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IS A nuclear explosion ever good news? Well, the test in North Korea this week might just be something to celebrate. Hard to swallow, perhaps: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is tottering, countries all over the world are acquiring nuclear technology, and Iran is enriching uranium. So North Korea tests a second nuclear bomb, and this is a good thing? In a way, yes. For one thing, it was an unmissable reminder that we need to call off the new nuclear arms race that is develop
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  IS A nuclear explosion ever good news? Well, the test in North Korea this week might just be something to celebrate. Hard to swallow, perhaps: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is tottering, countries all over the world are acquiring nuclear technology, and Iran is enriching uranium. So North Korea tests a second nuclear bomb, and this is a good thing?In a way, yes. For one thing, it was an unmissable reminder that we need to call off the new nuclear arms race that is developing. And paradoxically it was also a bang-up demonstration that we have technology that might coax the runners off the starting line.The world can’t put off action much longer. The 1968 NPT asked countries without nukes to forgo them, and in return the five countries that already had them promised to give them up – eventually. That second promise has obviously not been kept, and after 40 years nuclear have-nots are reconsidering the deal – especially as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have demonstrated that joining the nuclear club gets you respect. If the NPT review conference next year falls apart like the last one did , the arms race could be unstoppable.The risks are huge. Some bomb would Thanks for the blast, North Korea EDITORIAL inevitably blow up somewhere, by accident or by design, and meanwhile we need money for schools, farms, clean water and energy so much more than for bombs. How, then, can we curb proliferation? Revive the NPT, for a start. That means the nuclear states must keep their side of the bargain. Encouragingly, Russia and the US are already talking about cutting missiles and fissile material . But the clearest signal would be to bring the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force. New nukes need testing, and a test ban would mean that existing nuclear powers are serious about disarmament. The treaty languishes because the US signed but failed to ratify it. Congress was convinced both that the US needed tests and that other countries would secretly break the ban.The scientific community has already disproved the first argument. Now the North Koreans have reminded us what the treaty’s verification network long ago proved: we can prevent cheating. Dedicated seismographs relayed the test’s giveaway vibrations to the state-of-the-art CTBT lab in Vienna in milliseconds. Detectors are even now sniffing for telltale gases . If someone had tried this in water or air , CTBT sensors would spot it.No more excuses. We need this treaty to deter anyone else tempted to go nuclear – and even more, so that countries might again take the NPT seriously. Feel the shock waves from North Korea. Ratify the test ban treaty. ■ It may sound perverse, but the maverick nuclear state could have done us all a favour What’s hot on NewScientist.com SWINE flu has faded from the headlines, but not from the world’s hospitals. And it could well get worse as the southern hemisphere enters its winter flu season (see page 4 ). Yet the World Health Organization is delaying the declaration of a full pandemic, partly to accommodate countries whose pandemic plans are in disarray . The WHO is not underestimating the threat, however, unlike some pundits who claim that swine flu is no more than a “scare, just like SARS”, the virus that frightened the world in 2003. We should be so lucky. It was the scare itself – with its travel warnings, quarantines and public precautions – that eradicated the threat from SARS. No matter who dislikes being “scared” we must prepare for the possibility that swine flu could become much worse. ■  Just like SARS? We’ll be luckyOverselling Ida IT’S a shame when the demands of the media overshadow those of science. The closely managed razzmatazz that accompanied the debut of Ida – the fossil “that could change everything” about our ancestry – ensured that everyone was talking about her for a day or two. But it also meant that no one was allowed to see the relevant paper until after the event, so there was little chance to seek disinterested comment on the researchers’ claim (see page 22). By the time doubts about Ida’s role in our past emerged, the circus had moved on. ■ “The test is an unmissable reminder that we need to call off the new nuclear arms race” 30 May 2009 | NewScientist | 3   PSYCHOLOGY  Confident about intelligence Do you think you’re smarter than most? If so, the chances are your children feel the same way about themselves. A study of thousands of twins suggests that intellectual confidence is genetically inherited and independent of IQ   SPACE Pulsar seen stealing from neighbour A neutron star with a cosmic case of indigestion could help to explain why some of these ultra-dense stellar embers spin much more quickly than others. Watch our animation of the cosmic theft PALAEONTOLOGY Through a scanner darkly Scanners that emit high-energy X-rays are allowing researchers to peer at animals fossilised in dark amber. Our video shows the extremely detailed 3D models that can be created from them BLOG  When is a flu pandemic not a flu pandemic? Despite the spread of H1N1 swine flu all over the world, including cases of community transmission in Japan, the World Health Organization has decided not to follow its own rules and officially declare a pandemic. We explain why ENERGY & FUELS  Move over hydrogen and let methanol in Some researchers think the much-discussed hydrogen economy will remain theoretical, and that the next big energy source will be methanol. The idea has received a boost after a study showed how renewable energy can be used to turn water and carbon dioxide into liquid methanol fuel TECH Goodbye to the standard asthma inhaler? The next generation devices could use tiny earthquake-like tremors to turn a drop of medication into a fine mist that can more easily reach the patient’s lungsFor breaking news, video and online debate, visit www.NewScientist.com  4  | NewScientist | 30 May 2009     A    F    P    /    G    E    T    T    Y CHILDREN should be tested for genetic disorders if their family history puts them at high risk , even if they don’t show any symptoms, according to new Europe-wide guidelines.Some European countries already have guidelines on testing children at risk of genetic disorders, but they disagree on when to carry out the tests. There is also the thorny issue of whether to test for disorders that can’t be treated or prevented, says Pascal Borry of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium, who helped write the new guidelines. Now the European Society of Human Genetics is recommending immediate testing of children at increased risk of treatable conditions that appear in childhood, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and retinitis pigmentosa. Even if treatment is Genetic testing not an option, testing can be worthwhile as it may forewarn or reassure the family, but the child’s interests must come first, says the society (  European  Journal of Genetics , DOI: 10.1038/ejhg.2009.26).It also states that minors should be able to choose in the case of conditions that only occur later in life, such as inherited breast cancer, provided they understand the implications of the test . Such tests are particularly valuable if modifying lifestyle can lower the chance of getting the disease. Up the ante on flu EUROPE might baulk at the measures needed to find out how far swine flu has spread – not so Australia. The country reported its first cases of community-acquired swine flu last week, just as its flu season is beginning. Most European countries are only testing people who have travelled to affected countries or come into contact with a person known to have swine flu, which means community-acquired infections are virtually guaranteed to go unnoticed. This could mean swine flu is spreading undetected in Europe. In contrast, on Saturday, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Jim Bishop announced that anyone with a high fever and flu symptoms would be tested for swine flu regardless of their travel history. “We’ve started to look for cases more aggressively,” says David Smith, director of PathWest Laboratories in Perth. He hopes the strategy will “spread the load over a longer time, so that the health system can cope more easily”. Europe may feel it has to follow suit. Wildlife farm harm WILDLIFE farms are supposed to promote conservation by providing a sustainable alternative to hunting animals in the wild. But those in Vietnam are having exactly the opposite effect, says a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York.Over the past two decades, dozens of commercial wildlife farms have sprung up in Vietnam. WCS investigators and Vietnamese officials who visited –Can’t hide the real thing––Farm fresh or caught in the wild?– No denying nuke tests IT’S bad news for would-be nuclear nations. North Korea’s nuclear explosion was clearly identified by the network of blast detectors intended for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty , which has not yet come into force. The maverick nation’s action may actually bolster nuclear non-proliferation.The timing is critical. US President Barack Obama wants the Senate to ratify the 1996 treaty, which bans all explosive nuclear tests, to prove US commitment to non-proliferation before crucial international meetings next year. The Senate rejected the CTBT in 1998 partly for fear that countries could pass off small, covert weapons tests as earthquakes.North Korea’s test was no secret, but it showed that the CTBT’s monitoring system, only partly built, could alert member states to a test within 90 minutes, says Tibor Tóth, head of the CTBT secretariat in Vienna, Austria. So nuclear cheats could easily be caught out. The last time North Korea set off a nuclear bomb, in 2006 , 22 CTBT seismographs picked it up. This time 39 pinpointed the blast to “a couple of kilometres away from the 2006 test site”, says Tóth. The seismographs were in a variety of countries, which is key for the system’s political credibility, he says. In 2006 it took 12 days for telltale radioactive elements to reach a CTBT detector in Canada. Now the system has more than twice as many such detectors in place, and detection might take only a few days, says Tóth. “Minors should be able to choose whether they are tested for diseases that occur later in life”     C    H    U    N    G    S    U    N    G   󰀭    J    U    N    /    G    E    T    T    Y UPFRONT  30 May 2009 | NewScientist | 5 78 farms undercover found that half had taken srcinal breeding stock from wild populations, and 42 per cent were still doing so.Animals farmed include snakes, turtles, crocodiles and monkeys. Worst affected are species such as tigers and bears, whose body parts or secretions are valued in traditional medicine. Not only are they slow to breed, but farms can also be used to launder products from animals killed in the wild.Wildlife farmers should have to prove the source of their animals, and penalties for breaching wildlife laws should be increased, the WCS concludes. Heads held high?  DID giant plant-eating dinosaurs such as  Brachiosaurus  and  Diplodocus  hold their long necks vertically or horizontally? In the long-running debate , the old-fashioned view that they held their heads up high is edging ahead.Sauropods – stars of countless exhibitions, documentaries and books – have been depicted since the early 20th century with an upright posture. But doubt was cast on this when it was realised how hard their hearts would have to work to pump blood to their brains. Computer models of the vertebrae also suggested that the animals held their necks low. This led museums and film-makers to start showing sauropods grazing with necks stretched horizontally.Now Mike Taylor at the University of Portsmouth, UK, and colleagues have studied the vertebrae of living animals to show that mammals and birds – the only groups to share the upright legs of dinosaurs – all hold their necks up . So Taylor reckons the computer models are wrong and sauropods, like their living counterparts, bent down only when necessary to feed (  Acta  Palaeontologica Polonica , vol 54, p 213 ). The debate doesn’t seem set to end just yet, however. “It’s never going to happen,” admits Taylor. Space storms IMAGINE if we could predict when space storms would hit in time to prevent satellites and power grids being damaged.The first observation of a space storm exploding in Earth’s upper atmosphere may help us better understand them. Space storms get their energy from plasma hurled at Earth by the sun, which stretches our planet’s magnetic field. The field snapping back into place triggers a storm (  New Scientist  , 21 March, p 31 ).Jonathan Rae of the University of Alberta in Edmonton and his team used cameras and magnetic instruments at ground stations across Canada to pick up magnetic ripples in the ionosphere spreading rapidly from an initial point in a space storm, with an aurora minutes later (   Journal of Geophysical Research , DOI: 10.1029/ 2008JA013559 ). “It almost looks like a rock in a pond,” he said this week at a geophysics conference in Toronto. “For the first time a space storm has been observed exploding in the Earth’s upper atmosphere” A DOCTOR’S note might be needed by cancer patients who want to enter the US but whose fingerprints have become unreadable due to the side effects of a common cancer drug.The warning comes from oncologists in Singapore, who have found that one of their patients was detained by US Customs and Border Protection when he tried to visit his relatives, all because of a side-effect of a drug called capecitabine .Capecitabine is used to treat cancers including those of the colon and breast. It is also used against nasopharyngeal cancer, when it seems to work best in people who are also strongly affected by a side-effect in which the skin on the hands and feet becomes inflamed and can peel off.In the Annals of Oncology   (DOI: 10.1093/annonc/mdp278) oncologists led by Eng-Huat Tan of the National Cancer Centre , Singapore, describe a 62-year-old man with nasopharyngeal cancer who was responding well to capecitabine. Because prints from his index fingers could not be read by the reader installed at a US airport, officers held him for four hours while they ran background checks.People with severely abraded hands, such as bricklayers, may be similarly delayed, says Anil Jain , a specialist in biometrics at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “It’s a nuisance, but it’s the price you’re paying for security,” he says. Missing prints? Expect delays –Perfect prints this time–        B       A       B       /       L       F       I 60 SECONDS Reptiles in retreat Habitat destruction threatens the survival of a fifth of Europe’s 151 reptile species and a quarter of its 85 amphibians, according to a survey for the European Commission. Of the reptile species, six are so critically endangered that they face imminent extinction, as do two amphibians. Historic axe re-found Archaeologists have unearthed a 400,000-year-old flint hand axe that went missing in the Natural History Museum, London, 150 years ago. It was srcinally found in a French quarry and displayed at the Royal Society in 1859, destroying creationists’ claim that the world was only 10,000 years old. Music eases baby pain Playing music to premature babies may lessen the pain of heel-pricks and even circumcisions, concludes a review of nine studies on the subject. But there is not yet enough evidence to recommend musical pain relief for premature babies, who can be too delicate to take painkillers, conclude reviewers in Archives of Disease in Childhood   (DOI: 10.1136/adc.2008.148411) . Green monkeys Genetically modified monkeys have passed down an introduced gene. Researchers at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, gave marmosets a gene that made them glow green under UV light. One then fathered a carrier of the gene ( Nature  , DOI: 10.1038/nature08090). It should now be simpler to modify monkeys for use as models for human disease. Obama’s NASA chief After months of speculation, the White House has finally nominated a NASA boss. If approved by Congress, former astronaut Charles Bolden will take on the role of administrator. He has piloted two shuttle missions and done a brief stint as NASA’s assistant deputy administrator. For daily news stories, visit www.NewScientist.com/news

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