20 new ideas in science

Today’s most cutting-edge scientific thinking: from switching off ageing to “enhancing” our babies;

Humans are still evolving

The modern world hasn't stayed evolution's hand. Comparisons of different genomes show that natural pressures are still doing their thing. The gene for digesting lactose, for example, is slowly spreading from European populations to the rest of humanity. A gene that appears to enhance fertility is also becoming more common across Europe. Disease is still a big driver of human evolution: people with particular genetic arrangements are more likely to survive malaria and HIV, for example. And almost all humans have lost the caspase 12 gene from their genomes, probably because those who have it are more susceptible to bacterial infections. It happens slowly, but we're still changing.

There's no such thing as time

Physicists searching for the ultimate "theory of everything" have a big problem with time. They have to stitch quantum theory - our description of how very small things behave - together with relativity - the theory behind the way space, time and matter interact. The biggest stumbling block to this is that time works in different ways in these theories.

In relativity, the passage of time is different for people moving relative to one another, so there is no absolute measure of time. In quantum theory, it's even less well defined: time doesn't even figure as something that gets measured. Quantum theory might be able to tell you where an electron is, but it can't tell you how long it's been there. One radical solution to the problem is to view time as a concept that humans have made up. If it doesn't play a fundamental, well-defined role in the processes of the universe, maybe our theories can do without it altogether.

This is one of many universes

Physicists like to know why things are as they are. Which makes it frustrating that some facts about the universe appear inexplicable. There are certain constants of nature - the numbers that determine how strong forces such as gravity are - that seem to be "just so" for no good reason. That wouldn't be so bad if they weren't so exquisitely perfect for allowing life to develop in our universe. Naively speaking, it looks as if someone designed the universe. That doesn't seem like a satisfying explanation to most physicists, so they have come up with a better one: that there are many universes, all with different properties. It is impossible to move from one to another, so we can't test this idea, but it does take away the "specialness" of the conditions we find ourselves in. Of course the universe is perfect for us: if it were any different we wouldn't be here to observe it.

We might be able to turn off ageing

Can we flick a switch in our genome that will greatly extend our lifespan? Experiments on worms, mice and fruit flies indicate that stopping certain genes from functioning, or altering others so that they flood the body with particular combinations of chemicals, can dramatically slow the rate at which an organism ages. It can even be done by more low-tech means: changing the chemical environment of the body by altering the diet or by injecting certain hormones can slow ageing, too. It's an alluring avenue of research, but it is also controversial.

Plenty of biologists still say it's a mirage because we will never overcome the biological programme whereby cells die after a certain time, or indeed the rigours of wear and tear on the genome. Add that to the dangerous genetic copying errors that occur as cells divide and, for these naysayers, growing old remains an unavoidable future for humanity. Nevertheless, the consensus is that the fight against biological ageing has moved from impossible to enormously difficult, and that is exciting progress.

Enhanced humans are coming

The next generation of humans -- or perhaps the one after that -- will face a difficult choice: do they equip their children with "enhancements"? A group of researchers, led by Ray Kurzweil, is suggesting that we are approaching "the Singularity", where technologies will enhance our mental and physical capabilities to produce a giant leap in what human beings can do. Most of these technologies were initially developed to help those with health problems, but they are now being co-opted for those looking to get past their normal limitations. Drugs developed to help children with ADHD are already in common use in academia as concentration improvers. Retinal implants that help the partially sighted are being developed as bionic eyes. Brain implants, such as those developed to fight neurological problems such as Parkinson's disease, are paving the way for neural enhancement and plug-in memory upgrades. Genetic diagnosis of IVF embryos has enabled the selection of babies that are equipped to donate to an ill sibling; selecting for other kinds of advantage is not far behind. The big worry is it may leave us with a new enhancement-free underclass. Discuss.

Everything is information

If you had a magic microscope that could see how things work on the tiniest scale in nature, you might get a bit of a surprise. Right at the bottom, holding everything together, is something we think of as abstract: information. The idea that has big thinkers all worked up is that everything in physics is made up of atoms of information. Any experiment or observation can be boiled down to asking a yes/no question, and the answer is a piece of information analogous to the 0 and 1 binary digits (bits) that computers process.

Ultimately, the universe works as a giant computer, with answers to questions such as "Did the photon pass through this point?" providing the digital information to be processed. Constructing the full range of binary answers to questions the universe might pose will take a while, but it might provide an entirely new way to simplify - and thus understand - the fundamentals of how everything works.

Understanding consciousness is no longer an impossible dream

How do the few kilos of spongy stuff in our skulls create the experience of being human? A combination of imaging techniques, computer models and an ever-increasing understanding of the biology of the brain means that we are in a good position to get an answer. Even if a good understanding of consciousness is another century away, there will be spin-offs that make the journey worthwhile. The quickest route to understanding the brain is to watch what happens when small bits of it go wrong. Many illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, autism and dementia, result from breakdowns in small component parts; researchers looking for clues to the root of consciousness are studying these malfunctions - and hope to learn as much about curing them as they do about consciousness.

Most of the universe is missing

Ninety-six per cent of the universe is in a form we can't fathom. Observations of galaxies show they are rotating too fast to hold all their stellar material in place: the outer stars should be flung out. The only explanation is that there is an extra gravitational pull from something unseen, holding them in place. The unseen stuff is known as dark matter, and accounts for just under a quarter of the mass in the universe. Around three-quarters is "dark energy", which creates a force that is speeding up the expansion of the universe. Physicists have yet to come up with a plausible explanation for the source of either of these dark entities. Dark matter requires the existence of particles with properties unlike anything else we have discovered. We are looking for what they might be, and the Large Hadron Collider might even create some. Dark energy is even more of a challenge: it comes neither from known particles nor from the empty space between them. Researchers are literally clueless about its source.

We may be close to understanding mass

Physics is becoming ever more exciting as Cern's Large Hadron Collider ramps up the energy of its colliding particles. That's because the collisions might give us a fleeting glimpse of the Higgs boson. This is the final piece of the puzzle in our best theories of particle physics. The Higgs boson creates a field that exerts a drag on certain types of particles. The result of this is that the particles feel mass, the property of matter that responds to gravity. If the Higgs boson does show up, physicists will breathe a sigh of relief, because it is a central pillar of particle physics. If it doesn't, physicists will have a lot of explaining to do. And not just about the source of mass.

Prepare for aliens

Space agencies are identifying hundreds of planets outside our solar system that could harbour life. Biochemists have a firm grasp on the conditions that make life possible, and the traces that such life would leave in their vicinity. What's more, our imaging technologies are getting better at detecting the signatures of life in the atmospheres that surround the potential homes of extraterrestrial life. It looks as if people alive today might well hear the news that we have discovered life elsewhere in the universe. It is unlikely to be intelligent life - more likely to be in the form of microbes - but it will still cause a fundamental shift in our view of life on earth. It would show that life has probably evolved more than once, and that the universe is likely to be teeming with other life forms. Scientists, ethicists and philosophers are now rushing to work out what action - if any - we should take if and when we make the discovery.

Humans are not special

So far, researchers have found only three genes unique to humans. The likelihood is that, in total, fewer than 20 of our 20,000 or so genes are not found in any other creature. Other primates have brain cells exactly like ours, and our seemingly unique mental capacities are, it turns out, more developed versions of tricks that other animals can pull off. Killer whales and dolphins show distinct cultural groups within their populations. Crows use tools and chimps display morality. Elephants show empathy, and even salamanders and spiders show a range of personalities. Though nothing in the animal kingdom is using what we think of as language, gestures used by bonobos and orang-utans come close. We are top of the class, perhaps, but not in a class of our own.

We are born believers

It takes a lot of effort to be an atheist, and not just because you now have to find new ways to fill Sunday mornings. The human brain evolved to attribute a living cause to every phenomenon - if the rustling of a bush in the forest wasn't a predator, then it was probably an evil spirit. Those who instinctively assumed something was there were the ones who survived when it actually was a predator. And those people - and they alone - are our ancestors. Neuroscience experiments show that belief in invisible entities interacting with the physical world has become the default state of the human brain.

Most of the earth is unexplored

Covering 70 per cent of the planet, with an average depth of 4km, the ocean is the largest habitat on earth, and it is largely virgin territory. Whenever researchers go into the deep, they almost always discover new species. The oceans are also throwing up new geology, and surprising us about the conditions under which life can thrive, redefining what we think of as habitable zones. As it turns out, we probably know very little about life on earth.

The tree of life is a web

Darwin's tree of life is evolving. No longer do we think one creature leads to another down an ever-branching path, while at the base of everything stands Luca, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all living things. Genetic analysis is showing that life is much more complex than that: all kinds of hidden mechanisms have allowed speciation to occur as a wandering from branch to branch. Life is a web, not a tree, which means he future of biology is much more interesting than anyone had dared to hope. Rather than just cataloguing the differences between species and looking for ways in which natural selection has acted, we can explore the plethora of mechanisms and revel in the inventiveness of life.

There's more than one path to the final theory

The ultimate aim of physics is, as one wag put it, to be able to write all the equations of the universe on a T-shirt. This snappy, self-contained final theory will encompass all other explanations of phenomena - the forces of nature, the way particles come together to form atoms, planets and stars - and offer a single, simple explanation. For years, the only game in town was string theory, an attempt to describe the stuff of the universe as arising from the vibrations of loops of energy. Now some serious competitors have turned this into a race.

They have suitably exotic names, such as loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulations and quantum graphity. More important, though, they provide the prospect of testing and elimination through experiment - the acid test of any theory. Biology doesn't have exclusive rights over
the survival of the fittest.

We can do big physics in small labs

Not all physics is sexy. There are physicists who work in dingy basements, following electron movements through slivers of metallic crystal or spending hours watching the swirling patterns in vats of liquid helium. These physicists have often looked at their colleagues working on huge, expensive particle accelerators with envy. But not for much longer, perhaps. It turns out that particles in crystals and bubbles in liquid helium follow the same laws as some of the fundamental particles of nature. That makes them excellent ways of simulating much bigger systems, and perhaps even replacing the mega-machines of physics. They can even make artificial black holes. How sexy is that?

The graphene revolution is here

A discovery made from pencil lead is promising to change the future of the electronics industry. In 2004, Andre Geim at the University of Manchester made a pencil scrawl on a sheet of paper, then used a length of Sellotape to pull off the graphite deposits. They came off as sheets of carbon atoms linked together in a hexagonal array, rather like microscopic chicken wire. Tests have shown that these "graphene" sheets have extraordinary properties. Graphene is ten times stronger than steel. Where copper wire and semiconductors lose a lot of electrical energy as heat, resulting in the average computer chip wasting 75 per cent of its power, graphene conducts electricity with little loss of energy.

Researchers have now refined the production technique and are busy turning graphene into low-power electronic components such as transistors. It gets better: graphene's optimum electronic performance comes in the high-frequency range. This has phone manufacturers, eager to squeeze ever more information through their circuits, falling over themselves to get graphene components into handsets. And, as if its future wasn't bright enough already, graphene is also transparent to visible light. That makes it the ideal material for transferring information between optical fibres and the electronic devices they link. Because of this, graphene-based telecommunications devices are already on the laboratory bench, as are graphene-based TV screens and high-efficiency solar cells. The humble pencil just made good.

Language is the key to thought

We used to think that all human languages arose from brain programming that existed, fully formed and ready for action, at birth. This idea, put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, is no longer unchallenged. Ethnographic research has thrown up so many exceptions to the "universal" rules of language that some researchers are rejecting Chomsky's dominance and suggesting that nothing is pre-programmed: instead, different cultures' ways of thinking and their languages are intertwined. It may even be that the restrictions of a primitive language are a barrier to creating complex thoughts.

DNA origami could change our inner world

First take a few hundred strands of DNA, then chemically alter them so they will bond at various points. Now put them all together and use every technique available to chemistry to get those bonds to stick to each other. If you do it right, you'll end up with all kinds of tiny shapes. The highlights so far are "toothed gears", a nanoscale tetrahedron and a lidded box that can be locked or unlocked with a key made of a short strand of DNA. It looks like chemists messing around, but could be the best way to get drug doses delivered into the heart of a cell, and build DNA-based computers and micromachines that work on the same scale as standard biological machinery.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

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Enough to educate 17 million children: the true cost of Brazil’s Car Wash scandal

As a new Netflix series dramatises one of the world’s largest corruption cases, Global Witness puts a figure on the cost of the scandal.

In the 1980s, Alberto Youssef was, alongside an older sister, smuggling whisky and electronic products from Paraguay to Brazil. Once, while being chased at a high-speed by police, VCRs kept falling out of the pick-up truck he was driving. Few would have guessed that this almost comical character would, one day, become a key player in what has been called the biggest corruption scandal in history. But then, the Car Wash, or as it’s known in Portuguese, Lava Jato, stretched far and wide across Brazil at a huge cost.

New research by Global Witness shows the damage caused by the Car Wash scandal far exceeds the sums stolen. The cost to the Brazilian treasury may be nearly eight times higher than the £1.4bn actually taken, enough to cover the salaries of more than a million nurses or provide a year’s education for over 17 million children.

Police only began to uncover the extent of the Car Wash scandal in 2013, when they became suspicious about the sheer quantity of cash churning through a bureau de change in a humble petrol station in the country's capital Brasilia. That led to the arrest of Youssef, which in turn led to further arrests. It soon became clear that this was no ordinary money laundering operation. Police had stumbled upon a racket that would involve at least 28 major corporations and 20 political parties, resulting in over 100 convictions. The list of those implicated reads like a Who’s Who of the Brazilian political elite, including two of the country's presidents.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been sentenced to more than 12 years, after it emerged he took bribes for helping a construction company win contracts with Petrobras. Lula says the case is politically motivated and remains free while appealing it. A ruling in a federal court on Monday, however, could send him behind bars, even as he takes the case to the Supreme Court.

Current president Michel Temer has also been at the centre of corruption investigations, most recently over allegations of bribery concerning a deal for operating services at the Port of Santos, Latin America’s largest container port. Congress has twice blocked Temer from standing trial on corruption charges while in office, and he denies the allegations.

The scandal has also inspired The Mechanism, a new Netflix drama from the director behind the biopic of Pablo Escobar, Narcos. The sums of money involved in Car Wash were almost at Escobar levels, but the billions lost to Brazil’s hard-pressed public services mean the scam might also have caused harm on a scale comparable to the druglord’s activities.

The fraud revolved around Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company. Instead of awarding huge contracts for construction projects, oil rigs, shipping and so on in the normal manner, the work was rotated around a cartel of companies in orderly fashion. Petrobras would over-pay the companies by at least 3 per cent, with the extra money forming a kickback to the directors responsible for awarding them the contracts. These directors would pocket some of the money, and hand the rest to the politicians who had appointed them to their lucrative posts. The money then went to the campaigns of Brazil’s political parties and provided backdoor funds that kept otherwise unstable governing coalitions together.

The result was a Byzantine racket of astonishing intricacy and scale in which everyone took a cut. Bribes came in the form of bricks of cash, expensive art works, aircraft and yachts; anonymously-owned companies in tax havens and foreign bank accounts helped launder the loot. One Petrobras director alone channelled €20m to banks in Monaco from accounts in the Bahamas, Panama and elsewhere.

“Once the mechanism is established, only the corrupt can take part,” says José Padilha, the Brazilian writer and director of The Mechanism. “If you’re an honest politician you’re doomed. The honest businessman will not get any contracts. There are only crooks.”

This “mechanism” had been running uninterrupted for at least 12 years.

Was this really the biggest corruption scandal of all time? Virtually every Car Wash explainer in the UK press poses the question – but none provides an answer. That’s probably because it’s notoriously hard to quantify value throughout history. In 193 AD, the Roman Praetorian Guard assassinated their emperor and held a fraudulent auction to appoint his successor, striking a deal worth 250 pieces of gold for each soldier in the army. (The empire was not theirs to sell). If not the earliest documented fraud, it was surely the most audacious – but trying to convert the ransom into modern currency is a fool’s errand.

But Padhila has no doubt. “It’s the biggest corruption scandal in the history of mankind,” he says. “It involves a mechanism which has been operating in Brazil in one form or another since at least the Eighties. Too many Brazilians fall into the trap of ideology, but the mechanism has no ideology. It is left wing and right wing. The whole political system is corrupted. Democracy has failed.”

Regardless of whether Car Wash is the biggest bribery case of all time, it certainly features in the ranks of the world’s corruption mega-scandals, sitting alongside mammoth state-thieving operations such as Malaysia’s recent “1MDB scandal” – US lawsuits claim an estimated $4.5bn has gone missing from a state development fund – and France’s Elf scandal, which shook the body politic and in which at least $400m was creamed off international oil contracts. All these scandals were linked to illicit political funding.

Taking a look at the cost of Car Wash to Brazil, first off there is the amount filched from the state oil company in improper payments. A Federal Police report seen by Global Witness conservatively estimates this at £1.4bn – all of which had to be laundered, sometimes moved physically. To put this logistical feat in context, if withdrawn in £10 notes the sum would make a stack eight miles high equivalent to almost 16 Burj Khalifas, the tallest building in the world (or, if you like, 343 Christ the Redeemers). The 119 tonnes of cash would take a fleet of 97 Ford Transit vans to deliver.

Then there is the £2.1bn fine Petrobras has agreed to settle a US investors’ class action, already bigger than the amount actually stolen. But both the theft and the losses are dwarfed by (and reflected in) the collapse in Petrobras’s share price. Before the scandal broke in September 2014, shares were at $19.33 but as of March 2018 they had dropped to $14.07. The government suffered a paper loss of £14.1bn for its 29 per cent stake in the company.

September 2014 was also the moment that global oil prices began a long decline, but the damage was too great for Petrobras to hide. “I would say 90 per cent of the fall in share price is due to Car Wash,” says Tiago Cavalcanti, a Brazilian economist at the University of Cambridge.

Petrobras’s 3.7 billion shares are supposed to furnish Brazil with a healthy income, and in the three years before Car Wash exploded, they provided Brazil with an average annual dividend of £360m. No dividend was paid in 2015, 2016 or 2017, costing the country £1.1bn.

Then comes the kicker. So vast was the upheaval  with billions slashed in investment   that some believe it helped bring about the worst recession in Brazil since records began. In March 2014, when the first Car Wash arrests were made, the Brazilian unemployment rate was 7.1 per cent. By last summer it was at 13 per cent. São Paulo consultancy GO Associados, headed by economist Gesner Oliveira, calculated that the fallout from Car Wash hit GDP by 2.5 per cent in each year the investigation was going on, from 2015 to 2017. The consultancy has now told Global Witness it has revised those figures up to an extraordinary 3.6 per cent — which would mean almost the entire drop in output during 2015 and 2016 was accounted for by Car Wash.

GO Associados said that would imply an annual $4.6bn (£3.3bn) in lost tax for each of the three years the fallout from Car Wash was at its most extreme £9.9bn. This figure would appear to be on the conservative side: it is based on the hit to the economy from Petrobras’s reduction in spending plans  but does not take into account the wider impact on Brazil’s giant construction companies, many of which lost contracts elsewhere in Latin America as a result of the scandal. Such firms were also banned from any public contracts in Brazil. The figure also fails to include the reduction in foreign investment in Brazil as a result of the political turmoil.

So even setting aside Brazil’s paper loss – Petrobras shares may well continue to rise  Lava Jato could have cost the government at least £11bn in revenue in lost tax and lost dividends from its stake in the company. That’s almost eight times the amount stolen from Petrobras in the first place.

“That number sounds very plausible and the calculation is logical,” says Cavalcanti, who has himself calculated that without Car Wash and other governmental policies Brazilian GDP would have grown by 1.2 per cent in 2015 and 2016 (as opposed to an actual fall of 3.8 per cent and 3.6 per cent). “Another reason for the recession was the falling price of commodities, but Peru and Chile did not have the fall Brazil had. Certainly Car Wash was a very big factor in the recession.”

Who knows the real difference that £11bn could have made in a country where universal healthcare is still some way off and about 7 per cent remain illiterate. The real price of Car Wash is incalculable.

“I feel disgust and exasperation,” says Padilha.

You might think that at such terrible cost, the Brazilian public would rather the fraud had never been exposed. But a recent poll suggests 94 per cent of Brazilians think the investigations should continue despite the current turmoil. For many, this is a golden opportunity to tackle the corruption that has afflicted the Brazilian body politic for decades before the mechanism started turning.

Because according to the filmmaker, Petrobras is the tip of the iceberg.

“There is no public contract in any village, town, city or state that is not affected, from the tiniest new road to the biggest government project,” he says. “All are corrupted - and none of this is exposed yet. In my country you can turn any stone and there will be cockroaches underneath.”

Ed Davey is an investigative journalist for Global Witness.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science