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Earthly origins; Egyptian medicine; polar race; stylish dinosaurs; unstuffy writings. Plus: who's reading what 58

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How Boston plansto reverse its tech brain drain, and why the future is looking rosy for the rest of the region 61

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"Nowhere is too remote or dangerous for the dinosaur hunters. Fossils have been found in the Antarctic, remote deserts, even war zones"

Going to extremes to bag another fossil find, page 36

Tourism's sea change p 18

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Editorial

Downsize me

We may be in for some surprises if the I a stest weight-loss plans succeed

WE HUMANS have evolved to fatten ourselves up when food is abundant, so we can make it through the lean times. It is this tendency, the theory goes, that has been our downfall in recent decades as shops and restaurants have filled with cheap, abundant, energy-rich food. Without the lean times, the world westerners inhabit has become "obesogenic" and the outcome is all too obvious: 30 percent of US adults are obese, and the number who are overweight has tripled in 20 years.

There is no shortage of potential solutions, from raising the price of food to persuading people to exercise, most of which are unacceptable for one reason or another. The great hope is for a technical fix, a medical intervention that will stop obesity in its tracks until we can adapt to our new environment. Up to now, the only reliable way to shed weight has been through surgery, too drastic for most people, so news that two alternatives are nearing market is of real interest.

One is a vaccine against ghrelin, a hormone that tells the brain you are hungry. The second is a drug that binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, blocking the craving for food (see page 9). Both demonstrate our new-found expertise in targeting individual circuits within the brain.

It would be premature to get too excited about these compounds until they have been more widely tested. The first candidate hormone for modifying appetite, leptin, turned out to be a damp squib. Also, if people are going to take these substances for long periods, their side effects will have to be minimal.

Yet one thing sets these substances apart. Almost all past weight-loss drugs have worked by stopping the absorption of nutrients in the gut or by boosting metabolism to bum off fat.

Both allowed people to eat pretty much as usual. By contrast, the new approaches are designed to lower the desire for food.

If the drugs do prove safe for large numbers of people the consequences could be fascinating. Demand for food would fall, which would ease pressure to increase production down on the farm. "Supersize" meals would fall from fashion as smaller portions became a virtue. It might even signal the beginning of the end of the obesogenic environment.

This is all highly speculative, but hunger and greed are such central human impulses that manipulating them at this most basic level is bound to have major ramifications. Now, where is the brain circuit that controls the desire to exercise...? •

"The great hope isforatechnical fix thatwill stop obesity in its tracks until we can adapt to our environment"

It all began the year vue landed on the moon

THE best columnists do not merely present opinions. They provoke, educate, pursue the truth and challenge authority and orthodoxy. By those standards, Tam Dalyell, whose final Westminster Diary appears this week, has done an exemplary job. New Scientist does not usually mark the retirement of scientists, writers or editors, but for Tam we have made an exception: he has been writing compelling columns for more than 36 years (see page 55).

Tam has also just retired as a Labour MP. He shot to fame in the early 1980s for his efforts to expose events behind the torpedoing of the Argentine warship General Belgrano during the Falklands war. He was never less than tenacious in his pursuit of truth and justice, not caring which party or leader he criticised.

In New Scientist, Tam provided a conduit for researchers to speak to Parliament and vice versa. He wrote about everything from dam safety to the plight of war veterans and the availability of antivenin. He covered all manner of environmental issues, nuclear power and chemical weapons.

Tam displayed the same doggedness in preparing his column as he did in the House. He fired off New Scientist articles to ministers, asking them awkward questions which parliamentary protocol obliged them to answer. Those replies filled his own column and provided leads for reporters. For this, for the revelations, the tenacity, the integrity and entertainment, we thank Tam and wish him well for the future. •

Something must be done! Or maybe not. In the wake of the massive human and environmental destruction caused by the 26 December tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the natural reaction is to try everything possible to put things right. But research commissioned by the World Bank suggests that when it comes to coral reefs, trying the opposite would be more effective.

Governments in the region are looking at engineering proposals to restore battered reefs, induding re-cementing corals or constructing artificial concrete and wire reefs.

"Quick fixes are being offered to governments, but these restoration projects are totally unproven," says marine biologist Alasdair Edwards, who chairs the World Bank's Coral

Restoration and Remediation Working Group. "Coral reefs have been subject to natural disasters for millions of years, and they have survived and adapted."

Although reef damagewas much less severe than damage on land, almost 20 per cent of Mk reef sites sun/eyed in Thailand by the Thai government were badly affected by the tsunami, with 13 per cent severely damaged. In most cases, the sediment, trees, cars and other debris sucked into the sea by the backwash after the first waves were most destructive. Cleaning this rubble would be worthwhile, says Edwards.

"Governmentsshould concentrate their scant resources on reduang the other threats," such as pollution and dynamite fishing, says Craig Turner of the Coral Cay Conservation group in London.

DON'T HELP TSUNAMI-HIT CORALS

Rural phone risk?

ANOTHER week, another less-than-convincing study on cellphones and cancer. This time the claim is that not only is there a link but that digital mobile phone users living in rural areas are three times more likely to develop malignant brain tumours than their urban counterparts.

The claim, by a team at Orebro University Hospital in Sweden, is based on a new analysis of data from an earlier study in which

"They didn't rule out exposure to agricultural chemicals as a reason for the cancer risk"

1500 people with brain tumours and 1500 matched controls were asked about their cellphone usage, to see if there were any links with cancer risk. This kind of study is notoriously unreliable because it relies on people's memories.

The team says that one possible explanation for their finding is that mobiles emit stronger signals in rural areas, where base stations are more spread out. This is a reasonable theory, says Michael Clark at the UK's Health Protection Agency, but not one this study proves. For instance, the study does not take into account the position and densities of base stations in relation to where the subjects live. Nor did the team rule out exposure to agricultural chemicals as a reason for the apparently increased cancer risk in rural areas.

Most damning of all is the fact that although it is ostensibly a large study involving nearly 3000 people, the headline conclusion of a threefold greater risk in rural areas is based on a subset of only 10 patients and just one control.

Clark points out that several large studies are under way. These studies, whose results are expected over the next few years, should help settle the issue of whether or not cellphones do increase the risk of cancer.

Drug-rep journals

MEDICAL journals have become little more than marketing tools for the pharmaceutical industry, says Richard Smith, former editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal. And he has a drastic solution: journals should stop publishing the results of clinical trials and criticise them instead.

Most trials are paid for by companies, and Smith says they have become adept at ensuring that the results are favourable. The tricks range from simply asking the "right" questions to making sure the doses of any rival drug are too low or too high, or doing multi-centre trials but only reporting from centres with the best results. Often positive results are published several times. "I must confess that it took me almost a quarter of a century editing for the BMJ to wake up to what was happening," Smith writes in PLoSMedicine (vol 2, p 365).

Peer review usually fails to expose these tricks, he says. And there can also be a financial incentive for journals to publish privately funded studies: the companies involved often order thousands of reprints, which is highly lucrative for the journals. Smith argues that more trials need to be publicly funded, while the results of those that are paid for by companies should be published only on regulated websites, not in journals.

None of the other medical journal editors contacted by New Scientist would comment.

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