Thursday briefing: Barbara Rae-Venter is the hobbyist genealogical detective who tracked a serial killer

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Hello Nature readers,

Today we discover the next generation of particle accelerators, explore how to reforest the world and meet the scientist-lawyer who tracked the genetic fingerprints of an accused serial killer.

A man in a hard hat examines a section of AWAKE in a tunnel like room

The AWAKE accelerator at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.Credit: M. Brice, Ordan, J. Marius/CERN

CERN’s mini-accelerator passes first test

An experiment at CERN has successfully accelerated electrons by ‘surfing’ them on proton waves. The Advanced Wakefield Experiment (AWAKE) used protons diverted from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to create waves in plasma. These waves in turn accelerated a consistent beam of electrons. Ultimately, physicists hope to push electrons to ever-higher energies over distances much shorter than those required today, leading to smaller and cheaper accelerators.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Nature paper

AI nails predictions of earthquake aftershocks

An algorithm that was trained on hundreds of thousands of earthquakes and their subsequent tremors outperforms the standard method of predicting where aftershocks will strike. The neural network also hints at some of the physical changes that might happen in the ground to trigger the follow-up quakes.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Japan failed a generation of female doctors

News that Tokyo Medical University was manipulating marks to lower the admission rate for women to around 30% has prompted prominent female scientists to speak out about the nationwide issue of sexism in medical schools. Education-ministry figures show that the proportion of successful female applicants across all medical schools climbed steeply from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, but has since been stuck below 35%.

Nature Index | 6 min read


How to plant a trillion trees

As projects to restore woodlands accelerate, researchers are looking for ways to avoid repeating past failures — choosing the wrong trees, using too few species or not managing them for the long term. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the work exposes the friction between advocates for climate-change amelioration, re-wilding and sustainable development.

Nature | 12 min read

Roughly 2 billion hectares of land could be suitable for forest-landscape restoration

Barbara Rae-Venter: genealogical detective

Barbara Rae-Venter, a former biologist and patent attorney (whose ex-husband is high-profile geneticist J. Craig Venter), stumbled into an intense post-retirement hobby as a genetic genealogist. Last week, she allowed investigators to reveal that she was key to cracking the unsolved case of the Golden State Killer. She tells The New York Times about the tangled path she followed to track down the accused serial murderer, and the ethical quandaries that ensnare the field.

The New York Times | 9 min read

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Schrödinger’s cat among biology’s pigeons

Physicist and Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger crystallized key concepts of modern molecular biology in his 1944 book What Is Life? Science writer Philip Ball revisits the influential publication that inspired the public and a number of scientific luminaries — but which exasperated others.

Nature | 8 min read


“I’m going to begin this piece by suggesting that it’s a waste of your time to read it.”

Cell biologist and blogger Jenny Rohn says that science communicators such as her have been deluded of their power in the face of fake news and ‘alternative facts’. (The Guardian)

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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