More stories

  • in

    Don't miss: Sci-fi The Orbital Children on Netflix

    Read
    The Weaponisation of Everything explores how old-style warfare has been replaced by disinformation, espionage, crime and subversion. According to security expert Mark Galeotti, this may turn out to be a good thing.

    NETFLIXAdvertisement
    Watch
    The Orbital Children is a dizzying sci-fi anime series set in a future where AI has given people the freedom to travel through space. When a group of children get stranded on a space station they must fight to survive. On Netflix from 28 January.
    Bassam Al-Sabah, I AM ERROR, 2021. Video HD, 28 min. Film still. Commissioned by Gasworks
    Visit
    I Am Error at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, UK, sees artist Bassam Al-Sabah weave together video, painting and sculpture to explore how masculinity is represented in computer games. From 30 January.

    More on these topics: More

  • in

    Hard to Be a God: An 80s classic shows modern sci-fi how it’s done

    Peter Fleischmann’s Hard to Be a God (1989) is a vintage sci-fi gemPhoto 12/Alamy
    Film
    Hard to Be a God (1989)
    Peter FleischmannAdvertisement
    THE scrabble for dominance in sci-fi and fantasy streaming continues to heat up. At the time of writing, Paramount had decided to pull season four of Star Trek: Discovery from Netflix and screen it instead on its own platform; HBO has cancelled one Game of Thrones spin-off to concentrate on another, writing off $30 million in the process; and Amazon Studios’ prequel to The Lord of the Rings, set millennia before the events of The Hobbit, is reputed to cost almost five times as much per season to produce as Game of Thrones.
    All of this upheaval in the production of new sci-fi and fantasy has an unexpected benefit for viewers. While the wheels of production slowly turn, channel programmers are turning to historical material to feed our appetite for the genre. For obvious reasons, David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune is streaming on every major service, while on Amazon Prime Video, you can – and absolutely should – find Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 classic, Hard to Be a God. It is a West German-Soviet-French-Swiss co-production based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Soviet sci-fi writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
    The story is set in the “Noon Universe”, when humanity has evolved beyond money, crime and warfare to achieve an anarchist techno-utopia. Self-appointed “progressors” cross interstellar space to secretly guide the fate of other, less sophisticated humanoid civilisations.
    “Progressors have evolved past their propensity for violence, but have lost the knack of human connection”
    Anton, an agent of Earth’s Institute of Experimental History, is sent to spy on the city of Arkanar on a far-flung Earth-like planet that is falling under the sway of Reba, the kingdom’s reactionary first minister. Palace coups, mass executions and a peasant war drive Anton from his initial position of professional indifference, first to depression, drunkenness and despair, then ultimately to a fiery and controversial commitment to Arkanar’s revolution.
    It isn’t an expected turn of events, given that progressors like Anton are supposed to have evolved past their propensity for violence. But this isn’t the only problem that comes to light during Anton’s mission. The supposedly advanced humans also seem to have lost the knack of human connection.
    Anton, portrayed by Edward Zentara, eventually comes to realise this for himself. “We were able to see everything that was happening in the world,” he tells an Arkanaran companion, breaking his own cover as he does so. “We saw all the misery, but couldn’t feel sympathy any more.”
    Anton’s intense and horrifying experiences in Arkanar, where every street and rock outcrop has a dangling corpse as a warning from Reba, don’t only affect him. His mission is being watched from orbit by Earth’s other progressors, who struggle to learn from his example and make up for their shortcomings.
    The overall message of the film is a serious one: virtue is something we have to strive for in our lives; goodness doesn’t always come naturally.
    Comparable to Lynch’s Dune in its ambition, and far more articulate, Fleischmann’s upbeat but moving Hard to Be a God reminds us that sci-fi cinema in the 1980s set a very high bar indeed. We can only hope that this year’s TV epics and cinema sequels put as much effort into their stories as they do their production design and special effects.
    Simon also recommends… More

  • in

    How to perfectly pickle your cucumbers

    By Sam Wong
    StockFood/Scherer, Jim
    ALL over the world, people use acid to preserve fruit and vegetables, creating the sour and delicious foods we call pickles. The microbes that spoil our food have a hard time growing if the pH is lower than 4.5, but we can eat foods with a pH as low as 2 (the lower the pH, the more acidic the substance).
    Some pickles are made by salting vegetables or fruit, encouraging the growth of bacteria that produce lactic acid. These include kimchi, which I described in a previous issue (29 February 2020). A quicker and simpler way to make … More

  • in

    Station Eleven review: An uplifting vision of a post-pandemic world

    By Elle Hunt

    Kirsten and her close friend August stick together to surviveHBO Max/Warner Media
    TV
    Station Eleven
    Created by Patrick SomervilleAdvertisement

    EARLY in the covid-19 pandemic, as people struggled to make sense of the unfolding global crisis, many turned to stories almost as often as the latest news and science.
    In January 2020, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion entered the top 10 of the UK iTunes movie rental charts nearly a decade after its release. And much to the bemusement of its author, Emily St John Mandel, the 2014 dystopian novel Station Eleven – in which the “Georgia flu” kills most of the world’s population – suddenly gained a new audience. “I don’t know who in their right mind would want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic,” Mandel said at the time.
    The book has since been adapted into a 10-part miniseries by screenwriter Patrick Somerville, who also wrote for The Leftovers, another critically acclaimed drama about the collapse of civilisation. His adaptation of Station Eleven was released to rave reviews in the US and Australia.
    Station Eleven follows Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), first as a child actor (Matilda Lawler) orphaned by the Georgia flu in present-day Chicago and then 20 years in the future, where she makes a living as a roving performer in a theatre troupe called the Travelling Symphony. She and her friends tour the settlements of the Great Lakes performing music and Shakespeare plays to survivors, lifting their spirits and sharing their motto (originally from Star Trek: Voyager): “Survival is insufficient”.
    These two timelines, year zero and year 20, blur and merge with Kirsten’s fears for the future and recollections of her traumatic past, both of which intrude on her present. In particular, her thoughts return to Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), who took her in during the first weeks of the pandemic. Kirsten also repeatedly returns to a graphic novel, called Station Eleven, which she clung to as a child, and which takes on totemic importance in the post-pandemic world.
    “The episodes in year zero show a world unsettlingly like 2020, with cities emptied and aircraft grounded”
    Most of the characters we meet have some connection to the graphic novel and, in the series, its spaceman protagonist Doctor Eleven takes on a comforting presence, watching over Kirsten and her friends like a sort of benevolent god. The connections between characters are gradually revealed as the series slides back and forth in time. Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel, while her ex-husband Arthur (Gael García Bernal) is a movie star who was acting alongside young Kirsten in King Lear in the “before”. He dies on stage from Georgia flu.
    Though the pandemic of the TV show is a near-extinction event, the episodes set in year zero show a world unsettlingly like 2020, with supermarket shelves stripped bare, cities emptied and aircraft grounded. It also captures the lockdown surge in creativity as Kirsten, Jeevan and Frank find purpose and unity in making music and plays as the end of the world unfolds around them.
    By year 20, the parallels with our covid-19 pandemic are minimal. There is even a generation of “post-pans”: 20-somethings who never saw the world as we know it and who press Kirsten for stories of smartphones and Uber as if they were fairy tales. They weren’t that great, she reassures them.
    Not everyone is at peace in the post-pandemic world, as Kirsten and her friends discover with often devastating results. However, without shying away from confronting the turmoil and trauma of massive societal change, Station Eleven paints a surprisingly uplifting picture of the future, showing how civilisation might be rebuilt with art and community at its centre. It is a comforting vision as we ease into year three of living with covid-19.
    Mandel recently said she felt “profoundly uncomfortable” that her novel dealing with a fictional pandemic was being boosted by a real-world life-or-death one. But as these uncertain times continue, Station Eleven‘s vision of the future – where humanity endures, and beauty is cherished – is a reassuring one to share in.

    More on these topics: More

  • in

    Is Pluto a planet? The Spanish government's tax portal says it is

    Josie Ford
    Guess the planet
    Feedback has always been mildly sceptical of, not to say narked by, requests to click on pictures of bicycles and fire hydrants to prove we aren’t a robot. True, no one has ever seen an algorithm riding a bicycle, but when the shape-shifting terminator bots finally arrive, they will probably take on innocent forms such as fire hydrants. It might take one to know one.
    At least they won’t be able to get social security benefits in Spain. Genís Cardona from Solsona, Catalonia, reports accessing an official Spanish government portal for tax and welfare services and being requested to answer a quiz question: “Which of the following is a planet? A. Banana; B. Pluto; C. Scissors; D. Bee”.
    A decade and a half on, Pluto’s controversial demotion from planethood clearly still rankles in some quarters. Like Genís, we appreciate the spirit of this open defiance of the International Astronomical Union’s edicts. Come to think of it, though, does anyone know which side the robots are on?Advertisement
    Flipping bird
    Our mention of “New Zealand’s most annoying tūī” (1 January) prompts Matthew Arozian to write from Baltimore, Maryland, with the heartfelt insight that the Carolina wren – Thryothorus ludovicianus, we savour on our tongue – weighs approximately 18 to 22 grams yet produces calls that can reach 110 decibels.
    He asks us to imagine the cacophonous circus of a brood being taught to fly just outside his home-office window. We close our eyes, rapidly open them again and sympathise. Mind you, the transcendent benefits for our well-being of being within and bonded to nature are well known, Matthew. Call it home delivery.
    Polly the pickled parrot
    Staying with our feathered frenemies, our Australasia correspondent Alice Klein provides an addendum to our item last week about alcoholic overindulgence in the animal kingdom with the story of Broome Veterinary Hospital in Kimberley, Australia, which ABC News reported in December was treating a spate of red-winged parrots apparently boozed up on fermenting mangoes.
    As Michael Considine, a biologist at the University of Western Australia, pointed out, volatile compounds released by the fermentation of fallen mangoes attract the birds, encouraging them to propagate the plant’s seeds – even if, by whumping into windows, falling over and generally sitting around dazed and vulnerable to predators, the parrots’ own chances of survival aren’t exactly enhanced.
    Evolution in the raw, and a reminder to the rest of us not to drink and fly.
    Can’t find the words
    The Guardian reports rage and distress at copycat app versions of the online word game Wordle that assault the original’s innocent ethos of freedom from both charge and data hoovering. For those who haven’t yet fallen down this rabbit hole, Wordle confronts its players with a blank series of five letters to fill in, giving them six attempts to arrive at the actual five-letter word that the computer was thinking of, once told whether their letters appear in that word.
    As Fields medal-winning mathematician Tim Gowers has highlighted, this gamifies entropy in an information theory sense, as the information required to specify a given object. This makes it Solid Science, but Feedback has now fallen down the rabbit hole at the bottom of the rabbit hole with Sweardle, a game that does the same thing with a more limited set of four-letter words, and Letterle, which gives a maximum of 26 goes to guess a single letter. We know all of this is contributing to the heat death of the universe, but we can’t stop now.
    Tin lid on it
    Of which, many thanks to those of you who wrote in varying degrees of delight and distress over our fiendishly difficult holiday word search featuring the names of all the known fundamental particles, the chemical elements and the amino acids that make up life’s proteins (18/25 December 2021, p 43). We are treating it as a slow-burning abvent calendar – a term we just invented, and we expect letters about – finding one a day as Christmas recedes.
    For those of you whose year is off to an even slower start, we forward Bob Ladd’s query, which we take as expressing both delight and distress, asking how you might design the same word search with no accidental instances of TIN – apart from those required in TIN and ASTATINE, say. That sounds like a case for the entropy theory of information to us. And in response to Mike Clark’s query, we don’t know whether it is SULPHUR or SULFUR yet, either.
    Whale units
    Still in holiday mode, Harry Lagoussis writes from Athens concerning our statement that a lump of ambergris, or ancient whale poo, the size of a human head “could fetch you £50,000 or more” (18/25 December 2021, p 56).
    “Does that make the ‘shithead’ the standard unit of ambergris volume? And, perhaps more importantly, if 1 shithead = £50,000, does that justify the use of the selfsame unit when discussing the global financial system, celebrity net worth etc.?” he asks. At a punt, it’s no and no, but we will ask our ever-vigilant subeditors. And with that, we tiptoe out of the room.
    Got a story for Feedback?
    Send it to feedback@newscientist.com or New Scientist, Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TTConsideration of items sent in the post will be delayed
    You can send stories to Feedback by email at feedback@newscientist.com. Please include your home address. This week’s and past Feedbacks can be seen on our website. More

  • in

    What really makes people happy – and can you learn to be happier?

    Our life satisfaction is shaped by many things including our genes and relative wealth, but there is now good evidence that you can boost your basic happiness with these key psychological strategies

    Humans

    19 January 2022

    By David Robson
    Tara Moore/Getty Images; Matt Dartford
    WHAT MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY?
    You probably know the type: those Pollyannas who seem to have a relentlessly sunny disposition. Are they simply born happy? Is it the product of their environment? Or does it come from their life decisions?
    If you are familiar with genetics research, you will have guessed that it is a combination of all three. A 2018 study of 1516 Norwegian twins suggests that around 30 per cent of the variance in people’s life satisfaction is inherited. Much of this seems to be related to personality traits, such as neuroticism, which can leave people more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and extraversion, which encourages more gregarious behaviour. Both traits are known to be influenced by a range of genes.
    To put this in context, the heritability of IQ is thought to hover around 80 per cent, so environmental factors clearly play a role in our happiness. These include our physical health, the size and strength of our social network, job opportunities and income. The effect of income, in particular, is nuanced: it seems that the absolute value of our salary matters less than whether we feel richer than those around us, which may explain why the level of inequality predicts happiness better than GDP.
    Interestingly, many important life choices have only a fleeting influence on our happiness. Consider marriage. A 2019 study found that, on average, life satisfaction does rise after the wedding, but the feeling of married bliss tends to fade over middle age. Needless to say, this depends on the quality of the relationship: marriage’s impact on well-being is about twice as large … More

  • in

    The happiness revolution: How to boost the well-being of society

    We now know that economic growth doesn’t necessarily translate into greater well-being. A closer look at Nordic countries such as Finland reveals surprising truths about what really makes a happy society and how other governments can emulate their success

    Humans

    19 January 2022

    By David Robson
    Matt Dartford
    IF YOU want to maximise your chances of living a happy and fulfilled life, you might consider moving to one of the coldest, darkest countries in the world. Since 2012, The World Happiness Report has ranked the average life satisfaction of more than 150 nations. In the past four years, the top slot has been taken by one country: Finland.
    No one was more surprised than the Finns. “The Finnish self-image is that we are this introverted, melancholic people,” says Frank Martela, a philosopher and psychologist at Aalto University in Finland. More surprising, at first glance, is the fact that as the country has ascended to the top of the well-being charts, its economic development has remained remarkably flat.
    This seeming paradox confirms what many people have long suspected – that our traditional focus on economic growth doesn’t translate into greater well-being. While gross domestic product (GDP) continues to be the default proxy for people’s welfare, many economists and governments are waking up to the fact that our fixation on money is distracting us from policies that could actually improve the quality of people’s lives. Indeed, various nations, from the UK to New Zealand and Costa Rica, have now publicly stated their intention to track measures designed to better capture human happiness.
    Clearly, this is no trivial task. So what can we learn from the evidence emerging from psychology, and the social sciences more broadly, about the various factors that contribute to our emotional well-being? And what, if anything, can that tell us about how other countries can emulate Finland’s success?
    One of the biggest problems is that happiness is … More

  • in

    Unknown voices spark more brain activity in sleep than familiar ones

    Unfamiliar voices seem to put the sleeping brain on alert in a way that familiar voices don’t

    Humans

    17 January 2022

    By Jason Arunn Murugesu
    Electroencephalography (EEG) is used to monitor brain activityShutterstock / NPS_87
    The sleeping brain is more active if it hears unfamiliar voices rather than familiar ones. The finding suggests that we can process information about our environments even in the depths of sleep.
    Manuel Schabus at the University of Salzburg in Austria and his colleagues monitored 17 people, with an average age of 23, in a sleep lab over two nights. Brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalography (EEG) machine.
    “The first night was so that the subjects could get comfortable with their new environment,” says Schabus.Advertisement
    During the second night, while the participants were asleep, they played an audio recording of human speech on loop. The voice was either unfamiliar to the sleeper or belonged to a familiar person, such as a parent or a romantic partner.
    In either case, the voice repeatedly uttered three first names: two random but common names and the name of the sleeper. The audio recordings were played for four 90-minute periods during the night. There was a 30-minute gap between each audio recording so that it would be easier for people to stay asleep.
    The audio was played at a volume so as not to wake the participants up. “We adjusted the sound levels individually,” says Schabus.

    The researchers found that unfamiliar voices generated more brain activity in the sleepers than familiar voices. In particular, they found an increase in the number of K-complexes – a type of brainwave that is slow and isolated – when the subjects heard unfamiliar voices.
    “K-complexes are interesting because they show the immediate response to a disturbance,” says Schabus. That response is divided into two parts, he says: first, the brain processes the information, then it inhibits the information so it doesn’t wake up the sleeping individual.
    If the participant’s brain activity suggested that they were on the verge of waking up, the researchers lowered the volume of the recordings to help them stay asleep.
    Schabus says it makes sense evolutionarily why unfamiliar voices generate stronger brain activity than familiar ones. “Unfamiliar voices should not be speaking to you at night – it sets off an alarm,” he says.
    The finding may be part of the reason why we sometimes struggle to sleep in new environments, such as hotel rooms, says Schabus.
    “This study shows that unfamiliar voices disturb sleeping people more than familiar ones,” says Julie Darbyshire at the University of Oxford. “We see these effects when hospital patients find it very hard to sleep.”
    “Partly, this is because almost nothing in the environment is familiar. As well as unfamiliar voices, patients will also be surrounded by equipment with unfamiliar and unpredictable pings, bongs and beeps.”
    Unfamiliar voices also triggered fewer K-complexes in the second half of the night compared with the first half. “It means we can learn something new in the near-unconscious state,” says Schabus.
    But he notes that this doesn’t mean we can learn new words during sleep. “You need the night to sleep and rest and if you don’t sleep properly, it does more harm than good for learning,” he says.
    Journal reference: Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.2524-20.2021

    More on these topics: More