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Interstellar visitor, Arctic shipwrecks and a retraction recommendation


The week in science: 27 October–2 November 2017.

History | Universities | People | Medicines | Research | Space | Events | Facilities | Climate | Trend watch | Awards


Arctic explorer’s wrecks given to Canada The UK government is giving Canada two historic shipwrecks: those of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The vessels were part of British explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a long-sought shipping route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Canadian Arctic. Franklin died, along with his entire crew, after the ships became ice-bound and the team abandoned them. Marine archaeologists discovered Erebus and Terror in 2014 and 2016, respectively, off King William Island. In 1997, an agreement had granted custody of the yet-to-be located wrecks to Canada, although they remained property of the United Kingdom. On 23 October, the UK government said that it would transfer ownership of the ships to Parks Canada, a government agency.

Part of the wreck of the HMS Terror. Credit: Parks Canada


Institute dissolved The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), one of Europe’s leading universities, has launched an investigation into allegations that PhD students were regularly bullied in its Institute for Astronomy. ETH Zurich released a statement on 25 October saying that it had closed the institute in August in response to the accusations, which were made earlier this year. Newspaper reports say students had complained that astrophysicist Marcella Carollo — a professor, and wife of the institute’s director Simon Lilly — had been inappropriately and personally critical, and overly demanding of their time. The university did not publicly name the couple, but said that it had transferred their professorships to the university’s physics department. It moved other Institute for Astronomy staff to a newly created Institute for Particle Physics and Astronomy, and assigned the students new supervisors. 

Science cluster French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a plan to save the troubled Paris-Saclay project, an attempt to create a single science ‘super-campus’ southwest of the city. During a visit to the site on 25 October, Macron said that the project would now proceed in two clusters, one made up of elite institutions called grandes écoles, and one made up largely of universities. The project, which initially aimed to bring together nearly 20 research and teaching institutions under one umbrella university, had been mired by the grandes écoles’ refusal to give up their names and autonomy. A previous effort this year to find a compromise solution had failed. “The time of procrastination is behind us,” Macron said.


Surgeon’s papers Six research papers co-written by disgraced thoracic surgeon Paolo Macchiarini should be retracted because they contain evidence of scientific misconduct, the Swedish Central Ethical Review Board said in a statement dated 27 October. The papers had been central to Macchiarini’s claims about a radical stem-cell-based tracheal transplant, which he developed partly during his employment by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The institute had asked the ethics board to examine the papers. Earlier last month, Swedish public prosecutors dropped their investigations into charges of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm by the surgeon. The charges involved four people on whom Macchiarini had performed operations at the Karolinska University Hospital between 2011 and 2013. Three have since died, but the prosecutors said there was a lack of conclusive evidence that the surgery caused the deaths. They noted negligent procedures in some of the operations.


Hepatitis C drugs On 25 October, a US non-profit organization filed challenges against six core patents for sofosbuvir, a key component of three hepatitis C drugs. The medicines — Sovaldi, Harvoni and Epclusa — belong to Gilead Sciences in Foster City, California. The Initiative for Medicines, Access and Knowledge (I-MAK) in New York City argues that Gilead’s patents are unmerited because the drug is not different enough to warrant a US patent, saying that the company developed the compound by tweaking existing HIV and cancer drugs. The patents prevent cheaper, generic drugs from entering the US market. Using a similar argument, I-MAK had a sofosbuvir patent removed in China in 2015.


Old astrolabe A 500-year-old bronze disc recovered from a shipwreck in 2014 might be the oldest-known example of a technology that changed world history. The artefact was retrieved from the wreck of the Esmeralda, part of the fleet of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. On 24 October, researchers at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, said that laser scanning has now revealed markings at 5-degree intervals around its circumference, suggesting that the 17.5-centimetre-diameter object is a mariner’s astrolabe. Developed by Portuguese navigators in the late fifteenth century, these devices determine latitude by measuring the Sun’s altitude, and helped sailors to explore the oceans and map the world. The Esmeralda sank in the Indian Ocean in 1503, making this mariner’s astrolabe several decades older than any of the hundred or so others that survive.

Composite image of scans of the astrolabe artefact Credit: WMG/University of Warwick


Foreign object Astronomers have spotted a space rock that might have come from outside the Solar System. The small asteroid or comet, named A/2017 U1, swooped towards and then past the Sun from an angle almost perpendicular to the plane in which most of the planets orbit. Its trajectory — a hyperbolic orbit — suggests that it came from interstellar space, NASA said on 26 October, a week after the object’s discovery. If further observations confirm its orbit, it would be the first such interstellar object known. 

Earth mission ends The paired satellites of the US–German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which have been making fundamental observations of Earth since their 2002 launch, have ceased science operations. Mission controllers realized on 12 October that the batteries in one of the satellites had failed because of its age, a long-expected outcome. NASA and the German space agency DLR announced the mission’s end on 27 October, and said the other satellite will be decommissioned next year. GRACE has provided crucial measurements of melting ice sheets and groundwater storage, among other things.


Weedkiller dispute The European Union postponed a decisive vote on 25 October on proposals to renew its licence for the controversial weedkiller glyphosate. The current EU authorization expires on 15 December. But member states were unable to settle on a compromise for how long the licence should be extended by. The World Health Organization says that glyphosate is “probably” carcinogenic to humans, but key EU safety agencies say it is not. Member states will be asked to vote on a five-year extension on 9 November. More than 1.3 million Europeans have signed a petition calling for the substance to be banned.

Harassment probe The US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is investigating allegations of sexual harassment against geologist David Marchant of Boston University, Massachusetts. Marchant has received about US$5.4 million in funding since the 1990s from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. In letters sent to the NSF, NASA and Boston University on 26 October, the committee asked for all documents and communications involving federal grants awarded to Marchant, as well as complaints of alleged assault and harassment and any actions taken by each institution. Two of Marchant’s former graduate students filed complaints with Boston University, in October 2016 and May 2017, for behaviour that allegedly occurred while they were on research trips with him in Antarctica in the 1990s.


Genome database A Chinese province is building a large sequencing centre that will create a database of genetic information from Chinese people. The National Health & Medicine Big Data Center is being built in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, as part of a 6-billion-yuan (US$905-million) genome project announced by the local government on 29 October. The centre will house multiple firms that will together sequence up to 500,000 samples a year. Data will be used to look for mutations related to disease, as well as environmental factors that might trigger illness. Researchers will also use the data to tailor treatments to individual patients.


Record CO2levels Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide surged at a record pace and to a record high in 2016 because of human emissions and an El Niño warming event, the World Meteorological Organization said on 30 October. Average global CO2 concentrations rose from 400 to 403.3 parts per million, roughly 45% above pre-industrial levels. The last time Earth had comparable CO2 levels was during the mid-Pliocene epoch around 4 million years ago, when temperatures were 2–3 °C warmer than those today and sea levels were 10–20 metres higher. Concentrations of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide also increased, to 157% and 22% above pre-industrial levels, respectively. ​


Women ask fewer questions than men at conferences, even if there are more women in the room, according to an analysis of talks at American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) meetings in 2014–16. Natalie Telis of Stanford University in California and her colleagues looked at 600 questions asked at 222 conference talks. To reach parity in question-asking, the audience would have to be at least 85% women, they say. Women are most likely to question female speakers, but still speak up less often than men.

Credit: Source: Natalie Telis


Space pioneers The first woman and the first Chinese national in space were among four recipients of the inaugural medal for space science from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Awards for Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei, who completed the country’s first crewed space mission in October 2003, and Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova were announced at a ceremony in Paris on 27 October. Also honoured were Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station, and Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez, the first Cuban in space. The medal, established in June, recognizes prominent researchers or public figures who have contributed to space science.

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Interstellar visitor, Arctic shipwrecks and a retraction recommendation. Nature 551, 10–11 (2017).

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