Are you a lark or an owl?

Are you a lark or an owl?

Are you a lark or an owl?

Woman stretching happily on the left, man yawning on the right
How you feel early in the morning is affected by your genetic makeup

Whether you prefer being up at dawn or burning the midnight oil depends on your genes, experts have found.

Some of us leap out of bed each morning, raring to start the day. Others need at least one alarm clock – preferably one with a snooze button – to ensure they get to work on time.

And some of us happily stay up chatting until the wee small hours, while others prefer to be tucked up listening to ‘Book at Bedtime’ with the lights turned out.

We really are divided into larks and owls. And this is set by our genes, says neurogeneticist Dr Louis Ptacek of University of California.

He says: “Whether we like it or not our parents are telling us when to go to bed – based on the genes that they gave us.”

Scientists have come to realise the importance of understanding a person’s chronotype, the time of the day when they function the best.

“Start Quote

If you have a fast clock you like to do things early, and if you have a slow clock you like to do things late”

Professor Derk-Jan Dijk,University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre.

Knowing how much of a lark or an owl we are should help us live more healthily in the modern 24/7 world.

Rick Neubig, a professor of pharmacology in Michigan, is an extreme lark.

“People I communicated with in Europe will always notice that they get emails from me very early in the morning.

“The other thing I like a lot which fits in with the early mornings is that I’m a fairly serious bird watcher. It’s much easier for me than other people to get up and see the birds at dawn.”

And it runs in his family.

“My mother would always drag us out of bed at 4 in the morning to go on vacation, and my daughter works out early in the morning.”

‘Strong genetic trait’

Dr Louis Ptacek is studying the families of larks like Rick’s that have Familial Advanced Sleep Phase syndrome. He got into this area of research when his colleague Dr Chris Jones met a 69 year old who was worried about waking up very early and whose concern had been ignored by other medics.

Drs Ptacek and Jones looked at her family.

“We recognised this was a strong genetic trait. We found the mutated gene resided near the end of chromosome 2”, says Louis Ptacek.

They knew that if similar genes were mutated in fruit flies and mice the circadian clocks speed up. The mutated gene made a different protein that affects the rhythm of the clock.

“Start Quote

The famous lateness of teenagers is a real thing”

Prof Til RoennenbergLudwig-Maximilians University

They also study families of extreme owls, with Familial Delayed Sleep Phase syndrome. And they think this was due to a different mutation in the same genes.

Mutations in other genes have been found in other families with advanced or delayed sleep patterns.

We all have internal circadian clocks – the master clock is made up of thousands of nerve cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a wing – shaped structure located in the hypothalamus, at the base of the brain.

The hypothalamus controls all kinds of bodily functions, from releasing hormones to regulating temperature and water intake.

This internal clock is reset every day by light. You might expect that since the earth’s day lasts 24 hours, everyone’s clocks would run to a similar schedule.

But they don’t. That’s why there are larks and owls.

“If you have a fast clock you like to do things early, and if you have a slow clock you like to do things late,” says Prof Derk-Jan Dijk, Head of the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre.

‘A sleep map of the world’

Our clocks are not fixed throughout life. Anyone who has small children will know they’re prone to waking early, as do the elderly.

But whatever the speed of your clock we have to fit in with the way that society is set up with its 9-5 working times.

This can be particularly hard for teenagers, who generally find it hard to get up in the morning.

Find out more about sleep

Man turns off alarm clock

Prof Till Roenneberg of Ludwig-Maximilians University has looked at the sleeping patterns of this age group with the help of his Munich Chronotype Questionnaire.

“We can show that the famous lateness of teenagers is a real thing. They get later through childhood and puberty and reach a point of lateness at 19 and a half for women and 21 for men. It was so clear it was astonishing.

“Our database has over 200,000 participants. We are hoping for a sleep map of the world.”

Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University in the US, is campaigning for schools to start later.

“School grades don’t get always higher but for me one of the most important aspects of sleep loss is the issue of depression and sadness and lack of motivation of kids.

“The moods improve when schools start later.”

But not many schools around the world have chosen a later start time.

After all, most people do fit in with the working day, although they may be suffering from exhaustion.

Social jet lag

Prof Roenneberg has a catchy way of describing and measuring the sleep deprivation many suffer during the working or studying week, when we rely on alarm clocks to get us out of bed.

He calls it social jet lag.

He finds that the middle of people’s sleep on work days is usually earlier than that on free days. The difference is their social jet lag.

“On average people accumulate one to two hours of social jet lag, though some can get up to five hours, particularly in the young, who still have to get to work at the same time as older people,” says Prof Roenneberg.

Having social jetlag is like flying from New York to London every weekend. And it’s harder to get over social jet lag than time zone jet lag.

But Prof Roenneberg says there are things we can do to overcome social jetlag.

“We should be changing work times and making them more individual to fit in with our chronotypes. If that’s not possible we should be more strategic about light exposure.

“You should try to go to work not in a covered vehicle but on a bike. The minute the sun sets we should use things that have no blue light, like computer screens and other electronic devices.”

Scientists accidentally record ball lightning in nature for first time.

Chinese researchers have done the seemingly impossible: observed and recorded an instance of ball lightning completely by accident. And it bodes well for a decade-old theory about the nature of the conundrum.

An instance of ball lightning re-created in the lab last year by a team at the US Air Force Academy.

(Credit: Mike Lindsay/US Air Force Academy)

Ball lightning, a phenomenon in which a glowing orb of light persists for seconds after a lightning strike, is one of the most enduring atmospheric mysteries in science. Reported sightings date as far back as ancient Greece — an occurrence of ball lightning is rumored to have killed 18th century scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann — and re-creating it synthetically has been a daunting feat, accomplished by only a few research teams after Nikola Tesla managed to first manifest spherical charges in the lab in 1904.

  • Since then, little progress has been made toward concrete theories that can explain the strange, near-mystical nature of ball lightning. However, a group of Chinese scientists in 2012 managed, completely by accident, to not only observe and record an instance of it in Qinghai in western China, but to measure the contents of the orb with spectrographs. It marks the first time ever the phenomenon has ever been captured in nature.

While recorded sightings of ball lightning are numerous throughout history and prevalent now on YouTube, the use of spectrographs make this instance a telling achievement, and worthy of publication Friday in the journal Physical Review Letters.

One of the most grounded theories regarding ball lightning, proposed by John Abrahamson and James Dinniss of the University of Canterbury in Cristchurch, New Zealand, is that it’s caused by lightning striking soil and turning its chemical contents into a vapor. That vapor is said to then condense into a ball of floating aerosol that glows with the heat of the soil’s elements mixing with oxygen. Thanks to the spectrograph readings, this theory, first postulated in 2000, now seems all the more plausible.

The scientists — Jianyong Cen, Ping Yuan, and Simin Xue — were observing a thunderstorm when the ball lightning, 5 meters wide and lasting roughly 1.6 seconds, appeared before their eyes. They took their gear, which consisted of camera equipment alongside the slitless spectrographs, back to the lab where the team discovered that the orb contained the same elements found predominately in the soil: silicon, iron, and calcium. “The spectral analysis indicates that the radiation from soil elements is present for the entire lifetime of the BL [ball lightning],” the team’s report concluded. The accompanying video recording of the occurrence has not been released at this time.

When reached by NewScientist regarding the findings, Abrahamson said, “Here’s an observation which has all the hallmarks of our theory. This is gold dust as far as confirmation goes.”

The findings are not entirely conclusive regarding the nature of ball lightning and not evidence that Abrahamson’s theory is universally applicable. For instance, it does not explain how ball lightning can pass through indoor environments like people’s homes or inside the cockpit of a plane, as was the case in an instance of ball lightning that passed through the cockpit of a C-133A cargo plane traveling to Hawaii from California. Nor does it address what causes the bang many say to be typical in the evaporation of the orbs.

Still, the findings do bring validation to the idea that ball lightning’s mysterious nature may, in some cases, be nothing more than an explainable and perfectly natural chemical reaction between the power of a lightning strike and the ground we stand on.



Rosetta comet chaser set to wake up on Monday after three years’ sleep

If it awakes, Rosetta will catch up with a comet and send down a lander to ride the dirty snowball as it rushes towards the sun
  • Rosetta deploys Philae spacecraft to land on comet
After it has braked and pulled alongside the comet, Rosetta will send down a lander called Philae. Illustration: Esa

At 10am GMT on Monday morning an alarm clock will rouse a snoozing spacecraft that is hurtling through the darkest reaches of the solar system. Launched 10 years ago, and in hibernation for the last three, the time for action has come at last.

The European Space Agency‘s Rosetta probe aims for a spectacular first in space exploration. The billion-euro machine will catch up with a comet, circle it slowly, and throw down a lander to the surface. With gravity too weak to keep it there, the box of electronics and sensors on legs will cling to its ride with an explosive metal harpoon.

Together, the Rosetta probe and its lander, Philae, will scan and poke the comet as it tears towards the sun. As the comet draws near, it will warm and spew huge plumes of gas and dust in a tail more than one million kilometres long. The spectacle has never been captured up close before.

The comet, named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, formed from cosmic debris 4.6bn years ago, before material had coalesced to form the Earth and our nearest planets, and the sun was a newborn star. Even rocket scientists find the comet’s name hard work. Some opt instead for “Chury”.

By studying the comet – some of the most pristine and primordial material there is – scientists hope to learn more about the origins of the solar system. The presence of ice, and traces of organics, might hint at answers to other big questions: how Earth got its water and how life began. But first the spacecraft must wake up.

Rosetta was put into hibernation in June 2011 when its trajectory took it so far from the sun – beyond the orbit of Jupiter – that light reaching its solar panels was too feeble to provide power. Mission scientists deliberately built in the dormant stage of its voyage, but the silence is still nerve-wracking. No one has heard from the spacecraft since.

For mission controllers, Monday will be a day of finger-tapping and watching the clock. If all goes to plan, at 10am on the dot, an electronic circuit will stir into life on the spacecraft, which is more than 700m kilometres from Earth and almost as far out in the solar system as the orbit of Jupiter. First to switch on will be heaters hooked up to Rosetta’s star trackers. Once they have warmed up, they will stare into space and, from the positions of the stars, work out which way the probe is facing.

When Rosetta has gained its bearings, thrusters will fire to stop the spacecraft from spinning. Next, they will turn the probe so its antenna points to Earth. Only then, perhaps eight hours after the alarm clock sounds, can Rosetta send a message home. “There’s apprehension and excitement. Some people have put their lives into this,” said Matt Taylor, project scientist on Rosetta at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. “But it’s a bit like a teenager waking up. It takes some time to get out of bed.”

Mission controllers will spend the next three months checking that the systems and scientific instruments onboard Rosetta and its lander are in working order. The spacecraft is bearing down on the comet at more than 3,500km per hour, so in May the spacecraft must pull a major braking manoeuvre to slow its approach to walking speed.

Once Rosetta has moved alongside the comet, it will steer itself into an orbit that takes it within 20km of the surface. From here, its cameras can begin to map the surface and search for a landing spot for Philae. The comet is 4km wide, roughly the size of Mont Blanc, and the surface is unlikely to be smooth.

Placing a lander on a speeding comet has never been achieved for a reason: it is extraordinarily difficult. After scouring the surface for hazards, mission controllers will send details of their chosen landing site and flight instructions to Rosetta, but from then on the process will be automatic. The communications delay makes it impossible to control the spacecraft directly from Earth.

Rosetta will perform a series of manoeuvres in November to bring it within three kilometres of the comet’s surface. From here, the spacecraft can lob Philae straight down to its landing site. Rosetta must compensate for movement of the comet, so the lander does not slide or tumble when it makes contact. When Philae touches down, an explosive harpoon will fire into the ground, with luck holding the lander steady.

rosetta_1801_newFor Hermann Boehnhardt, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Lindau and lead scientist on the Philae lander, this will be the moment of truth. He says so little is known about comets, they cannot be sure what they will land on. “Philae was designed to land on a surface as hard as a table or as soft as powder snow. Our hope is that the comet is somewhere between the two,” Boehnhardt told the Guardian.

The lander has a crucial role to play in the Rosetta mission. Once it has latched on to the comet, Philae will take pictures and sense gases and particles that come off as the comet nears the sun. These can then be compared with similar measurements from the orbiting Rosetta mothership. In one experiment, called Consert, Rosetta will send radiowaves to Philae from the other side of the comet, to create an x-ray like image of the comet’s interior.

The lander could survive the comet’s trip around the sun, but the electronics are expected to pack up sooner, not from the sun’s heat, but an inability to cool the circuits. Even when dead, the lander could cling to the comet for several laps around the sun, each taking more than six years. With each lap, more material from the comet will vapourise into space. “Eventually, we will lose our grip. The ground beneath us will just disappear,” said Boehnhardt.

Astronomers regard comets as dirty snowballs, huge lumps of ice laced with dust and other substances, including organic material. Through flurries of ancient collisions, they may have helped to shape the early Earth by delivering water for the oceans and atmosphere, and even amino acids needed for life to emerge.

“Comets are time capsules from the origin of the solar system. It is still a big mystery exactly how the planets formed, but when you start looking at comets, you start to get an idea how it all happened,” said Taylor. “This is difficult, but I am confident. It is going to be amazing.”

Study doubts quantum computer speed.

D-Wave Two quantum computer at Nasa Ames

A D-Wave machine has been installed at Nasa Ames Research Center in California

  • A new academic study has raised doubts about the performance of a commercial quantum computer in certain circumstances.

In some tests devised by a team of researchers, the commercial quantum computer has performed no faster than a standard desktop machine.

The team set random maths problems for the D-Wave Two machine and a regular computer with an optimised algorithm.

Google and Nasa share a D-Wave unit at a space agency facility in California.

The comparison found no evidence D-Wave’s $15m (£9.1m) computer was exploiting quantum mechanics to calculate faster than a regular machine.

"Qubit" probability distributions
  • But the team only looked at one type of computing problem and the D-Wave Two may perform better in other tasks.

The study has been submitted to a journal, but has not yet completed the peer review process to verify the findings.

And D-Wave told BBC News the tests set by the scientists were not the kinds of problems where quantum computers offered any advantage over classical types.

Quantum computers promise to carry out fast, complex calculations by tapping into the principles of quantum mechanics.

Daunting challenge

In conventional computers, “bits” of data are stored as a string of 1s and 0s.

But in a quantum system, “qubits” can be both 1s and 0s at the same time – enabling multiple calculations to be performed simultaneously.

Small-scale, laboratory-bound quantum computers supporting a limited number of qubits can perform simple calculations.

But building large-scale versions poses a daunting engineering challenge.

Thus, Canada-based D-Wave Systems drew scepticism when, in 2011, they started selling their machines, which appeared to use a non-mainstream method known as adiabatic quantum computing.

But last year, two separate studies showed indirect evidence for a quantum effect known as entanglement in the computers. And in a separate study released in 2013, Catherine McGeoch of Amherst College in Massachusetts, a consultant for D-Wave, found the machine was 3,600 times faster on some tests than a desktop computer.

Last year, it was announced that Google, Nasa and other scientists would share time on a D-Wave Two – which has a liquid helium-cooled processor operating close to the temperature known as absolute zero – at the US space agency’s Ames facility in California.

In the latest research, Prof Matthias Troyer of ETH Zurich and colleagues set random maths problems for a D-Wave machine owned by defence giant Lockheed Martin, pitting it against a desktop machine.

Their results revealed that there were some instances in which D-Wave Two was faster than the “classical” computer, but likewise there were others where it performed more slowly.

D-Wave Two
Nasa and Google are using the machine to investigate complex problems

Overall, Prof Troyer’s team found no evidence for what they call “quantum speedup” in the D-Wave machine.

But Jeremy Hilton, D-Wave’s vice-president of processor development, told BBC News: “The 512 qubit processor – used in this recent benchmarking study – was able to meet and match the state-of-the-art classical algorithms and computers even though it has been shown that these particular benchmarking problems will not benefit from a quantum speedup.

“Hence, for this particular benchmark, one does not expect to see a scaling advantage for quantum annealing.”

Indeed, in the latest paper, Matthias Troyer and his colleagues write: “Our results for one particular benchmark do not rule out the possibility of speedup for other classes of problems and illustrate that quantum speedup is elusive and can depend on the question posed.”

Mr Hilton commented: “An important element of D-Wave’s technology is our roadmap and vision. We are laser focused on the performance of the machine, understanding how the technology is working so we can continue to improve it and solve real world problems.

He added: “Our customers are interested in solving real world problems that classical computers are less suited for and are often more complex than what we glean from a straightforward benchmarking test.”

D-Wave says it currently has a 1,000 qubit processor in its lab and plans to release it later in 2014.

“Our goal with the next generation of processors is to enhance quantum annealing performance, such that even benchmarks repeated at the 512 qubit scale would perform and scale better. We haven’t yet seen any fundamental limits to performance that cannot be improved with design changes,” Mr Hilton explained.

Is our Sun falling silent?

Rebecca Morelle reports for Newsnight on the solar lull that is baffling scientists

“I’ve been a solar physicist for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says Richard Harrison, head of space physics at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

He shows me recent footage captured by spacecraft that have their sights trained on our star. The Sun is revealed in exquisite detail, but its face is strangely featureless.

“If you want to go back to see when the Sun was this inactive… you’ve got to go back about 100 years,” he says.

This solar lull is baffling scientists, because right now the Sun should be awash with activity.

Image of Sun from Solar Dynamics ObservatoryThe Sun’s activity may be falling faster than at any time in 10,000 years

It has reached its solar maximum, the point in its 11-year cycle where activity is at a peak.

This giant ball of plasma should be peppered with sunspots, exploding with flares and spewing out huge clouds of charged particles into space in the form of coronal mass ejections.

Solar flare
The Sun should be at the peak of its activity – bursting with flares and coronal mass ejections

But apart from the odd event, like some recent solar flares, it has been very quiet. And this damp squib of a maximum follows a solar minimum – the period when the Sun’s activity troughs – that was longer and lower than scientists expected.

“It’s completely taken me and many other solar scientists by surprise,” says Dr Lucie Green, from University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The drop off in activity is happening surprisingly quickly, and scientists are now watching closely to see if it will continue to plummet.

“It could mean a very, very inactive star, it would feel like the Sun is asleep… a very dormant ball of gas at the centre of our Solar System,” explains Dr Green.

This, though, would certainly not be the first time this has happened.

“Start Quote

It’s an unusually rapid decline”

Prof Mike LockwoodUniversity of Reading

During the latter half of the 17th Century, the Sun went through an extremely quiet phase – a period called the Maunder Minimum.

Historical records reveal that sunspots virtually disappeared during this time.

Dr Green says: “There is a very strong hint that the Sun is acting in the same way now as it did in the run-up to the Maunder Minimum.”

Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics, from the University of Reading, thinks there is a significant chance that the Sun could become increasingly quiet.

An analysis of ice-cores, which hold a long-term record of solar activity, suggests the decline in activity is the fastest that has been seen in 10,000 years.

“It’s an unusually rapid decline,” explains Prof Lockwood.

Painting of the Maunder Minimum frost fair
Londoners enjoyed frost fairs on the Thames in the 17th Century

“We estimate that within about 40 years or so there is a 10% to 20% – nearer 20% – probability that we’ll be back in Maunder Minimum conditions.”

The era of solar inactivity in the 17th Century coincided with a period of bitterly cold winters in Europe.

Londoners enjoyed frost fairs on the Thames after it froze over, snow cover across the continent increased, the Baltic Sea iced over – the conditions were so harsh, some describe it as a mini-Ice Age.

And Prof Lockwood believes that this regional effect could have been in part driven by the dearth of activity on the Sun, and may happen again if our star continues to wane.

“It’s a very active research topic at the present time, but we do think there is a mechanism in Europe where we should expect more cold winters when solar activity is low,” he says.

He believes this local effect happens because the amount of ultraviolet light radiating from the Sun dips when solar activity is low.

This means that less UV radiation hits the stratosphere – the layer of air that sits high above the Earth. And this in turn feeds into the jet stream – the fast-flowing air current in the upper atmosphere that can drive the weather.

The results of this are dominantly felt above Europe, says Prof Lockwood.

People enjoy the snow at Greenwich Park in London January 20, 2013
Cold, snowy winters could become the norm for Europe

“These are large meanders in the jet stream, and they’re called blocking events because they block off the normal moist, mild winds we get from the Atlantic, and instead we get cold air being dragged down from the Arctic and from Russia,” he says.

“These are what we call a cold snap… a series of three or four cold snaps in a row adds up to a cold winter. And that’s quite likely what we’ll see as solar activity declines.”

So could this regional change in Europe have a knock-on effect on for the rest of the world’s climate? And what are the implications for global warming?

In a recent report by the UN’s climate panel, scientists concluded that they were 95% certain that humans were the “dominant cause” of global warming since the 1950s, and if greenhouse gases continue to rise at their current rate, then the global mean temperature could rise by as much as 4.8C.

“Start Quote

This feels like a period where it’s very strange… but also it stresses that we don’t really understand the star that we live with”

Prof Richard HarrisonRutherford Appleton Laboratory

And while some have argued that ebbs and flows in the Sun’s activity are driving the climate – overriding the effect of greenhouse gas emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that solar variation only makes a small contribution to the Earth’s climate.

Prof Lockwood says that while UV light varies with solar activity, other forms of radiation from the Sun that penetrate the troposphere (the lower layer of air that sits above the Earth) do not change that much.

He explains: “If we take all the science that we know relating to how the Sun emits heat and light and how that heat and light powers our climate system, and we look at the climate system globally, the difference that it makes even going back into Maunder Minimum conditions is very small.

“I’ve done a number of studies that show at the very most it might buy you about five years before you reach a certain global average temperature level. But that’s not to say, on a more regional basis there aren’t changes to the patterns of our weather that we’ll have to get used to.”

Polar lights – one manifestation of solar activity in the Earth’s magnetosphere – may dim

But this weather would not be the only consequence of a drawn out period of inactivity, says Dr Green.

“If the Sun were to get very quiet, one of the few things that would happen is that we’d have very few displays of the northern lights. They are driven by solar activity, and we’d miss out on this beautiful natural phenomenon,” she explains.

However, there could be positive effects too.

“Solar activity drives a whole range of space weather, and these are ultimately effects on the electricity networks, on satellites, on radio communications and GPS on your sat-nav,” she explains.

And while scientists cannot discount that the random bursts of activity may still occur, calmer periods of space weather would help to maintain the technological infrastructure that we rely so heavily on.

While the full consequences of a quietening Sun are not fully understood, one thing scientists are certain about is that our star is unpredictable, and anything could happen next.

“This feels like a period where it’s very strange… but also it stresses that we don’t really understand the star that we live with.” says Prof Harrison.

“Because it’s complicated – it’s a complex beast.”

Can anti-smoking tactics curb obesity?

Woman smoking

New guidelines from the National Obesity Forum suggest using “harder hitting” anti-obesity campaigns, akin to anti-tobacco campaigns, in the UK. The debate about whether to treat obesity like smoking is one that has played out in the US, with researchers still searching for the most effective way to improve health outcomes.

As former smoker, Dan Gilmore realised the power of stark works and images in changing his behaviour.

“Somewhere along the line, people said, ‘Would you please go outside and smoke,’ or, ‘I’ve got an allergy to smoking.’ You started to feel societal pressure,” says Gilmore, president emeritus of the Hastings Institute, a centre devoted to bioethics and public policy.

The in-your-face smoking campaigns of the past, he says, effectively convinced people both that their actions bothered others and posed grave danger to themselves.

When it comes to obesity, he says, “the public has not as thoroughly been terrorised.”

But he’s yet to find the right balance of “light stigma” to help motivate people without alienating them.

“Start Quote

Unlike some other areas of medicine, the goal of obesity treatment is not necessarily to get to a normal weight. It’s to move in a direction where your health is significantly improved”

Scott KahanNational Center for Weight and Wellness

Alienation is a big risk when it comes to anti-obesity campaigns. Research shows those initiatives that make people feel bad about themselves tend to backfire.

“Campaigns that focus primarily on body weight, or the number on the scale, or used hard-hitting controversial approaches to get attention were messages that tended to blame or stigmatise people for their weight,” says Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “Those were not found to be effective,”

“People are more responsive to campaigns that address specific health behaviour that people can engage in regardless of their body type.”

Indeed, one ex-smoker and ex-dieter says there is already a level of stigma around weight.

“People wouldn’t openly sneer at me because I was a smoker, but they do that because I’m fat,” says Lesley Kinzel, senior editor at and author of Two Whole Cakes: How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Love Your Body.

And yet, she says, it’s more difficult to pinpoint those who may suffer from obesity-related illnesses than it is to identify smokers.

Anti-smoking ad
Ads like this, used in the UK, painted a stark picture of the consequences of smoking

“People want to associate certain behaviour with fatness, but in real life fat people exhibit a wide range of different behaviour in regards to their eating habits and physical activity. If you’re a smoker, it’s because you smoke cigarettes.”

The many complex factors surrounding obesity, and the fact that obesity itself is not a behaviour but a state of being, makes comparing the two types of campaigns difficult, says Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness.

At the same time, he says, there are lessons to be learned from anti-smoking campaigns.

“Sometimes people fall into the trap of looking back at the anti-tobacco effort and say, ‘What we did was shame people into not smoking, and did hard-hitting campaigns of not smoking,'” says Mr Kahan,

“But that’s not the central part of what we did with the tobacco epidemic.”

What proved successful in the US was a complex, multi-faceted approach, he says.

“Smoking was addressed from the top down and bottom up,” he says.

“On the one hand there was education.”

Some recommendations from the National Obesity Forum report

  • “Harder-hitting campaigns similar to anti-smoking”
  • “GPs should be encouraged to engage with patients on obesity and weight management issues”
  • “Government initiatives should include greater focus on hydration in weight management and health outcomes”
  • “Greater focus needs to be devoted to strategies supporting individuals who are already obese”
  • “Greater promotion of physical activity outside of educational settings”

This came in the form of public awareness campaigns, the surgeon general’s report outlining the dangers of smoking, and increased educational initiatives in schools and the work place.

On the other, he says, were changes that created “supportive environments to make it easier to not start smoking or to stop smoking,” he says.

This included higher taxes on cigarettes, restrictions on how the products could be marketed and sold, and the creation of more smoke-free areas, such as in restaurants and bars.

Indeed, Kinzel stopped smoking when the expense and hassles of smoking began to mount. “At a certain point it became too inconvenient,” she says.

While the US has seen big drops in smoking rates, obesity numbers have not dropped significantly, and in many cases continue to climb.

That has American researchers focusing not on changing numbers on the scale, but on encouraging healthy behaviours.

“The outward appearance of obesity is a distracter and a red herring,” says Mr Kahan. “If you take someone who is significantly overweight and they work hard and do what they need to do and lose 10% of their body weight, more often than not they will see tremendous health and function improvements.

People sitting at a picnic bench
The best campaigns contain education and environmental changes that make healthy choices easier, say experts

“At the same time, they’re still really fat. We still point fingers of them losing weight, and that’s not really necessary.”

While the goal of anti-smoking campaigns was to stop people from smoking, campaigns devoted to obesity seek a less-tangible outcome.

“The goal of obesity treatment is not necessarily to get to a normal weight. It’s to move in a direction where your health is significantly improved.”

To that end, says Ms Puhl, campaigns should focus on behaviours to improve health, not body size.

Motivating people to eat better and move more has beneficial effects for everyone, she says, not just the obese.