vanished before or after humans arrived. Xénia Keighley at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and her colleagues carbon-dated the remains of 34 walruses found in western Iceland. They found that three died after AD 874, when permanent settlers are thought to have arrived. One died only in 1330 (Molecular Biology and Evolution, doi.org/dbjv). In other words, Icelandic walruses survived for only a few centuries after humans arrived. In itself, this isn’t proof that humans killed off the walruses, but the researchers suspect that is the case because there are accounts of Vikings hunting the…