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The weirdness barrier What keeps us safe from the craziness of the quantum world? NS 20 apr 02

YOU could be in two places at once, according to quantum mechanics. But although ii's theoretically possible, the apparent absurdity of extending this feature of the atomic world up to everyday scales has puzzled physicists for decades, since things like this just don't happen to large objects such as cats and people. Now resear- chers have devised an experiment that could finally explain why.

Tiny particles such as photons or atoms can readily be put into a quantum super- position-existing in two different states or places at once. Yet it doesn't seem to happen to big things. Many scientists think that's because interactions with the envi- ronment disturb the delicate superposition and force the object into either one state or the other.

But others, such as Keith Schwab at the Laboratory for Physical Sciences in College Park, Maryland, think there may be more to it. There could be as yet undiscovered mech- anisms that force objects to choose a single state, so quantum mechanics as we know it might just be an approximation that fails for larger objects.

The biggest objects ever shown to be in a superposition are molecules. In 1999, Anton Zeilinger at the University of Vienna showed that a buckyball-a spherical cage built of 60 carbon atoms-could travel through two parallel slits at the same time (New Scientist, 16 October 1999, p 27). This only works if the whole experiment is chilled and kept well isolated from the environment. Contact with the outside world, through molecules in the atmosphere or even light, collapses the superposition of the buckyball so it only travels through one slit. Given better isolation, could you keep large objects like cats in a superposition indefinitely?

Physicist Roger Penrose, based at Oxford University, has proposed an experiment that would find out (New Scientist, 9 March 2002, p 26), but it would probably have to be space-based, so is unlikely to happen any time soon.

But Schwab hopes to resolve the issue quickly. With Andrew Armour, now at the University of Nottingham, and Miles Blen- cowe at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, he has built a silicon beam whose length is just a fortieth of the width of a hair. This is small by our standards, but vast compared with a buckyball. Next to the beam is a strip of aluminium called a Cooper pair box attached by insulating contacts to an aluminium loop (see Graphic).

Electrons in the aluminium loop can jump across the insulation and into the Cooper pair box. Because this "tunnelling" effect is quantum mechanical, these elec- trons can be in the Cooper pair box and the aluminium loop at the same time, giving the box two different charges at once.

The silicon beam is positively charged, so it will bend towards the box if this has extra electrons. But when the box is in two charge states simultaneously, it should force the beam to be in two places at once.

Using a detector called a single electron transistor, the researchers will measure the position of the beam to find out how long it lives a split existence. If it collapses into a single state faster than interactions with the environment would force it to, there must something else going on. What's more, the exact timing could tell scientists just what is putting a stop to the quantum weirdness. The test is due to go ahead within 18 months. According to Will Marshall at Oxford University's Centre for Quantum Computation, "Tests like this will show us why a football doesn't go in two different ways when we kick it." Ian Sample

More at: Physical Review Letters (vot 88, p 148,301)

Grief on the reef It's curtains for coral as the oceans heat up

AN EPIDEMIC of coral bleaching hitting Australia's Great Barrier Reef has sparked fears that much of the world largest coral reef may be dying. Bleaching is also reported to be spreading through the coral islands of the South Pacific.

Coral bleaching occurs when high sea temperatures force the algae that give coral its colour out of the coral polyps. Bleached coral may recover in the next cool season, but if all the algae are lost the coral will die and reefs will crumble.

An extensive survey of the Great Barrier Reef over the past month has revealed wide- spread bleaching, says Terry Done, chief conservation scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, Queensiand. This is the second epidemic of coral bleaching in four years.

Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance in Chappaqua, New York, says he has received reports in the past few days of bleached, dead coral across much of the South Pacific, including Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Caledonia and Fiji. "It will take a long time before we have full confirmation of the magnitude of the dis- aster," he says. "But I predict we will have confirmation that almost all corals across the entire South Pacific have died in the last few months."

The bleaching follows this summer's record sea temperatures off Australia. "Almost all the Great Barrier Reef was 2 'C or more above normal for more than two months from early January to mid-March," says Goreau. "This was hotter and longer than the bleaching that wiped out the Maldives, Sey- chelles and western Australian reefs in 1998.' The high temperatures appear to be con-

nected to the likely onset of a new El Nifio, like the one that caused the bleaching in 1998. But Goreau says global warming is a key underlying factor: "It means reefs are already under stress before El Niho starts." The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority confirmed for the first time this week that there had been "extensive coral bleaching along much of the length of the reef". Much of it was visible in aerial surveys

and had "affected a range of reef organisms". The aerial surveys are being followed up by detailed monitoring by divers.

Done told New Scientist that little of the coral has died yet. But Goreau remains pessimistic. He claims that the Australian government is unwilling to discuss the extent of bleaching on the reef because it is reluctant to take action on global warming. Fred Pearce

Single-parent kids do best Bickering birds spend less time looking after their offspring

SINGLE mums are better at raising their kids than two parents-at least in the bird world. Mother zebra finches have to work harder and raise fewer chicks on their own, but they also produce sexier sons who are more likely to get a mate.

The finding shows that family conflict is as important an evolutionary driving force as ecological factors such as predation and food supply. With two parents around, there's always a conflict of interests, which can have a detrimental effect on the qual- ity of the offspring. In evolutionary terms, the best strategy for any parent in the animal world is to find someone else to care for their offspring, so they can concentrate on breeding again. So it's normal for parents to try to pass the buck to each other. But Ian Hartley from the University of Lancaster and his team won- dered how families resolve this conflict, and how the conflict itself affects the offspring.

To find out, they measured how much effort zebra finch parents put into raising their broods. They compared single females with pairs, by monitoring the amount of food each parent collected, and removing or adding chicks so that each pair of birds was raising four chicks, and each single mum had two-supposedly the same workload.

But single mums, they found, put in about 25 per cent more effort than females rearing with their mate. To avoid being exploited, mothers with a partner hold back from working too hard if the father is being lazy, and it's the chicks that pay the price. "The offspring suffer some of the cost of this conflict," says Hartley.

The cost does not show in any obvious decrease in size or weight, but in how attrac- tive they are to the opposite sex. When the chicks were mature, the researchers tested

the "fitness" of the male offspring by offering. females their choice of partner. Those males: reared by single mums were chosen more often than those from two-parent families.

Sexual conflict has long been thought to affect the quality of care given to offspring, says zoologist Rebecca Kilner at Cambridge University, who works on parental conflict in birds. "But the experimental evidence is not great. The breakthrough here is showing it empirically."

More surprising, says Kilner, is Hartley's assertion that conflict may be a strong influ- ence on the evolution of behaviour, clutch size and even appearance. "People have not really made that link," says Hartley. A fem- ale's reproductive strategy is usually thought to be affected by predation and food supply. Kilner says parental conflict should now be taken into account as well. Helen Phillips More at: Nature ivol 416, p 7331

Too hot for head of climate panel

FOR two decades Bob Watson has been a driving force in attempts to limit the damage caused by global warming and a thinning ozone layer.

And since 1996, the British-born climatologist, who now heads the World Bank's environment department, has chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose scientific consensus underpins the Kyoto Treaty to cut greenhouse gases.

But the US wants him out. This week in Geneva it will back IPCC vice-chairman Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian engineer, to head the scientific panel. The oil indu@ seems to be behind the move.

Their campaign to unseat Watson began days after Bush's inauguration in January 2001. "Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the US?" asked Randy Randol of oil giant ExxonMobil in a memo sent to the White House. Bush is a former oil man, and the industry, which stands to

lose from any cuts in C02 emissions, contributed heavily to his campaign. Watson has hardly curried favour with Bush. Last June he criticised the US for rejecting the Kyoto agreement. "The only person who doesn't believe the science is President Bush," he told a meeting at the Wodd Bank. Pachauri has also criticised the US. And in IPCC discussions about mitigating damage caused by warming, he has supported the view that the rich world has done the most and should pay for it. Ironically, it's this stance that has made him a favourite with the US administration. Steve Schneider of Princeton University in New Jersey, an IPCC scientist, says the US is legally bound to reject treaties that single out countries fbr special treatment. lncreased- emphasis on that at the IPCC, which Pachauti favours, would make it easier fbr the US to reject Kyoto. Debora MacKenzie Watchdog loses its bite US tries to oust head of chemical weapons inspectorate

THE Bush administration's campaign to scupper a host of international treaties has just got personal.

This week in Geneva, the US will seek to stamp its authority on negotiations to limit global warming by replacing the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a candidate it sees as less of a threat (see below). And next week in The Hague, it will mount a bid to sack the head of the Organi- sation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Brazilian Jose Bustani.

Since George Bush became president, the US has taken an increasingly isolationist stance on international treaties. It has torpedoed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a deal to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention.

Now it appears to be trying to oust Bustani in a bid to influence the monitoring of chemical weapons. On the surface, the US case against Bustani seems damning: it claims the OPCW has neglected inspections, and is paralysed by financial mismanage- ment and plummeting staff morale. But New Scientist has discovered that few of the accusations stand up to scrutiny.

Bustani has run the OPCW, which performs inspections and other activities demanded by the Chemical Weapons Con- vention, since its launch five years ago. Despite criticising member states for failing to help the OPCW meet its commitments,

Bustani was re-elected by a unanimous vote of member states in May. But in March this year, Washington called for a no-confidence vote by the Executive Council of member states, which oversees the organisation.

A decision on his future will be taken next week. But this month the US State Depart- ment posted a list of complaints about him on its website, even though Gordon Vachon, Bustani's spokesman, says the US has made no formal accusations beyond complaining about his "management style".

The US says the organisation had less money than it should have had in 2000. But Vachon counters that this was because Russia never paid an expected sum to the OPCW to supervise the destruction of its chemical stock- pile-a plan that failed to go through partly because the US withheld technical assistance.

The Bush administration also says that OPCW inspections'of chemical plants fell in 2001. But Bustani's office says there wasn't enough money to pay for them because of late payments by member states, including the US. The US is $1.4 million behind in its dues to the OPCW and has blocked any increases to the organisation's budget.

The US also claims it has been unfairly targeted by the OPCW, which has recently performed a spate of inspections at Amer- ican chemical facilities. However, those inspections couldn't have happened any earlier because the US submitted its list of facilities three years late, says Vachon.

"Morale in the OPCW has plummeted," agrees Jean-Nicolas Gilliquet, formerly a senior OPCW officer. But he says this is a result of budgets being squeezed and uncer- tainty about the organisation's future-not Bustani's leadership. Debora MacKenzie

Cool customer Gimme a planet with water, and go easy on the molten rocks

IT SOUNDS like a hellish place: a barren, crater-strewn landscape covered in molten lava. But tantalising evidence from one of the world's oldest surviving minerals sug- gests that this conventional picture of the early Earth is wrong: the planet was in fact relatively cool and wet, and may even have supported life. "Geologists have tended to assume the first 500 million years were hot," says geol- ogist John Valley of the University of Wis- consin in Madison. The planet formed 4.6 billion years ago, but the oldest rocks on Earth are no older than 4 billion years old. That has led researchers to believe that, after spending about 100 million years taking shape, the early Earth remained a molten mass-probably because continual bom- bardment by asteroids kept it too hot for rocks to solidify. But that view has now been turned on its head by a tiny 4.4-billion-year-old zircon crystal discovered last year at a remote sheep station in Western Australia called Jack Hills. Its extreme age was a surprise, and now Val- ley and his team have found that the crys- tal has a high concentration of the isotope oxygen-18, which is thought to be a sign that the original rocks the crystal came from were exposed to liquid water and relatively low temperatures.

This implies that the early Earth was not so hot after all, chilling out at a relatively cool 200 'C or less. Presumably the rate of asteroid impacts dropped more quickly than was previously thought. The planet could have formed a crust as soon as 160 million years after its birth, says Valley. Not only that, but the possibility of liquid water means there is also a chance that life existed, says David Kring, a special- ist in planet formation at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

So why does so little evidence of this early landscape survive? The explanation may lie in the lunar rocks brought back by Apollb astronauts. Tests show them to be 3.9 billion years old, which suggests the entire Moon may have undergone a late and relatively short-lived "lunar cataclysm" caused by a surge of asteroid strikes. This could have completely resurfaced it and wiped out traces of its earlier rocks, says Kring. If so, the Earth must have taken a similar battering at the time. Erosion and plate tec- tonics have since erased Earth's craters, but the zircon crystal appears to have survived the pummelling, offering the first evidence from that mysterious time before the bom- bardment wiped the geological slate clean.

If the early Earth was cool and wet, Kring says, then life may have appeared 900 mil- lion years earlier than the oldest known fossils, which are found in rocks 3.5 billion years old. Perhaps a few very early organ- isms survived the cataclysm in protected environments far from the surface, living off geothermal heat and chemical energy like the creatures that inhabit deep-sea hydrothermal vents today. Alternatively, life may have been entirely wiped out by the cataclysm, only to begin again shortly afterwards. Larry O'Hanion More at: Geology (vol 30, p 3511

Life, but not as we know it

Imagine a world where biotechnology controls every aspect of human behaviour and narrows the range of "acceptable" emotions. The future is already with us in the shape of drugs such as Prozac, warns Francis Fukuyama

IN THE contemporary debate over the ethics of biotechnology, we hear continually that "human dignity" is under threat from science. The Council of Europe has passed a human cloning protocol, for example, which states: "The instrumentalisation of human beings through the deliberate creation of genetically identical human beings is contrary to human dignity and thus constitutes a misuse of medicine and biology." Human dignity is one of those con- cepts that politicians like to throw around, but which few can either define or explain.

The concern of politicians to defend human dignity is understandable, since the demand for equal recognition of the dignity of all mem- bers of the human species is the dominant political passion of our time. Even a hint that one could exclude any group of people from the charmed circle of those deserving recog- nition of their human dignity on the basis of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or virtually any other characteristic is guaran- teed to bring obloquy on the head of any politician who proposes it.

What the demand for equality of recognition implies is that when we strip all of a per- son's contingent and accidental character- istics away, there remains some essential human quality that is worthy of a certain min- imal level of respect call it Factor X. Skin colour, looks, social class and wealth, gen- der, cultural background, even one's natural talents, are all accidents of birth relegated to the class of norf-essential characteristics. In politics we are required to respect people equally on the basis of their possession of Factor X. You can cook, eat, torture, enslave, or render the carcass of any creature lacking Factor X, but if you do the same thing to a human being, you are guilty of a "crime against humanity". If one begins from a religious point of view, the task of defining this Factor X is relatively straightforward. For Christians, all human beings were created in the image of God, and individually share some divine attributes, such as the capacity for moral choice that distinguishes humans from other animals.

But what if one doesn't begin from religious premises? Are there secular grounds for a belief in the existence of a Factor X that is defensible in view of what modern natural science teaches us about our species? Here there is a big problem, because the very notion that there exists such a thing as a human "essence" has been under relentless attack by modern science. One of the most fundamental assertions of Darwinism is that species do not have essences, but change in response to individuals' interactions with their environment. Chimp and human genomes overlap by more than 97 per cent. Primatol- ogists like Frans de Waal of Emory University, Atlanta, have been busy uncovering numer- ous continuities between chimp and human behaviour with respect to communications, the capability for cultural adaptation and even politics. The bright line that formerly fenced off humans from the rest of the animal world and allowed us to believe in our own higher dignity has been steadily eroded.

I believe that it is possible to defend the existence of a Factor X-a human essence- on secular grounds that are compatible with what we know of modern science. Factor X has to do with the evolved complexity of the human whole that can only superficially be un- derstood by reductionist scientific methods.

The most important component of that whole is the gamut of emotions that every human being is capable of subjectively experienc- ing. We do not understand the provenance or proper functioning of that gamut, or of the subjective consciousness within which it is embedded. Biotechnology poses a funda- mental threat to human dignity because of its ability to manipulate our natures in ways that will ultimately simplify that complexity and reduce us to something that is less than human. But let me explain. It has been understood in the natural sciences for some time now that the behav- iour of complex wholes cannot be understood as the aggregated behaviour of their parts. The inability of a reductionist materialist sci- ence to explain observable phenomena is most glaringly evidentan the question of human consciousness, that is, the realm of subjective mental states. In the words of the philosopher John Searle, "The most striking feature is how much of mainstream philoso- phy of mind of the past 50 years seems obviously false,' beginning with the almost routine denial among researchers in this field that subjective mental states actually exist.

Many researchers believe that the brain is a highly complex type of organic computer that can be identified by its external charac- teristics. The well-known Turing test for arti- ficial intelligence asserts that if a machine can conduct a written "conversation" in such a way that it could pass for a human being, it can be said to be thinking. It is not clear why anyone should regard this as an adequate test of human mentality, for the machine will obviously not have any subjec- tive awareness of what it is doing, or feelings about its activities. The fact of the matter is that we do not have the faintest inkling of how consciousness and the full range of our subjectively experienced mental states are produced by the brain.

Nor do we understand how they came to be over evolutionary time. As science writer Robert Wright points out, the bizarre outcome of our evolution is that what is most important to us as human beings has no apparent purpose in the material scheme of things by which we became human. For it is the distinctive human gamut of emotions that produces human purposes, goals, objectives, wants, needs, desires, fears, aversions and the like, and hence is the source of human values. What the human whole is and how it came to be remains, in Searle's words, "mys- terious". None of the branches of modern natural science that have tried to address this question have done more than scratch the surface, despite the belief of many scientists that they have demystified the entire process.

'Along comes modern pharmacology to provide self-esteem in a bottle'

If what gives us dignity and a moral status higher than other living creatures is related to the fact that we are complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts, then there can be no easy answer to the question "What is Factor X?" lt cannot be reduced to the pos- session of moral choice, or reason, or lan- guage, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X.

The problem with modern biomedicine is that it constantly tempts us to reduce the natural complexity of the human whole in the name of much simpler utilitarian ends such as the relief of suffering or the prolongation of life. The aspect of our complex natures most under threat has to do with our emo- tional gamut. We will be tempted to think that we understand what "good" and "bad" emotions are, and can go one better on na- ture by suppressing the latter: by trying to make people less aggressive, more socia- ble, more compliant, less depressed.

Many biologists would say that we don't need to worry about threats to human dignity, however defined, from biotechnology, since we are far from being able to manipulate com- plex higher-order human behaviours geneti- cally, and may well never achieve the capa- bility. They may be right. But our ability to manipulate human behaviour is not depen- dent on the development of gene technology. Virtually everything we can imagine being able to do through genetic engineering, we already seek to do through neuropharmacology.

Take the drug Ritalin, the trade name for methylphenidate, a stimulant closely related to methamphetamine that is today prescribed to millions of children around the world to cure a disease known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is actually not a disease at all, but merely the tail of a normal distribution of behaviours related to overac- tivity and lack of concentration. While there are certainly levels of hyperactivity so severe as to impair any normal functioning, Ritalin is today widely prescribed in cases where a child might just as easily be treated with greater adult attention, interesting work or new challenges. As such it serves as a technology of social control, easing the burden for parents and teachers while relieving those di- agnosed with ADHD of responsibility for their own condition. Character, it was once be- lieved, was something that had to be shaped through self-discipline, struggle and a will- ingness to confront discomfort and wrong in- clination; now, we have a medical short cut to get the same result.

Much the same can be said for Prozac and other selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, which are widely used to treat depression. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter because it affects feelings of pride and self-esteem: when a monkey achieves alpha male status within his troop, his brain serotonin levels are usually highly elevated. Prozac is today prescribed to treat severe depression, but it is also used, in pyschiatrist Peter Kramer's famous phrase, for purposes of "cosmetic pharmacology", that is, the taking of a drug to make one feel "better than good'. Again, self-esteem has traditionally been regarded not as an entitlement, but something that people had to earn through work and strug- gle. But along comes modern pharmacology to provide self-esteem in a bottle.

There is a disconcerting symmetry between Prozac and Ritalin. The former is prescribed heavily for depressed women lacking in self- esteem; Ritalin on the other hand is pre- scribed largely for young boys who do not want to sit still in class because nature never designed them to behave that way. Together, the two sexes are gently nudged toward that androgynous, median personality, self- satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome in modern societies. The human emotional gamut is

narrowed: we eliminate severe depression and hyperactivity, as well as a range of more nuanced feelings of discontent and discom- fort that may be the source of creativity, wonder, innovation and struggle. Why do human beings feel negative emo- tions such as anger, jealousy, fear, humilia- tion or embarrassment at all? Why do we feel lonely or depressed, why do we suffer emo- tionally, or have unrequited longings? If we could make all of these feelings targets for biomedicine in the future and eliminate them from our own emotional gamut, wouldn't we want to do so? The answer is that there are good evolu- tionary reasons why such emotions exist, and why experiencing them continues to be important to our survival as individuals and as a species. But they are also parts of a complex human whole: the "good" emotions we want to feel wouldn't be what they are without the 'bad" ones. It is hard to make a brief in favour of pain and suffering, but the fact of the matter is that what we consider to be the highest and most admirable human qualities are often related to the way that we react to, confront, overcome and frequently succumb to pain, suffering and death, both in ourselves and in others. In the absence of these human evils there would be no sympathy, compassion, courage, heroism, solidarity or strength of character. A person who has not confronted suffering or death has no depth. Our ability to experience these emotions is what connects us potentially to all other human beings, both living and dead. The current debate over the ethics of biotechnology has become sidetracked, especially in the US, into a debate over the moral status of embryos. Yet real threats to human dignity are waiting there in the wings. Neuropharmacology is today just a precur- sor to powerful technologies of the future, both pharmacological and genetic, that will allow us to alter the natural forms of human behaviour that have shaped us as a species, and eventually to deliberately redesign human nature itself. Given that we scarcely understand the provenance and functioning of consciousness, emotion and the complex human whole out of which they spring, it be- hoves us to proceed down this road very cau- tiously, if we should want to go down it at all.

Francis Fukuyama is professor of international potiticat economy at Johns Hopkins University. His new book, Our Posthuman Future, is published by Profile Books on 20 May