Saturday, April 30, 2016
* Tiger numbers in the wild rise for the first time in 100 years
TIGER, tiger, burning brighter. For the first time in 100 years,
estimated global tiger numbers have increased. There's a total
of 3900 of them now - 700 more than the last global estimate
five years ago.
"Seeing this turnaround for the first time in conservation
history is an incredibly significant achievement," says Diane
Walkington, director of international programmes at WWF. "It's a
beacon of hope for all species, and certainly for tigers."
The wildlife charity released the estimates on Sunday ahead of a
summit on tiger conservation this week in New Delhi, India. The
meeting is focusing on the goal, agreed in 2010, of doubling
global tiger numbers by 2022 through consolidating conservation
efforts in the 13 Asian countries within the tiger's range, and
strengthening anti-poaching initiatives.
The news follows a study, published last week, that found there
is enough intact forest habitat left to accommodate a doubling
of the global tiger population (Science Advances, doi.org/bd67).
"It means that in terms of protecting habitat, there's less
pressure to reclaim forest, with the focus instead on retaining
what we already have," says Walkington.
The current boost to tiger numbers is mainly down to
conservation successes in India, Russia and Nepal. But wild
tigers are not faring well in all countries in their range: in
Cambodia they are now functionally extinct, and the nation is
planning a programme to reintroduce them.
* Our top 5 wacky NASA missions that might just happen
MEET the space technologies of tomorrow - or maybe a decade
beyond. Since 2011, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts
programme has chosen long-shot exploration ideas that appear
worth pursuing. This year's crop, announced last week, features
13 proposals, each scooping a $100,000 grant covering nine
months of further research. Some of the more striking, even
bizarre, ones include:
o The Brane Craft. Where normal spacecraft are just way too
bulky, this solar-powered flat square, 1 metre to a side, could
be an agile substitute. It could wrap itself around debris in
low Earth orbit to drag it out of the way.
"A robot probe could travel to an asteroid and convert the ice
and rock into spacecraft parts"
o Blasting asteroids with a laser beam. This would vaporise icy
material on the surface and heat up rock underneath. The glow
from the heated rock would shine through the vapour plume,
letting a probe analyse and identify chemicals in the debris.
o The Direct Fusion Drive. Assuming it works as advertised, this
fusion-powered rocket engine could cut the travel time to Pluto
in half. Once there, it need not sail by like the New Horizons
probe did last year - it could settle into an orbit and even
o A clockwork Venus rover. No lander has survived on Venus's
hostile surface for much more than 2 hours. The solution might
be a fully mechanical one, with no electronics. To send messages
back home, it could record data on a phonograph, then loft it on
a balloon to rendezvous with a spacecraft overhead.
o A mechanical spacecraft carved out of an asteroid. A robotic
probe could travel to an asteroid and convert ice and rock into
analogues of spacecraft parts, including a propulsion system
that would control the asteroid's direction by jettisoning
material into space.
Full details of all the funded projects are scheduled to be
released in August.
* Second CRISPR human embryo study shows there is a long way to go
STILL a long way to go. The second attempt to use the CRISPR
gene-editing technique on human embryos hasn't been a big
A team at Guangzhou Medical University in China tried to insert
a mutation that makes people immune to HIV. But only four of 45
embryos both reached the eight-cell stage and had the mutation
in one copy of the relevant gene - still not enough for
resistance as both copies must be modified. On the plus side, no
unintended mutations turned up (Journal of Assisted Reproduction
and Genetics, doi.org/bd64).
Like the first CRISPR study on human embryos, published by a
different Chinese team last year, the work used embryos with an
extra set of chromosomes. This means it's not clear whether
either study tells us much about CRISPR in normal human embryos.
At least three other gene-editing studies using human embryos
are rumoured to have been carried out in China, but the results
* SpaceX lands reusable rocket on a barge after four failures
MISSION accomplished - finally. SpaceX has successfully landed
the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an ocean barge, after
resupplying the International Space Station.
The firm has now shown it can safely return to both land and
sea, paving the way for reusable rockets that lower the cost of
The successful landing comes after four failed attempts since
the start of 2015. Soon after the rocket touched down, workers
welded its legs to the deck of the barge to prevent it from
SpaceX will now inspect the rocket stage for potential reuse. If
it looks promising, it will undergo at least 10 test-firings on
the ground to ensure it is safe to launch again, said SpaceX CEO
Elon Musk at a press conference.
Eventually Musk hopes his rockets will be landing and
relaunching within a matter of weeks. "I think we'll be
successful when it becomes boring," he said.
* NASA recovers prized Kepler space telescope after emergency
THAT was close. For a few days, it looked like our primary
planet-hunter had bagged its last world.
"The Kepler telescope has discovered nearly 1000 exoplanets, but
on 7 April was in 'emergency mode'"
Last weekend, NASA reported that its Kepler space telescope,
which is responsible for discovering nearly half of the 2000 or
so known exoplanets, was in "emergency mode".
Kepler was launched in 2009 and operated successfully for four
years. An issue with its reaction wheels, which keep it pointing
at potential planet-hosting stars, brought its main mission to
an end in 2013, but a clever fix using radiation pressure from
the sun saw it reborn as K2 in 2014.
K2 was due to start a new job this week, using the warping
effects of gravity to aid the search for exoplanets. This
requires a reorientation of the spacecraft, to point it towards
Earth, but when mission managers contacted the telescope on 7
April they found it had entered emergency mode around 36 hours
NASA uploaded commands for a remote fix, and thankfully by 10
April it was working again. Next, they must make sure the craft
is healthy enough to continue its mission.
* DEA mellowing out on cannabis would make medical research easier
YOU can buy weed gummy bears in Colorado and vape cannabis in
Oregon, yet US scientists are struggling to get their hands on
the stuff for medical research. This could soon change: the Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced that it hopes to
reach a decision on the legal status of cannabis by July.
"It's a catch-22: the government is looking for studies that the
law prevents from being done"
Although states have their own classifications and laws
governing the possession and sale of cannabis, the federal
government classes it as a Schedule 1 drug, a category typically
reserved for dangerous drugs that offer no medical benefits.
This creates significant hurdles for scientists interested in
A letter signed by eight US senators last year urged the
government to craft a new policy that would support expanded
research on its potential medical benefits.
As part of the decision-making process, the DEA says that the
government is conducting an extensive review of the science
behind marijuana. This is ironic given that the current
structure makes it hard to carry out rigorous trials that would
prove cannabis's medical benefits and make it more acceptable to
the government, says Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy
Project, a non-profit in Washington DC. "They're looking for
studies that the law prevents from being conducted," he says.
"It's this weird catch-22."
* Records reveal gender-selective abortion taking place in Canada
HOW far would you go for a son? A decade of medical records
strongly suggests that a few Indian-born women in Ontario,
Canada, are aborting female fetuses when they have two daughters
Marcelo Urquia at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto tracked more
than a million births over a decade in Ontario, noting the
parents' place of birth and the sex of the child. They found
that for Indian-born mothers with two daughters, their third
child was a boy 66 per cent of the time - much more often than
chance would dictate. If a woman with two daughters also had one
or more abortions, the odds were nearly 77 per cent that her
third child would be a boy. This implies that at least some of
these abortions were for sex selection. (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, doi.org/bd65).
* 60 SECONDS
NFL brain hit
Football fame may come at a price. Two out of every five
American football players could develop signs of brain injury,
suggest scans of 40 retired NFL players. Seventeen had damage to
white matter, which connects brain regions, Francis Conidi of
Florida State University College of Medicine told a neurology
meeting last week.
Fly me to the moon
Moon Express, a company planning to land an uncrewed craft on
the moon, has submitted its mission plans to the US Federal
Aviation Administration. This marks the first time a private
firm has asked for approval for a flight beyond low Earth orbit.
Moon Express aims to touchdown on the moon next year and claim
the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize.
Silver lining gone
We overestimated our cloud protection. The wetter clouds get,
the better they become at reflecting the sun. We thought that
clouds would get wetter as climate change makes our world
warmer, but they are already wetter than expected, meaning there
is little scope for them to reflect even more in the future
Brain on acid
The brains of people taking LSD have been scanned for the first
time, showing how the drug alters consciousness. Certain changes
in brain activity correlated with volunteers' feelings of "ego
dissolution", offering clues to how we construct our sense of
self (PNAS, doi.org/bd6w).
Island birds quit flying
Living on small islands drags flying birds to the ground.
Isolated habitat and fewer predators mean that island species
evolve smaller flight muscles and longer legs that make them
more vulnerable and less likely to disperse (PNAS,
tt mailing list
13 April 2016
By Catherine de Lange
GERDA POT'S grandmother was a stickler for timekeeping. "She always
had breakfast at the same time, lunch and dinner at the same time,
but even in between she had tea and coffee breaks every day at the
same time," says Pot. She also aged robustly, living independently
well into her 90s. That got Pot wondering: was there something in
the regularity of her grandmother's habits that held the key to her
A nutrition researcher at King's College London, Pot was better
placed than most to investigate - and she soon found she wasn't the
first to ask such questions. She had stumbled into the field of
chrononutrition, and is now one of a growing number shedding light
on the misunderstood role of time in human biology.
We have known for a long time that messing with our body clocks can
take a severe toll on our health. For decades, however, we thought
that the body clock was one central timepiece housed in our brain.
No longer. We now know our bodies contain thousands, if not
millions, of disparate clocks that carefully orchestrate the
functioning of our tissues and organs from the heart to the lungs to
These clocks mean not only that there are benefits to eating
regularly, as Pot and others are discovering, but that different
parts of the body are tuned to work optimally at certain times of
the day. When these clocks fall out of sync it can have serious
consequences. Conversely, learn how to take advantage of these
rhythms and we could be on a fast track to everything from slimmer
waistlines to more effective treatments for cancer.
The first written report of circadian rhythms - the idea that living
things operate according to a regular daily cycle - came about 300
years ago when a French astrophysicist, Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de
Mairan, showed that, when placed in darkness, some plants continued
to open and close their leaves with a rhythm of about 24 hours.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that researchers looking for the seat
of biological rhythms in mammals struck gold. When they disrupted
different areas of rodent brains to see whether any of them affected
the animals' day-to-day activity, they discovered that two small
areas, collectively now called the suprachiasmatic nucleus and
located in the hypothalamus directly behind the eyes, track light
and dark signals coming in from the eye to keep the body in time
with day and night. These areas send signals around the brain and
body to control things such as hormone release, the regulation of
body temperature and appetite.
Only years later did gene studies reveal the startling fact that
this clock isn't the only one. In fact, the activity of almost half
of mammalian genes varies regularly with time, says John Hogenesch
of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. In 2014, he
published an atlas of these circadian genes across 12 organs in
mice, showing how the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, skin and fat
cells, among others, function over the course of a day (PNAS, vol
111, p 16219).
These clocks work in a similar way to the brain's timepiece. In
response to an outside signal, two core genes activate a cascade of
other genes, causing a burst of cellular activity. Eventually, a few
of the activated genes act to switch off the core genes, dampening
down the tissue's cellular activity once more.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the outside signals
controlling the timing of this frenetic genetic activity didn't
necessarily come from the brain. "Put a liver cell in a petri dish
and it very happily ticks along at its rhythm of about 24 hours,"
says neuroscientist Frank Scheer of Harvard Medical School in
Boston, Massachusetts. The idea of "the body clock" had clearly had
its day. "You went from it being a single clock that drove every
rhythmical process of the body to a complex network of thousands or
millions of clocks all over the body, all doing their own thing and
all of which have to talk to each other and synchronise to each
other," says Jonathan Johnston at the University of Surrey in
Guildford, UK. "That totally changed how people thought about
Then, in 2000, a seminal paper revealed that, in mice, you could
uncouple the peripheral clocks from the central pacemaker simply by
changing the time at which they ate. If the mice could only eat
during the day, when they are usually asleep, their peripheral
clocks shifted by 12 hours, but the central, light-activated brain
clock remained the same. The liver was the fastest to adapt, taking
three to four days, but after a week the heart, kidney and pancreas
had shifted too (Genes and Development, vol 14, p 2950).
There was more. Further research revealed how mice that had their
eating patterns disturbed, or their core clock genes disabled, were
more likely to gain weight and acquire fatty livers. "They are
eating the same thing and it's having a different effect," says
Equally, restrict the time windows in which mice could eat, and they
responded similarly to mice on a calorie-controlled diet, regardless
of how much they ate. It seems that external cues such as food can
reset a body's peripheral clocks, such as those in the liver and
pancreas involved in controlling blood sugar levels, leaving them
running out of sync with signals sent out by the brain's master
controller. Eat at an unusual time, and confused clock signalling
means the relevant organs aren't prepared to deal with food.
Time for a smackerel
These findings echoed Pot's suspicions about the role of food timing
in human health. But teasing out such effects is hard because you
can't take regular samples of human organs to monitor their daily
activity, or disable genes in specific tissues. Pot instead used
data from the UK National Survey of Health and Development, in
which, starting in 1946, over 5000 people kept detailed records of
when and what they ate over much of their lives.
It provided good evidence for her grandmother hypothesis, showing
that adults who ate their meals at irregular times had a greatly
increased risk of metabolic syndrome - which includes cardiovascular
problems and diabetes - decades later (International Journal of
Obesity, vol 38, p 1518). "Even though it's individual, I think
consuming regular meals is beneficial for everyone," she says. In
other words, it's not just about what you eat and how much you eat -
but when you eat it, too.
And it's not just about metabolism. We are starting to build a
timeline of activity around the body. For instance, the heart
experiences a burst of activity first thing as our bodies prepare
for the rigours of the day, as do other organs. We are also privy to
a surge of the stress hormone cortisol in this pre-dawn rush hour,
which may explain why things like heart attacks are so common in the
Similarly our lungs work to a circadian rhythm that appears to make
them more efficient and have a better immune function when we need
them most during our most active hours. There are even hints that
neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's could
be tied to changes in circadian rhythms, explaining why symptoms are
often worse in the afternoon and evening. Disrupted circadian clocks
are also increasingly being linked to psychiatric disorders
including depression and schizophrenia.
Taken together, the findings not only cast longevity in a new light,
but may also explain the higher prevalence of conditions such as
diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular problems among regular night
workers. Even if we don't work shifts, we are likely to experience
similar effects, for example through jet lag or "social jet lag".
This is when our work schedule demands that we get going at times
our body doesn't want to, and affects perhaps 80 per cent of people
in Europe, says Pot. Waking up at 6 am during the week and sleeping
in to 9 am or 10 am at the weekend, for example, requires a
resynchronisation effort equivalent to travelling across several
"Understanding our bodily rhythms could help us control our weight"
If that all sounds rather disheartening, the insights also point to
ways to improve our health. For a start, understanding our bodily
rhythms and timing meals accordingly might help people control their
weight more effectively (see "Early bird, eat more worms", left). It
also seems that the brain's master clock is more sluggish in
shifting to a new time zone than our peripheral body clocks.
Johnston is investigating whether calibrating our mealtimes might
let us shift our metabolic rhythms more quickly and so avoid the
worst effects of shift work or jet lag, social or otherwise. "We
have data which shows clearly in humans that you can synchronise
some of your rhythms to changes in mealtimes," he says. One way to
avoid social jet lag, for instance, might be to stick to the same
meal times during the week and at the weekend as far as possible.
Some companies are trying to develop drugs to target peripheral
clocks directly. "If you think about the genes and pathways that you
target with drugs, you have a good chance that those pathways show
circadian activity," says Daan van der Veen, also at the University
of Surrey. For example, the lungs' reduced activity seems to be what
makes us more prone to asthma at night. "One of the deadliest
disorders in the clocks world is nocturnal asthma," says Hogenesch.
A few years ago, a company called Horizon Pharmaceuticals got
approval for a delayed release formula of prednisone, a steroid that
relieves asthma's symptoms.
Other studies show that if people take certain blood pressure
medications before going to sleep rather than when they wake up the
drugs work around 60 per cent better - and also reduce diabetes
risk. "These studies suggest that night-time administration could be
a very cheap way to get a major public health benefit," says
His work shows that the majority of the most commonly prescribed
drugs in the US, as well as those on the World Health Organization's
essential medicines list, target pathways that have some kind of
circadian rhythm. Many of those drugs also have a short half-life of
around 6 hours or so. Since he published those findings two years
ago, several pharmaceutical companies have been in touch, keen to
see whether drugs they had previously shelved for being too toxic or
inefficient may just have been tested at the wrong time of day.
Perhaps the most dramatic potential benefits could be in cancer
therapy. When cells become cancerous, they often become arrhythmic -
either the timings of their clocks shift, or are lost completely.
Drug transport pathways in the rest of the body, meanwhile, will be
following their normal rhythms. So there could be an optimum time to
administer anti-cancer drugs. "By giving the medicine at the right
time, you still harm the tumour but you harm the body less,"
Time will tell whether this wider promise of chronobiology comes to
pass. Meanwhile, a whole body of evidence is telling us that we can
help ourselves by paying more attention to the ticking of our many
clocks. Stickler for timekeeping that she was, Pot's grandmother had
it right all along.
Early bird, eat more worms
When Marta Garaulet first suggested people were getting fat because
their fat was telling the wrong time, she was laughed out of town.
"Reviewers said clock genes were not important in obesity, they just
didn't believe this idea," she says.
That was 2008. Since then, Garaulet, a researcher at the University
of Murcia in Spain and head of several weight-loss clinics, has led
the way in demonstrating not just how human fat is one of many
tissues that has its own circadian clock (see main story), but also
how the ticking of these clocks and obesity are linked.
In 2014, for example, she and her colleagues measured circadian
rhythms in dieters who came to her clinics, and found that those
with a healthy circadian clock, as measured by how their body
temperature varied over the day, tend to lose more weight. What's
more, about a third of us, Garaulet included, who have a certain
variant of a clock gene seem to have more trouble losing weight.
In a study of over 400 obese dieters, her team has also shown that
time of eating can influence weight loss. "We found that people who
habitually ate their main meal earlier, so before 3 pm, lost around
25 per cent more of their body mass than those who ate later," says
collaborator Frank Scheer, of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
On the other hand if lean, healthy women were made to eat later than
usual, it slowed their metabolism, caused glucose intolerance - a
reduced ability to control blood sugar levels implicated in diabetes
- and blunted the daily variation of the stress hormone cortisol,
all within as little as a week. "It was amazing because in only one
week these young women of normal weight had metabolic alterations
similar to those previously found in obese women," Garaulet says.
"So imagine what happens after years of eating your main meal late."
The findings give scientific credibility to some common suspicions,
says Garaulet - for instance, that getting most of your calories in
a burger joint late at night isn't the best route to a healthy
metabolism. But even small shifts in food timing could have
significant health effects. "We know these things are real and we
can include them in the general dietary advice to the population,"
says Garaulet. Testing people to find out what variant of these
genes they have could be another way to help people make the most of
their metabolic rhythms.
Catherine de Lange is a feature editor at New Scientist
tt mailing list
13 April 2016
Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute
of Technology. His new book, The Big Picture: On the origins of
life, meaning, and the universe itself (Dutton), is out next month
Physics is on a hot streak. Sean Carroll speculates on the next big
breakthrough, and warns of quantum wars ahead
By Michael Brooks
Are you enjoying the current popularity of physics that's come as a
result of discoveries like the Higgs boson and gravitational waves?
It's interesting, because physicists sort of ruled the 20th century
with quantum mechanics, the atomic bomb and all sorts of
technologies. We had the most political power and intellectual heft.
Now the biologists are stealing that from us. Biology is advancing
enormously quickly, and has a much more direct impact on our lives.
But such advances - gene editing, for example - can be double-edged
swords. In a sense, this works in favour of physics: the kinds of
discoveries we're making now don't have immediate implications for
technology or our everyday lives. No one's worried about how the
Higgs boson or gravitational waves are going to be used - they're
just really cool.
These physics breakthroughs have come from proving mathematical
theorems. Should we continue to use maths to guide research?
It's not just that mathematics is helpful in understanding nature,
it's the scientific methodology too. The bigger point is that these
things illustrate the knowability of our world. There's a quiet
debate between people who think nature is fundamentally mysterious
versus those who think it is fundamentally intelligible. These kinds
of discoveries remind us is that our puny little brains have the
power to make amazing predictions about far away and very
difficult-to-access aspects of the natural universe.
So what's next in this "decade of discovery"?
It's impossible to say. We could find proof of cosmic inflation in
the early universe, discover dark matter and find some particle
that's outside the standard model of physics. Any of those could
happen in the next two years. We also have a hint from the LHC that
they've found a new particle. I'm not on board with that yet. I
would give it less than a 50 per cent chance of being right, but
more than a 10 per cent chance, so that's still pretty impressive.
Then again, I'm very bad at predicting the future.
A hundred years passed between the theory of gravitational waves and
their discovery. Do we need to give today's frontier ideas more
Absolutely. There's a small part of the human intellectual portfolio
devoted to these big, ambitious questions, and you have to let the
people who devote themselves to tackling them take their time to
work it out. The discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO
collaboration is incredibly impressive for so many reasons: it's not
just the number of people, but also the number of years it took.
People started taking the detection of gravitational waves seriously
in the 1980s and they knew before they built the first gravitational
wave observatory that it probably wouldn't be sensitive enough to
see anything - and indeed it didn't.
I would give infinite credit to the visionaries who knew this stuff
but would not give up, who devoted their lives to making it happen.
In the absence of experiments to test theoretical ideas, how do you
avoid spending decades on something that ends up being fruitless?
You can't. For example, I'm going to a meeting this summer at which
some great minds are going to debate whether or not cosmology has
lost its way by thinking about the multiverse, falsifiability and
things like that. I'm working a lot on quantum gravity now, and the
foundations of quantum mechanics. I think we're discovering
something about how space-time emerged, but maybe what I'm doing
will all turn out to be wrong.
Is the possibility of having wasted your time difficult to live
It can be, but I'm more excited about my own research than I've ever
been. In modern cosmology we're reaching a point where it matters
which of the many interpretations of quantum mechanics you favour -
Copenhagen versus Everett's many worlds, for example - and that's
enormously exciting. We need to think about the right way to think
about quantum mechanics if we're going to understand, for example,
how space-time emerges. What look from the outside like fuzzy,
philosophical questions about the nature of reality, which we can
debate for years and years, will suddenly become enormously
relevant. They will become sharp tools for answering deep questions
about cosmology and particle physics. For me, the many-worlds
interpretation is actually very simple, precise and compact.
How do your peers react when you say that your philosophical
position matters when you're doing cosmology?
A lot of them just roll their eyes. They're like, "Really? I thought
we'd got rid of that kind of stuff!" It's put me outside the
mainstream, but I'm OK with that.
Your book, The Big Picture, roams far beyond cosmology and physics,
into consciousness, philosophy and the meaning of life. What do you
hope to achieve?
Well, this is the book that should accompany the Gideons Bible in
all hotel rooms in the world - that would be a nice achievement!
Seriously, I think a better achievement would be if it's read by
some people who were curious but hadn't made up their minds about
how the world works at a fundamental level. They could read a book
like this and think, "Yes, this picture does kind of hold together,
I should think about it more deeply and learn more about it".
"My view has put me outside the mainstream, but I'm OK with that"
Would you like your book to encourage the next Einstein?
I don't like to talk about the next Einstein: the large majority of
theoretical work is collaborative these days. But I certainly have
no fear that our intellectual resources are drying up. The very
bright young people coming through know an enormous amount, and are
intellectually extremely lively and willing to dive deeply into the
Do you think artificial intelligence could do a better job of
developing physics than humans are capable of?
Why not? The brain is just a certain collection of atoms and
particles bumping together according to the laws of physics, so
there's no reason at all why some other collections of atoms and
particles bumping together couldn't come up with equally good
thoughts as my brain can - or much better thoughts.
We already get a lot of help from computers in solving equations.
But that's not what we get paid for: as a theoretical physicist it's
deciding which equations to look at that's the real difficulty.
That's a whole other level of creativity and reasoning that we are
very far from being able to implement in an artificial intelligence.
So your career is safe from AI?
My career, yes. But I wouldn't say that about the next generation.
tt mailing list
13 April 2016
SCIENCE, like any walk of life, has its share of bad apples.
Scientists are under pressure to produce results and for some the
temptation to massage data or make it up is too much to resist. But
the rotters are rare: scientific fraud is sufficiently unusual and
shocking to make headline news when uncovered.
Science cannot afford to be complacent. Over the past few years
there has been a creeping realisation that while bad apples are few
and far between, there is a deeper problem. The barrel itself may be
Those at the scientific coalface strive for objectivity, but like
all of us they have unconscious biases that can lead them astray.
And the scientific method is not robust enough to catch all the
errors - statistics in particular can be used to prise a significant
result out of almost any data set, a practice known as "torturing
the data until it confesses". This means that all too often
scientists embarking on research projects are going to sea in a
sieve (see "Why so much science research is flawed - and what to do
These weaknesses have troubling consequences for the reliability of
our knowledge base. One analysis has claimed that more than half of
published research is wrong. A widely reported study published in
the journal Science last year found that of 100 important psychology
experiments, more than 60 couldn't be replicated. Similar problems
have been uncovered in medical science, biology and economics.
"Science's weaknesses have troubling consequences for the
reliability of our knowledge base"
That sounds like a crisis in the making, not just for our ability to
discover things but for the reputation of scientists and science.
One leading psychologist has compared it to the sub-prime mortgage
crisis which did so much to disgrace the bankers. There are some
signs that he is right. A UK poll carried out at the end of 2015
found that people's trust in scientists had fallen over the previous
Nonetheless, 79 per cent of people polled still said they trust
scientists to tell the truth. That is down from 83 per cent a year
ago, but it hardly constitutes a crisis. Bankers scored 37 per cent
and politicians 21 per cent.
What about the problem of reliable knowledge? On this front, things
might also not be as bad as they seem. Last month, Science published
a follow-up to the reproducibility paper arguing - ironically - that
it used flawed statistics. Correct for these, and almost all 100
studies were reproducible, its authors claimed.
That, of course, may be just another case of torturing the data; the
authors of the original paper have accused those of the new one of
selectively interpreting the numbers. And it doesn't absolve other
problematic branches of science.
But it does demonstrate science's willingness to face its own
problems. In fact, we wouldn't know about them at all were it not
for scientists turning their tools on themselves. Metascience - the
science of science - is a growing field that is increasingly
discovering the loopholes in the system and closing them.
For that, science should be congratulated. Which other field of
human endeavour would scrutinise itself so publicly, find itself
wanting, and then set about putting its house in order?
If there is a sub-prime problem in science, then scientists are
doing their best to fix it before it brings the whole edifice down.
Unlike those politicians or bankers, they are not turning a blind
eye, covering their own backsides or simply hoping to get away with
tt mailing list
13 April 2016
By Sonia van Gilder Cooke
[Leader: "Science isn't as solid as it should be - but science can
fix it" coming.]
LISTENING to When I'm Sixty-Four by The Beatles can make you
younger. This miraculous effect, dubbed "chronological
rejuvenation", was revealed in the journal Psychological Science in
2011. It wasn't a hoax, but you'd be right to be suspicious. The aim
was to show how easy it is to generate statistical evidence for
pretty much anything, simply by picking and choosing methods and
data in ways that researchers do every day.
The paper caused a stir among psychologists, and has become the most
cited in the journal's history. The following year, Nobel
prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman stoked the fire with an
open email to social psychologists warning of a "train wreck" if
they didn't clean up their act. But things only came to a head last
year with the publication of a paper in Science. It described a
major effort to replicate 100 psychology experiments published in
top journals. The success rate was little more than a third. People
began to talk of a "crisis" in psychology.
In fact, the problem extends far beyond psychology - dubious results
are alarmingly common in many fields of science. Worryingly, they
seem to be especially shaky in areas that have a direct bearing on
human well-being - the science underpinning everyday political,
economic and healthcare decisions. No wonder the whistle-blowers are
urgently trying to investigate why it's happening, how big the
problem is and what can be done to fix it. In doing so, they are
highlighting flaws in the way we all think, and exposing cracks in
the culture of science.
Science is often thought of as a dispassionate search for the truth.
But, of course, we are all only human. And most people want to climb
the professional ladder. The main way to do that if you're a
scientist is to get grants and publish lots of papers. The problem
is that journals have a clear preference for research showing
strong, positive relationships - between a particular medical
treatment and improved health, for example. This means researchers
often try to find those sorts of results. A few go as far as making
things up. But a huge number tinker with their research in ways they
think are harmless, but which can bias the outcome.
This tinkering can take many forms (see "To err is human"). You peek
at the results and stop an experiment when it shows what you were
expecting. You throw out data points that don't fit your hypothesis
- something could be wrong with those results, you reason. Or you
run several types of statistical analysis and end up using the one
that shows the strongest effect. "It can be very hard to even see
that biases might be entering your reasoning," says psychologist
Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who
led the team trying to replicate 100 psychology studies. Take the
tendency to scrutinise results that don't fit with your predictions
more carefully than those that do. "There's no nefarious motive,"
says Roger Peng at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
It's just natural to assume these results are likely to be "wrong".
You might think that journals, which get peers from the same
scientific field to review papers, would pick up on such practices.
But, say critics, the system isn't up to the task. For one thing,
most journals don't ask researchers to give them a tour of their
statistical sausage factory. "The vast majority don't require that
you make any data available beyond a brief description of the
methods," says Peng. Peer-reviewers usually don't see the complete
data and methods either. And even if they did, they might not have
the time, ability or inclination to check them. Refereeing is unpaid
and anonymous - so there's no reward and no recognition in it.
"In a major effort to replicate 100 psychology experiments the
success rate was little more than a third"
All this helps explain why so many studies don't hold up when others
try to replicate them. But it doesn't explain why psychology in
particular is facing a "crisis" right now. There's nothing new about
researchers being subconsciously committed to proving their own
theories, or journals favouring headline-grabbing research. Sure,
the pressure on researchers to publish is ever greater, however,
what's really new is the scrutiny being given to their published
Traditionally, once results are published they tend to go unchecked.
"The current system does not reward replication - it often even
penalizes people who want to rigorously replicate previous work,"
wrote statistician John Ioannidis of Stanford University in
California in a recent paper entitled "How to make more published
research true". Proponents of a new discipline called metascience
(the science of science) aim to change that, and Ioannidis is in the
Psychology may have borne the brunt of the controversy so far, but
Ioannidis has for a long time argued that the problem is widespread.
In 2005, he claimed that sloppy methods could mean more than half of
all published scientific results are flawed. Some fields of research
are less susceptible than others, though. In astronomy, chemistry
and physics, for instance, "people have a very strong tradition of
sharing data, and of using common databases like big telescopes or
high energy physical experiments", Ioannidis says. "They are very
cautious about making claims that eventually will be refuted." But
in fields where such checks and balances are absent, irreproducible
results are rife.
Take the case of cancer researcher Anil Potti when he was at Duke
University in Durham, North Carolina. In 2006, staff at the MD
Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, wanted to investigate
treatments based on Potti's published work on gene expression.
Before pressing ahead, they asked their colleagues, biostatisticians
Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, to look over the findings. Their
efforts illustrate how hard it can be for peer reviewers to pick up
on mistakes. It took them almost 2000 hours to disentangle the data
and reveal a catalogue of errors. It later transpired that Potti had
falsified data, but in the meantime, three clinical trials had been
started on the basis of his research.
Evidence is mounting that medical research is particularly prone to
irreproducibility. In 2012, Glenn Begley, a biotech consultant,
showed that just 11 per cent of the preclinical cancer studies
coming out of the academic pipeline that he sampled were replicable.
Another study estimates that irreproducible preclinical research
costs the US $28 billion a year and slows down the development of
life-saving drugs. "The truth is everyone knew that this was a
problem," says Begley. "No one really knew the magnitude of the
It's the tip of the iceberg. Research published last year by Megan
Head of the Australian National University in Canberra and her
colleagues showed that dodgy statistics are rife in the biological
sciences. They scrutinised results from a wide range of scientific
disciplines for evidence for "p-hacking" - collecting or selecting
data or statistical analyses until non-significant results becomes
significant. They found it to be particularly common in biological
sciences. "A lot of biologists go into biology because they don't
want to do maths, and then they get a rude shock when they learn
they have to do statistics," says Head.
"Sloppy methods could mean that over half of all published
scientific results are flawed"
But even mathematicians make errors. In 2010, economists Carmen
Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff at Harvard University published research
showing that when a country's debt reaches more than 90 per cent of
GDP there is an associated plunge in economic growth. The paper,
which appeared in a non-peer-reviewed edition of the American
Economic Review, was seized on by politicians in the UK and US to
justify austerity policies. However, three years later, when Thomas
Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts,
Amherst, tried to replicate the findings, he ran into trouble.
Reinhart and Rogoff had made several mistakes including a coding
error in their spreadsheet. The effect they had observed had,
according to critics, been largely a mirage. Nevertheless, it had a
major impact on the public policy debate.
Given how influential a flawed paper can be, it's no wonder people
are up in arms. One obvious concern is that it could undermine
public faith in science itself. "It could very quickly become a wave
of mistrust of the kind we find associated with climate change,"
says psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at the London School of
Economics. Drawing an analogy with the global financial collapse of
2008, he calls it "sub-prime science". "After the disgrace of the
bankers, science must not be next," he wrote, earlier this year.
So what can be done? There has already been a rapid response in one
area of research where irreproducible results can have life-or-death
consequences. Since 2005, a group of major medical journals has
required researchers to publicly register clinical trials, and the
methods they intend to use, before recruiting patients. Ioannidis
estimates that about half of all clinical trials now are
pre-registered, vastly reducing the possibility of flawed work.
Psychologists have also taken matters into their own hands. In 2011,
the authors of the When I'm Sixty-Four paper - Joseph Simmons and
Uri Simonsohn of the University of Pennsylvania and Leif Nelson of
the University of California, Berkeley - met with Eric Eich, the
newly appointed editor of Psychological Science, to discuss the
problems facing their discipline. "That was really eye-opening for
me," says Eich. "There were a lot of things that were essentially
In January 2014, the journal began asking researchers more questions
about their methods and giving them more space to explain them. It
also introduced a "nudge" to reward good practice by displaying
badges on papers to recognise those who made data and methods
available or pre-registered their study. The result? Submissions
fell off a cliff. "I thought I had broken the damn journal," says
Eich. However, after five months, submission rates were back to
normal, and now some 40 per cent of new Psychological Science papers
have open data - up from 3 per cent before the badges were
Now the idea is being rolled out. Last year, Nosek and his
colleagues came up with guidelines that journals could follow to
increase transparency and reproducibility. These have since been
endorsed by the US National Institutes of Health, and adopted by
more than 500 journals, including Science, and 50 organisations.
Nature has its own guidelines. Meanwhile, the Center for Open
Science, co-founded by Nosek, has established a free online
platform, the Open Science Framework, where researchers can register
studies and display all their data and methods. More radically,
there have been calls to replace peer reviewers with paid experts -
accredited specialists in the analysis of research.
Quality not quantity
Universities may join the movement too. Ioannidis and others are
working to create a "coalition of university leaders" to address the
problem. "Universities are the gatekeepers of promotion and tenure,"
he says. "I hope that we will be moving pretty soon on that front."
One obvious solution is to stop rewarding scientists on the basis of
how much they have published - to consider quality not quantity when
making academic promotions.
Ultimately, we may need to create novel ways of determining which
studies are valid. Working with Nosek's team, the Science Prediction
Market Project asked psychologists to place bets on which studies
would stand up and which wouldn't. "It turned out that the market
performed pretty well in predicting the outcome of the
replications," says Anna Dreber Almenberg at the Stockholm School of
Economics in Sweden, who leads the project. Such an approach could
be harnessed to help identify iffy results before they are accepted
for publication. It's still early days, but Dreber Almenberg says
that prediction markets "could be interesting to think more about".
Meanwhile, replication projects are gaining popularity. Groups are
now looking at cancer research and experimental economics. One
member of the economics group, Colin Camerer at the California
Institute of Technology in Pasadena, says the project, which
published results of a pilot study in March, has been greeted with
enthusiasm. "People have been emailing us saying, if you do more,
we'll help you out," he says.
"It will take years to play out," says Eich. "But hopefully at the
end of it, you get more replicable, high-quality science." Given
that we fund academic research through our taxes and rely on it to
improve our lives, that will be good for everybody.
To err is human
Bias is inherent in research but there are ways to limit it
Wishful thinking - Unconsciously biasing methods to confirm your
hypothesis Sneaky stats - Using the statistical analysis that best
supports your hypothesis Burying evidence - Not sharing research
data so that results can be scrutinised Rewriting history -
Inventing a new hypothesis to explain unexpected results Tidying up
- Ignoring inconvenient data points and analyses in the write-up
Pre-registration - Publicly declaring procedures before doing a
study Blindfolding - Deciding on a data analysis method before the
data are collected Sharing - Making methods and data transparent and
available to others Collaboration - Working with others to increase
the rigour of experiments Statistical education - Acquiring the
tools required to assess data meaningfully
Sonia van Gilder Cooke is based in London
tt mailing list
----- Forwarded message from Udhay Shankar N <firstname.lastname@example.org> -----
This strikes a chord. I work with early stage technology entrepreneurs, and
have done for over 2 decades (this includes the dot.com boom, a period that
has special relevance to this topic) I have come across several people who,
through some confluence of circumstances, have made a lot of money. The
temptation (including for the people involved) is to imagine this is
because they were smart. This is almost certainly not true, as can easily
be demonstrated by the fact that there are always many other people who are
demonstrably at least as smart who have not succeeded.
Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think
When people see themselves as self-made, they tend to be less generous and
ROBERT H. FRANK MAY 2016 ISSUE BUSINESS
I'm a lucky man. Perhaps the most extreme example of my considerable good
fortune occurred one chilly Ithaca morning in November 2007, while I was
playing tennis with my longtime friend and collaborator, the Cornell
psychologist Tom Gilovich. He later told me that early in the second set, I
complained of feeling nauseated. The next thing he knew, I was lying
motionless on the court.
He yelled for someone to call 911, and then started pounding on my
chest—something he'd seen many times in movies but had never been trained
to do. He got a cough out of me, but seconds later I was again motionless
with no pulse. Very shortly, an ambulance showed up.
Ithaca's ambulances are dispatched from the other side of town, more than
five miles away. How did this one arrive so quickly? By happenstance, just
before I collapsed, ambulances had been dispatched to two separate auto
accidents close to the tennis center. Since one of them involved no serious
injuries, an ambulance was able to peel off and travel just a few hundred
yards to me. EMTs put electric paddles on my chest and rushed me to our
local hospital. There, I was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a larger
hospital in Pennsylvania, where I was placed on ice overnight.
Doctors later told me that I'd suffered an episode of sudden cardiac
arrest. Almost 90 percent of people who experience such episodes don't
survive, and the few who do are typically left with significant
impairments. And for three days after the event, my family tells me, I
spoke gibberish. But on day four, I was discharged from the hospital with a
clear head. Two weeks later, I was playing tennis with Tom again.
If that ambulance hadn't happened to have been nearby, I would be dead.
Not all random events lead to favorable outcomes, of course. Mike Edwards
is no longer alive because chance frowned on him. Edwards, formerly a
cellist in the British pop band the Electric Light Orchestra, was driving
on a rural road in England in 2010 when a 1,300-pound bale of hay rolled
down a steep hillside and landed on his van, crushing him. By all accounts,
he was a decent, peaceful man. That a bale of hay snuffed out his life was
bad luck, pure and simple.
Most people will concede that I'm fortunate to have survived and that
Edwards was unfortunate to have perished. But in other arenas, randomness
can play out in subtler ways, causing us to resist explanations that
involve luck. In particular, many of us seem uncomfortable with the
possibility that personal success might depend to any significant extent on
chance. As E. B. White once wrote, "Luck is not something you can mention
in the presence of self-made men."
Seeing ourselves as self-made leads us to be less generous and
My having cheated death does not make me an authority on luck. But it has
motivated me to learn much more about the subject than I otherwise would
have. In the process, I have discovered that chance plays a far larger role
in life outcomes than most people realize. And yet, the luckiest among us
appear especially unlikely to appreciate our good fortune. According to the
Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely
than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily
because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people
overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to
factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.
That's troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing
ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and
lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make
the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality
public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.
Happily, though, when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune,
they become much more willing to contribute to the common good.
Psychologists use the term hindsight bias to describe our tendency to
think, after the fact, that an event was predictable even when it wasn't.
This bias operates with particular force for unusually successful outcomes.
In his commencement address to Princeton University's 2012 graduating
class, Michael Lewis described the series of chance events that helped make
him—already privileged by virtue of his birth into a well-heeled family and
his education at Princeton—a celebrated author:
One night I was invited to a dinner where I sat next to the wife of a big
shot of a big Wall Street investment bank, Salomon Brothers. She more or
less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about
Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was
being reinvented—into the Wall Street we've come to know and love today.
When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job
in the place to observe the growing madness: They turned me into the house
On the basis of his experiences at Salomon, Lewis wrote his 1989 best
seller, Liar's Poker, which described how Wall Street financial maneuvering
was transforming the world.
All of a sudden people were telling me I was a born writer. This was
absurd. Even I could see that there was another, more true narrative, with
luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next
to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm
to write the story of the age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of
the business? … This isn't just false humility. It's false humility with a
point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People
really don't like to hear success explained away as luck—especially
successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was
Our understanding of human cognition provides one important clue as to why
we may see success as inevitable: the availability heuristic. Using this
cognitive shortcut, we tend to estimate the likelihood of an event or
outcome based on how readily we can recall similar instances. Successful
careers, of course, result from many factors, including hard work, talent,
and chance. Some of those factors recur often, making them easy to recall.
But others happen sporadically and therefore get short shrift when we
construct our life stories.
Little wonder that when talented, hardworking people in developed countries
strike it rich, they tend to ascribe their success to talent and hard work
above all else. Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they've worked
and how talented they are. They've been working hard and solving difficult
problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do
know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment.
Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate
they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.
Our personal narratives are biased in a second way: Events that work to our
disadvantage are easier to recall than those that affect us positively. My
friend Tom Gilovich invokes a metaphor involving headwinds and tailwinds to
describe this asymmetry.
When you're running or bicycling into the wind, you're very aware of it.
You just can't wait till the course turns around and you've got the wind at
your back. When that happens, you feel great. But then you forget about it
very quickly—you're just not aware of the wind at your back. And that's
just a fundamental feature of how our minds, and how the world, works.
We're just going to be more aware of those barriers than of the things that
boost us along.
That we tend to overestimate our own responsibility for our successes is
not to say that we shouldn't take pride in them. Pride is a powerful
motivator; moreover, a tendency to overlook luck's importance may be
perversely adaptive, as it encourages us to persevere in the face of
And yet failing to consider the role of chance has a dark side, too, making
fortunate people less likely to pass on their good fortune.
The one dimension of personal luck that transcends all others is to have
been born in a highly developed country. I often think of Birkhaman Rai,
the Bhutanese man who was my cook when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in
Nepal. He was perhaps the most resourceful person I've ever met. Though he
was never taught to read, he could perform virtually any task in his
environment to a high standard, from thatching a roof to repairing a clock
to driving a tough bargain without alienating people. Even so, the meager
salary I was able to pay him was almost certainly the high point of his
life's earnings trajectory. If he'd grown up in a rich country, he would
have been far more prosperous, perhaps even spectacularly successful.
Being born in a favorable environment is an enormous stroke of luck. But
maintaining such an environment requires high levels of public investment
in everything from infrastructure to education—something Americans have
lately been unwilling to support. Many factors have contributed to this
reticence, but one in particular stands out: budget deficits resulting from
a long-term decline in the United States' top marginal tax rate.
A recent study by the political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels,
and Jason Seawright found that the top 1 percent of U.S. wealth-holders are
"extremely active politically" and are much more likely than the rest of
the American public to resist taxation, regulation, and government
spending. Given that the wealthiest Americans believe their prosperity is
due, above all else, to their own talent and hard work, is this any wonder?
Surely it's a short hop from overlooking luck's role in success to feeling
entitled to keep the lion's share of your income—and to being reluctant to
sustain the public investments that let you succeed in the first place.
And yet this state of affairs does not appear to be inevitable: Recent
research suggests that being prompted to recognize luck can encourage
generosity. For example, Yuezhou Huo, a former research assistant of mine,
designed an experiment in which she promised subjects a cash prize in
exchange for completing a survey about a positive thing that had recently
happened to them. She asked one group of participants to list factors
beyond their control that contributed to the event, a second group to list
personal qualities and actions that contributed to it, and a control group
to simply explain why the good thing had happened. After completing the
survey, subjects were given an opportunity to donate some or all of their
reward to charity. Those who had been prompted to credit external
causes—many mentioned luck, as well as factors such as supportive spouses,
thoughtful teachers, and financial aid—donated 25 percent more than those
who'd been asked to credit personal qualities or choices. Donations from
the control group fell roughly midway between those from the other two
Experiments by David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University,
offer additional evidence that gratitude might lead to greater willingness
to support the common good. In one widely cited study, he and his
co-authors devised a clever manipulation to make a group of laboratory
subjects feel grateful, and then gave them an opportunity to take actions
that would benefit others at their own expense. Subjects in whom gratitude
had been stoked were subsequently about 25 percent more generous toward
strangers than were members of a control group. These findings are
consistent with those of other academic psychologists. Taken together, the
research suggests that when we are reminded of luck's importance, we are
much more likely to plow some of our own good fortune back into the common
In an unexpected twist, we may even find that recognizing our luck
increases our good fortune. Social scientists have been studying gratitude
intensively for almost two decades, and have found that it produces a
remarkable array of physical, psychological, and social changes. Robert
Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of
the University of Miami have been among the most prolific contributors to
this effort. In one of their collaborations, they asked a first group of
people to keep diaries in which they noted things that had made them feel
grateful, a second group to note things that had made them feel irritated,
and a third group to simply record events. After 10 weeks, the researchers
reported dramatic changes in those who had noted their feelings of
gratitude. The newly grateful had less frequent and less severe aches and
pains and improved sleep quality. They reported greater happiness and
alertness. They described themselves as more outgoing and compassionate,
and less likely to feel lonely and isolated. No similar changes were
observed in the second or third groups. Other psychologists have documented
additional benefits of gratitude, such as reduced anxiety and diminished
Economists like to talk about scarcity, but its logic doesn't always hold
up in the realm of human emotion. Gratitude, in particular, is a currency
we can spend freely without fear of bankruptcy. Indeed, if you talk with
others about their experiences with luck, as I have, you may discover that
with only a little prompting, even people who have never given much thought
to the subject are surprisingly willing to rethink their life stories,
recalling lucky breaks they've enjoyed along the way. And because these
conversations almost always leave participants feeling happier, it's not
hard to imagine them becoming contagious.
Copyright © 2016 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
----- End forwarded message -----
----- Forwarded message from Charanya Chidambaram <email@example.com> -----
True. I think we tend to simplify context, environment, having met the
right people at some time who end up helping later, knowledge learnt in a
continuum to - luck in the moment, as it feels like it came together
On 19 Apr 2016 10:28 a.m., "Shenoy N" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> Acknowledging that most, if not all of your achievements would never have
> been possible had it not been for generous doses of luck is a lovely
> practical philosophy and it is not difficult to see how it will result in
> humbler and more compassionate individuals. However, there is the danger
> that it could - and I've seen this in several members of my immediate
> family - lead to a complacent "what will happen will happen" view on life
> which tends to dissuade anything in the nature of enterprise. So,
> double-edged, imo, as most practical philosophies tend to be
> On 19 April 2016 at 09:41, Charles Haynes <email@example.com>
> > Strongly agree. I'm smart, but my success, such as it is, is more luck
> > skill.
> > That said - luck favors the prepared, and "the more I practice, the
> > I get."
> > -- Charles
> > On Tue, 19 Apr 2016 at 11:18 Udhay Shankar N <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
(... redundancy deleted -TR ...)
----- End forwarded message -----
----- Forwarded message from John Sundman <email@example.com> -----
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet
riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but
time and chance happeneth to them all.
> On Apr 21, 2016, at 1:34 AM, maia sauren <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> one of the aspects of luck is being born in environments that contain
> opportunities. get born into the right set of circumstances and what luck
> can do for you takes on a whole different meaning. sure, luck happens
> everywhere - and probably equally - but the sizes of the lucky breaks are
> On 19 April 2016 at 11:38, Charanya Chidambaram <
> email@example.com> wrote:
>> True. I think we tend to simplify context, environment, having met the
>> right people at some time who end up helping later, knowledge learnt in a
>> continuum to - luck in the moment, as it feels like it came together
>> without effort.
>> On 19 Apr 2016 10:28 a.m., "Shenoy N" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
>>> Acknowledging that most, if not all of your achievements would never have
>>> been possible had it not been for generous doses of luck is a lovely
>>> practical philosophy and it is not difficult to see how it will result in
>>> humbler and more compassionate individuals.
Friday, April 29, 2016
Date: Mon, 18 Apr 2016 07:23:45 -0700
From: Henry Baker <email@example.com>
Subject: [Cryptography] "60 Minutes" hacks Congressman's phone
Hacking Your Phone
Sharyn Alfonsi reports on how cellphones and mobile phone networks are
vulnerable to hacking
2016 Apr 17 Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi
The following script is from "Hacking Your Phone" which aired on April
17, 2016. Sharyn Alfonsi is the correspondent. Howard L. Rosenberg
and Julie Holstein, producers.
A lot of modern life is interconnected through the Internet of things
-- a global empire of billions of devices and machines. Automobile
navigation systems. Smart TVs. Thermostats. Telephone networks.
Home security systems. Online banking. Almost everything you can
imagine is linked to the world wide web. And the emperor of it all is
the smartphone. You've probably been warned to be careful about what
you say and do on your phone, but after you see what we found, you
won't need to be warned again.
We heard we could find some of the world's best hackers in Germany.
So we headed for Berlin. Just off a trendy street and through this
alley we rang the bell at the door of a former factory. That's where
we met Karsten Nohl, a German hacker, with a doctorate in computer
engineering from the University of Virginia.
We were invited for a rare look at the inner workings of security
research labs. During the day, the lab advises Fortune 500 companies
on computer security. But at night, this international team of
hackers looks for flaws in the devices we use everyday: smartphones,
USB sticks and SIM cards. They are trying to find vulnerabilities
before the bad guys do, so they can warn the public about risks. At
computer terminals and work benches equipped with micro lasers, they
physically and digitally break into systems and devices.
Now, Nohl's team is probing the security of mobile phone networks.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Is one phone more secure than another? Is an iPhone
more secure than an Android?
Karsten Nohl: All phones are the same.
Sharyn Alfonsi: If you just have somebody's phone number, what could
Karsten Nohl: Track their whereabouts, know where they go for work,
which other people they meet when -- You can spy on whom they call and
what they say over the phone. And you can read their texts.
We wanted to see whether Nohl's group could actually do what they
claimed -- so we sent an off-the-shelf iPhone from 60 Minutes in New
York to Representative Ted Lieu, a congressman from California. He
has a computer science degree from Stanford and is a member of the
House committee that oversees information technology. He agreed to
use our phone to talk to his staff knowing they would be hacked and
they were. All we gave Nohl, was the number of the 60 Minutes iPhone
that we lent the congressman.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Hello congressman? It's Sharyn Alfonsi from 60
As soon as I called Congressman Lieu on his phone, Nohl and his team
were listening and recording both ends of our conversation.
Sharyn Alfonsi: I'm calling from Berlin.
Sharyn Alfonsi: I wonder if I might talk to you about this hacking
story we're working on.
Karsten Nohl: What hacking story?
They were able to do it by exploiting a security flaw they discovered
in Signaling System Seven -- or SS7. It is a little-known, but vital
global network that connects phone carriers.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Congressman thank you so much for helping us...
Every person with a cellphone needs SS7 to call or text each other.
Though most of us have never heard of it.
Nohl says attacks on cellphones are growing as the number of mobile
devices explodes. But SS7 is not the way most hackers break into your
Those hacks are on display in Las Vegas.
John Hering: "Three-days of non-stop hacking."
That's where John Hering guided us through an unconventional
convention where 20,000 hackers get together every year to share
secrets and test their skills.
John Hering: It's proving what's possible. Any system can be broken
it's just knowing how to break it.
Hering is a hacker himself, he's the 30-something whiz who cofounded
the mobile security company "Lookout" when he was 23. Lookout has
developed a free app that scans your mobile phone for malware and
alerts the user to an attack.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How likely is it that somebody's phone has been
John Hering: In today's world there's really only -- two types of
companies or two types of people which are those who have been hacked
and realize it and those who have been hacked and haven't.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How much do you think people have been kind of
ignoring the security of their cellphones, thinking, "I've got a
passcode, I must be fine?"
John Hering: I think that most people have not really thought about
their phones as computers. And that that's really starting to shift.
Sharyn Alfonsi: And that's what you think-- it's like having a laptop
John Hering: Oh absolutely. I mean, your mobile phone is effectively a
supercomputer in your pocket. There's more technology in your mobile
phone than was in, you know, the space craft that took man to the
moon. I mean, it's -- it's really unbelievable.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Is everything hackable?
John Hering: Yes.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Everything?
John Hering: Yes.
Sharyn Alfonsi: If somebody tells you, "You can't do it."
John Hering: I don't believe it.
John Hering offered to prove it -- so he gathered a group of ace
hackers at our Las Vegas hotel. Each of them a specialist in cracking
mobile devices and figuring out how to protect them.
Adam Laurie: Would you put your money in a bank that didn't test their
locks on their safes? We need to try and break it to make sure the
bad guys can't.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How easy is it to break the phone right now?
Jon Oberheide: Very easy.
Adam Laurie: As you've seen, pretty trivial.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Do I need to connect to it? OK.
It started when we logged onto the hotel Wi-Fi -- at least it looked
like the hotel Wi-Fi. Hering had created a ghost version--it's called
Sharyn Alfonsi: I mean, this looks legitimate.
John Hering: It looks very legitimate. So you're connected?
Sharyn Alfonsi: I am.
John Hering: And I have your email.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You have access to my email right now --
John Hering: Yeah. It's coming through right now. I actually can s--
I know have a ride-sharing application up here, all the information
that's being transmitted, including your account ID, your mobile
phone, which I just got the mobile number. Then, more importantly, I
have all the credit cards associated with -- with that account.
Jon Oberheide pointed out the greatest weakness in mobile security is
Jon Oberheide: With social engineering, you can't really fix the human
element. Humans are gullible. They install malicious applications.
They give up their passwords every day. And it's really hard to fix
that human element.
John Hering warned us he could spy on anyone through their own phone
as long as the phone's camera had a clear view. We propped up a phone
on my desk and set up cameras to record a demonstration. First he
sent me a text message with an attachment to download.
John Hering: "We're in business."
Then Hering called from San Francisco and proved it worked.
John Hering: I installed some malware in your device that's
broadcasting video of your phone.
Sharyn Alfonsi: My phone's not even lit up.
John Hering: I understand, yeah.
Sharyn Alfonsi: That's so creepy.
Katie: It's pitch black for us.
In this case, when I downloaded the attachment, Hering was able to
take control of my phone. But Congressman Lieu didn't have to do
anything to get attacked.
All Karsten Nohl's team in Berlin needed to get into the congressman's
phone was the number. Remember SS7 --that little-known global phone
network we told you about earlier?
Karsten Nohl: I've been tracking the congressman.
There's a flaw in it that allowed Nohl to intercept and record the
congressman's calls and track his movements in Washington and back
Karsten Nohl: The congressman has been in California, more
specifically the L.A. area, zoom in here a little bit, Torrance.
The SS7 network is the heart of the worldwide mobile phone system.
Phone companies use SS7 to exchange billing information. Billions of
calls and text messages travel through its arteries daily. It is also
the network that allows phones to roam.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Are you able to track his movements even if he moves
the location services and turns that off?
Karsten Nohl: Yes. The mobile network independent from the little GPS
chip in your phone, knows where you are. So any choices that a
congressman could've made, choosing a phone, choosing a pin number,
installing or not installing certain apps, have no influence over what
we are showing because this is targeting the mobile network. That of
course, is not controlled by any one customer.
Sharyn Alfonsi: ...despite him making good choices. You're still able
to get to his phone.
Karsten Nohl: Exactly.
Karsten Nohl and his team were legally granted access to SS7 by
several international cellphone carriers. In exchange, the carriers
wanted Nohl to test the network's vulnerability to attack. That's
because criminals have proven they can get into SS7.
Karsten Nohl: Mobile networks are the only place in which this problem
can be solved. There is no global policing of SS7. Each mobile
network has to move-- to protect their customers on their networks.
And that is hard.
Nohl and others told us some U.S. carriers are easier to access
through SS7 than others. 60 Minutes contacted the cellular phone
trade association to ask about attacks on the SS7 network. They
acknowledged there have been reports of security breaches abroad, but
assured us that all U.S. cellphone networks were secure.
Congressman Lieu was on a U.S. network using the phone we lent him
when he was part of our hacking demonstration from Berlin.
Sharyn Alfonsi: I just want to play for you something we were able to
capture off of your phone.
Mark on recording: Hi Ted, it's Mark, how are you?
Rep. Ted Lieu on recording: I'm good.
Mark on recording: I sent you some revisions on the letter to the
N.S.A., regarding the data collection.
Rep. Ted Lieu: Wow.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What is your reaction to knowing that they were
listening to all of your calls?
Rep. Ted Lieu: I have two. First, it's really creepy. And second, it
makes me angry.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Makes you angry, why?
Rep. Ted Lieu: They could hear any call of pretty much anyone who has
a smartphone. It could be stock trades you want someone to
execute. It could be calls with a bank.
Karsten Nohl's team automatically logged the number of every phone
that called Congressman Lieu -- which means there's a lot more damage
that could be done than just intercepting that one phone call. A
malicious hacker would be able to target and attack every one of the
other phones too.
Sharyn Alfonsi : So give us an idea, without being too specific, of
the types of people that would be in a congressman's phone.
Rep. Ted Lieu: There are other members of Congress -- other elected
officials. Last year, the president of the United States called me on
my cellphone. And we discussed some issues. So if the hackers were
listening in, they would know that phone conversation. And that's
Nohl told us the SS7 flaw is a significant risk mostly to political
leaders and business executives whose private communications could be
of high value to hackers. The ability to intercept cellphone calls
through the SS7 network is an open secret among the world's
intelligence agencies -- -including ours -- and they don't necessarily
want that hole plugged.
Sharyn Alfonsi: If you end up hearing from the intelligence agencies
that this flaw is extremely valuable to them and to the information
that they're able to get from it, what would you say to that?
Rep. Ted Lieu: That the people who knew about this flaw and saying
that should be fired.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Should be fired?
Rep. Ted Lieu: Absolutely.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Why?
Rep. Ted Lieu: You cannot have 300-some million Americans-- and
really, right, the global citizenry be at risk of having their phone
conversations intercepted with a known flaw, simply because some
intelligence agencies might get some data. That is not acceptable.
John Hering: I'd say, the average person is not going to be exposed to
the type of attacks we showed you today. But our goal was to show
what's possible. So people can really understand if we don't address
security issues, what the state of the world will be.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Which will be what?
John Hering: We live in a world where we cannot trust the technology
that we use.
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----- End forwarded message -----
----- Forwarded message from "Kevin W. Wall" <firstname.lastname@example.org> -----
Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2016 01:28:55 -0400
From: "Kevin W. Wall" <email@example.com>
To: Henry Baker <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Cryptography <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: [Cryptography] "60 Minutes" hacks Congressman's phone
On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 10:23 AM, Henry Baker <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> FYI --
> Rep. Ted Lieu: You cannot have 300-some million Americans-- and
> really, right, the global citizenry be at risk of having their phone
> conversations intercepted with a known flaw, simply because some
> intelligence agencies might get some data. That is not acceptable.
If these are the same SS7 vulnerabilities that were widely discussed
in the WP (e.g.,
and other new media outlets in Dec 2014 (and it certainly sounds like
it) then the only explanation is the that intelligence community are
responsible for they still not being fixed. Thinking these
vulnerabilities will remain secret is foolish. Lieu is right; those
people should be fired.
Blog: http://off-the-wall-security.blogspot.com/ | Twitter: @KevinWWall
NSA: All your crypto bit are belong to us.
The cryptography mailing list
----- End forwarded message -----
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