Daily briefing: The thermodynamics of computing

Why computers (and brains) need so much energy, the IPCC’s dire warning to us all, and the Nobel prize goes to climate-change economists.

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Hello Nature readers, here are today’s top science stories.

An iceberg floating in Antarctica's McMurdo Sound

Glaciers and sea ice won't be safe in a world that warms to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.Credit: NASA/eyevine

The IPCC’s dire warning to us all

Humanity must slash its carbon emissions immediately to have any hope of avoiding the more dire effects of climate change. That’s the sobering assessment from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. We will have to curb greenhouse gases by at least half of 2017 levels by 2030, and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Keeping warming below 1.5 °C will partially mitigate the impacts, including extinctions, melting of Arctic ice, damage to coral reefs, extreme weather and flooding. The world has already warmed by 1 °C.

The IPCC also describes how it can be done — and it won’t be easy. Low-carbon energy systems such as wind and solar power will need to provide most of the world's electricity by mid-century, forests will need to be expanded to take up more carbon dioxide and carbon will need to be extracted from the atmosphere and pumped underground. Proposed lifestyle changes include people eating less meat, riding bicycles and flying less.

Nature | 5 min read

Nobel prize goes to climate-change economists

Economists William Nordhaus and Paul Romer share the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for integrating climate change, and technological change, into macroeconomics, which deals with the behaviour of an economy as a whole. Nordhaus pioneered models used to weigh the costs and benefits of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions and the social cost of carbon. Romer is best known for his studies on how market forces and economic decisions facilitate technological change. He showed that unregulated free markets will not sufficiently invest in research and development into climate-change mitigation.

Nature | 3 min read

Major publishers sue ResearchGate

Elsevier and the American Chemical Society have launched legal proceedings in the United States against ResearchGatefor copyright infringement. The publishers filed a similar suit in October last year in Germany, where the academic-networking website is based. By the following month, ResearchGate had disabled public access to 1.7 million articles on its site. ResearchGate hasn’t commented on either lawsuit.

Nature | 2 min read

Public outreach won’t get you promoted

When it comes to hiring and promotions, universities don’t value public engagement as much as metrics, such as the number of publications and citations. A study of word frequencies in hundreds of documents used for review, promotion and tenure decisions by US and Canadian universities found relatively few direct references to public outreach. “Universities talk in a grandiose way about fulfilling the public mission. But when we look at the documents, they aren’t necessarily walking the walk,” says scholarly-communication researcher Juan Pablo Alperin.

Nature| 4 min read

Reference: Humanities Commons preprint

Johns Hopkins to get Henrietta Lacks building

Johns Hopkins University will name a new campus building in honour of Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Lacks was being treated at the university’s hospital in Baltimore when cells from her cancer were collected without her knowledge or consent. Today, scientists around the world use cells derived from Lacks’ samples — called HeLa cells — for research into almost every disease, but the ethical and racial issues involved in the cell line’s development were neglected for decades. The new building will host programmes in research ethics and community engagement. “This is the ultimate honour, one befitting of her role in advancing modern medicine,” said Jeri Lacks, Henrietta’s granddaughter.

CBS Baltimore | 3 min read

Read more in Nature about the woman behind HeLa and the stumbling path to justice for the Lacks family.


It all starts with teachers

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching is evolving. Nature explores how fresh approaches are influencing the field, from digital skills and virtual labs to good old-fashioned drawing.

Nature | Nine features and comment articles

The clinical code-breakers

DNA sequencing is helping clinicians to unravel the underpinnings of disease in individual patients. For diseases with a well-established genetic foundation, such as cancer and some developmental disorders, sequencing can be life changing. For others, genetic results yield no clear insight. Plus, DNA-sequencing centres have to grapple with serious technical and medical challenges, not to mention proving that the pricey programmes can deliver a cost-effective diagnostic solution.

Nature | 13 min read

The thermodynamics of computing

In June, Microsoft put 864 computer servers into a souped-up shipping container and dropped it 36 metres underwater off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland. One reason the company is testing in such an extreme location: it’s cold. Statistical physicist David Wolpert explores why computers (and brains) need so much energy, and how we might come to understand how to wrangle our information more efficiently.

Nature | 6 min read


“There is only one investigator on this grant. What if you get hit by a bus?”

It’s US National Institutes of Health R01 grant deadline time! Computational biologist Alicia Oshlack responds to a call to share some memorable reviewer feedback under the #GrantReviewGreatestHits hashtag. (Twitter)


A hotdog vendor sells absolute-zero dogs

If today’s Briefing has left you feeling like you want to cut your personal carbon footprint, here’s a handy graphic of the actions with the biggest impact for those of us living in the richest countries: have one fewer child, live car-free, fly less and eat a plant-based diet. (Reference: Environmental Research Letters paper)

Thanks for reading!

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

Nature Briefing

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