Page 1: Europe should test more broadly for swine flu

6 June 2009 | NewScientist | 7



















THE Vatican seldom approves of scientists meddling with God’s creation. So the decision of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to back oft-demonised genetically

modified crops as an answer to world hunger and poverty may come as a surprise.

GM crops were heartily endorsed at a week-long seminar held by the academy in mid-May. Participants agreed that the crops offer food safety and security, better health and environmental sustainability. That verdict is not shared by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a global UN-backed think tank that last year rejected GM as a solution to hunger.

Some say the seminar excluded dissenters within the church who fear that GM technology allows multinationals to control agriculture at the expense of the poor. But participants deny bias: they also concluded that regulations are too strict, so only big companies can afford to get GM crops approved, whereas non-profit organisations that want to help the poor cannot.

Modified manna

AN ANIMATION that sheds light on why a type of baseball pitch called a “curve ball” often fools batters has been voted Visual Illusion of the Year by the US Vision Sciences Society .

One of the weapons in a pitcher’s armoury is to give the ball a spin that causes its trajectory to curve. The curve is smooth, but batters see the ball as if it is going straight and then suddenly changes direction,

making it hard to hit. Now psychologist Arthur Shapiro of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, has created an animation of a ball that offers clues as to why this is.

Like a real baseball, the animated ball is spinning. It is also falling vertically. Viewers who look directly at it perceive it correctly as moving downwards, while those viewing it from the corner of their eye perceive it to be moving at an angle. This suggests that when we use our peripheral vision, the brain uses the internal motion of objects – in this case, spinning – as well as their overall direction to determine how an object is

moving. In this case, it causes the ball to appear to move to the side.

Shapiro notes that curve balls start off in the centre of a batter’s vision but overlap with the peripheral system as they come nearer. This transition may be why such balls appear to change direction suddenly, he says.

The animation can be seen at .

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Maths inequalityThe paucity of female

mathematicians may be a result

of cultural, not innate, factors.

Teams entered for the International

Mathematics Olympiad had more

girls if they were from countries

with higher educational,

professional and political inequality

(Proceedings of the National

Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/


Ocean volcano surpriseHas a huge underwater volcano

appeared in Indonesia? A seamount

4600 metres high was found during

a survey of the Indian Ocean. No

signs had been seen before, so some

doubt the claim. “A volcano cannot

possibly emerge all of a sudden,”

geologist Iskandar Zulkarnaen told

the Antara news agency.

Witches begoneContents of a rare, sealed “witch

bottle” unearthed in Greenwich,

London, have been analysed. Witch

bottles were often buried in the

16th and 17th centuries to ward

off spells. This one contained a nail-

pierced leather “heart”, fingernail

clippings, navel fluff, hair and human

urine, British Archaeology reports.

Pluripotent pig cellsAdult pig cells have been “rewound”

to an embryonic state. As it is easier

to genetically manipulate embryonic

stem cells than adult cells, these

cells should ease the creation of

genetically modified, disease-free

pigs, which could one day provide

organs for transplantation into

people (Journal of Molecular Cell

Biology, DOI: 10.1093/jmcb/mjpoo3).

Penguin poopPenguins are not visible from space,

but their faeces are. British Antarctic

Survey scientists have used satellite

images to locate the reddish-brown

guano stains of emperor penguin

colonies. The work will allow the

team to monitor the penguins’

response to climate change.

–Spinning an illusion–

Behind the curve

Test more, Europe

“Dissenters fear that genetic modification allows multinationals to control agriculture”

“The transition from central to peripheral vision may explain why curve balls appear to change direction”

EVIDENCE is growing that Europe should test more people for swine flu. Most European countries recommend testing only those who are already sick and have met someone known to be infected or visited a severely affected country. But this cannot detect the virus if it is spreading between people who don’t meet these criteria .

Now it looks as if Europe is indeed missing cases. Last week doctors in Greece tested two men who had returned from the UK with flu symptoms, even though they did not meet the testing criteria. The men tested positive . The doctors say Europe’s criteria should change. Testing in North America and Australia already targets a broader range of people.

The UK now recommends tests for people with flu symptoms but not the requisite contact or travel histories, if swine flu cases have been reported in their region.


–The Arctic is rich in oil and gas–

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