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Tilikum dies, US antibiotic ban and a Nazi-science probe


The week in science: 6–12 January 2017

Events | Space | Policy | Energy | Technology | Trend watch | Coming up


Nazi-science probe Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPG) announced on 7 January that it has assigned a committee of five international historians to investigate the crimes of its Nazi-era scientists. During and after the Third Reich, members of the MPG’s predecessor, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, conducted research on brain samples from people with mental disabilities killed by the Nazi regime. Such samples became part of the MPG’s tissue collections. Over the next three years, the committee of historians will investigate the society’s archives and tissue collections to find out who was involved in the research and to uncover the identities and fate of victims.

Famed SeaWorld killer whale Tilikum dies Tilikum, one of the best-known killer whales at the SeaWorld chain of marine-mammal parks, died on 6 January aged 36, the company announced. The killer whale (Orcinus orca), which lived at the park in Orlando, Florida, and had been linked to the deaths of three people, was the subject of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that drove much opposition to SeaWorld’s captive-whale programme. Controversial choreographed captive-whale shows at SeaWorld’s site in San Diego, California, finished on 8 January, to be replaced by more “natural” displays. Similar changes are planned for sites in Texas and Florida in coming years. Separately, it was announced that the oldest known killer whale — a 105-year-old wild female nicknamed Granny — is presumed dead, having been last sighted with its pod in the North Pacific in October.

Killer whale Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

Fact and opinion A climate scientist’s complaint about an article in The Spectator magazine that claimed “marine life has nothing whatsoever to fear” from ocean acidification has been rejected by the UK press regulator. Phil Williamson, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, made complaints about inaccuracies in the piece, entitled ‘Ocean acidification: yet another wobbly pillar of climate alarmism’ by columnist James Delingpole (see P. Williamson Nature 540, 171; 2016). But regulator IPSO has ruled that many of the claims in the piece were opinion rather than fact, and that other points disputed by Williamson were not significantly misleading or inaccurate.

Mystery Go player A mystery player of the complex strategy game Go that won a string of online matches against the world’s best was revelaed last week to be an updated version of the artificial-intelligence (AI) program AlphaGo. AlphaGo, created by the Google-owned company DeepMind in London, last year beat a top human competitor in a moment hailed as a milestone for AI. Known only by the name Master(P), the mystery player had won some 50 matches since late December, leading experts to suspect that it was an AI rather than a human. On 4 January, DeepMind chief executive Demis Hassabis revealed on Twitter that Master(P) was a new prototype of AlphaGo.


NASA missions NASA announced on 4 January that it will send two missions to visit asteroids next decade. Lucy, to be launched in 2021, will visit six Trojan asteroids, which orbit the Sun on either side of Jupiter and are thought to be remnants of early Solar System material. Psyche, to be launched in 2023, will visit the metallic asteroid Psyche, which might be the exposed core of a failed early planet. The agency also announced a much-anticipated astrophysics mission, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, to launch in 2020. The probe will study polarized light coming from black holes, neutron stars and other cosmic phenomena that cannot be directly studied.

Artist's impression of the Psyche spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


US antibiotic ban US farmers are no longer allowed to feed medically important antibiotics to their livestock merely to enhance growth, according to regulations implemented on 3 January. The rules from the US Food and Drug Administration are part of an effort to fight the spread of antibiotic resistance by limiting use of the drugs to cases in which they are deemed medically necessary. US sales of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in food-producing animals rose by 26% from 2009 to 2015.

Peanut policy Infants who are at risk of developing peanut allergies should be fed foods that contain peanuts by six months of age, an advisory panel of the US National Institutes of Health said on 5 January. The recommendation follows a large randomized clinical trial showing that children with a high risk of peanut allergy as infants were 81% less likely to later develop an allergic reaction if their diets had included peanuts until the age of 5. In 2010, the same NIH panel did not offer guidance on consuming peanuts to forestall allergies, it said, because of “a lack of definitive studies”.

Fetal-tissue threat The US government should restrict or eliminate support for research that uses human fetal tissue obtained from abortions because it is of little use to medicine, a special panel of the US House of Representatives concluded on 3 January. Scientists, who reacted strongly to the report, say that the research is crucial to the development of therapies against Parkinson’s disease and the Ebola virus, and for vaccine development. But the Republican-majority panel claimed that such arguments are “misleading and false”. The panel urged Congress to investigate the feasibility of using tissue from stillborn and pre-term infants instead.


Obama talks energy The clean-energy economy has gained “irreversible” momentum, US President Barack Obama wrote in a policy piece published by Science on 9 January (B. ObamaScience;2016). Citing data from the International Energy Agency, Obama noted that global greenhouse-gas emissions remained flat while the global economy grew in 2015, and that businesses have joined governments in supporting the 2015 Paris climate agreement. He emphasized that the economic trends underlying the expansion of clean-energy development will continue worldwide. “This should not be a partisan issue,” Obama wrote. “It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends.”

China’s green move China will invest 2.5 trillion yuan (US$361 billion) in renewable energies by 2020, as part of its continued bid to shift away from coal power, the country’s energy agency announced on 5 January. Renewables, including wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power, will account for about 50% of new electricity generation by 2020. Last year, China became the world’s biggest generator of solar power. It is also the world’s largest coal consumer, and burning of the fossil fuel has been a key cause of the debilitating smog that has blighted northern regions over the past month.


UK laser weapon The UK military has awarded a £30-million (US$37-million) contract to produce a prototype laser weapon. The Ministry of Defence announced on 5 January that a consortium led by European missile maker MBDA would test the potential of ‘directed energy’ technology and aim to demonstrate a weapon in 2019. If successful, the first laser weapons could come into service in the mid-2020s, the ministry said. The US military has been experimenting with such technology for decades, and in 2014 successfully tested a ship-mounted laser weapon in the Gulf. The system, called LaWS, has been authorized for use against targets such as boats and drones.


A survey of more than 1,000 UK-based university staff suggests that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union could drive an academic exodus. Some 40% say they are more likely to consider leaving the UK higher-education sector as a result. The proportion among non-UK EU citizens was 76%. Many have said they feel less welcome in Britain after the vote; the poll indicates the widespread nature of this feeling. The survey was commissioned by the London-based University and College Union.

Credit: Source: UCU/YouGov


14 January After a series of weather delays, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled to return to service, to launch a set of communications satellites. One of the rockets failed in September and launches were put on hold.

16–19 January Astronomers and instrument scientists come together to share ideas for telescope-data calibration at the European Southern Observatory’s 2017 Calibration Workshop in Santiago, Chile.

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Tilikum dies, US antibiotic ban and a Nazi-science probe. Nature 541, 138–139 (2017).

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