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In a few days, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will arrive at the tiny Bennu asteroid, with plans to return the largest trove of space dirt to Earth since NASA's final Apollo mission in 1972. Due to reach the asteroid on Monday, the craft will buzz around Bennu for a few weeks gathering data, before entering into orbit around the space rock. After a year and a half of in-depth study, OSIRIS-REx will then lower itself to the surface, stick out a robotic arm and suck up at least 60 grams of asteroid dirt to bring home.
This week’s startling news that scientist He Jiankui claims to have helped produce the first gene-edited babies leaves many questions unanswered. How exactly was it done? What happens next – for He and for the field? Will there be more gene-edited babies? We’ve wrapped up some of the most pressing questions.
UN countries have rejected a proposal to temporarily ban the release of organisms carrying gene drives — a genetic-engineering technology designed to spread mutations rapidly through a target population. Instead, representatives at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting agreed to changes to the treaty that were vague enough that both proponents and sceptics of the technology are touting victory. Signatories agreed to assess the risks of gene-drive releases on a case-by-case basis, and that local communities and Indigenous groups potentially affected by such a release should be consulted.
Newly discovered limestone and flint tools push back the evidence of hominins in Algeria by 600,000 years, and suggest that an ancient stone-tool technology arose independently in different parts of Africa. Researchers used a combination of techniques to date a trove of Oldowan objects — rough all-purpose tools chipped out of pebbles. All the methods converged on the age of the artefacts, but the timeframe meant that the stone technology probably didn’t spread across the deserts and mountains to North Africa from the Rift Valley, where researchers had thought it had arisen some 2.6 million years ago.
An ambitious plan to prevent the Italian city of Venice from being swallowed by the sea could spell disaster for the lagoon that surrounds it. The US$6.5-billion project comprises a complex network of 78 anti-flood gates, designed to separate the lagoon within which the city sits from the Adriatic Sea. But recent modelling suggests that as sea levels keep rising, the system would close off the lagoon for such large periods that oxygen in the water would be depleted, causing negative knock-on effects for fish and many bird species nesting in the area. Researchers are now suggesting alternatives to the flap-gate system, including injecting fluid cement or water below the ground to lift the entire city.
Oil pumping probably triggered six moderate earthquakes in the Los Angeles area of California between 1938 and 1944. As the Second World War loomed, oil companies drastically ramped up drilling in southern California. The resulting pressure and stress changes in the underlying rock probably triggered the quakes. Around 1960, oil companies began injecting water into their wells, and the number of triggered quakes declined.
FEATURES & OPINION
Professional astronomers seem to surpass other scientists when it comes to engaging with the public. A global survey revealed that star-gazers do an average of 18 public-outreach activities a year, compared with two or three for other disciplines that have been surveyed. Of the 2,587 astronomers who replied, 87% said that they engage with the public in some way.
In 1927, colonial powers on the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands violently quashed a rebellion and desecrated ancestral shrines and ritual objects. In 2015, when local and Australian researchers joined forces to search for two undescribed mammals, the painful legacy continued to create tensions, write the participants in a letter to Nature. They share the tale of a “watershed event” in which they and other representatives and descendants of tribes and Australians affected in 1927 met for traditional ceremonies, exchanging pigs and shell money to resolve the dispute.
When wind farms are built close together, they can block each others’ clear air. A case study in West Texas, which has the largest number of wind turbines in the United States, found that a nearby farm can have a significant impact on electricity production downwind. In this week’s Nature podcast, learn how scientists are helping to work out how much space turbines need for maximum efficiency.
BOOKS & ARTS
Seemingly paradoxical mismatches of fame and attainments reflect deep social laws that can be understood through science, according to a new book from network scientist Albert-László Barabási. He delves into fields as diverse as music, science, wealth, sports and wine to show that in some arenas, such as competitive tennis, skill and prowess are decisive. In others — like whether a book is pulped or becomes a bestseller — any difference in quality seems to be overwhelmed by network effects.
Barbara Kiser’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes a loop quantum gravity redux, ancient automatons, and the weirdness of tropical flora.
INFOGRAPHIC OF THE WEEK
“Balance is a verb, not a noun,” says senior scientist Geraint Rees — it’s something that takes constant work and is never ‘done’. Five scientist fathers — several of whom also have scientist partners — describe how they combine parenting and careers.
Scientists are white men: that’s the story told by film and television programmes in the United States, finds an analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Male science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) characters outnumber female ones by 62.9% to 37.1%, and most STEM characters — 71.2% — are white. On the positive side, female STEM characters are as likely as male ones to be portrayed as leaders in their fields, and they are painted as equally competent and empowered, and more intelligent, than men in these roles.
Nature editor-in-chief (and former editor of Nature Reviews Genetics and Nature Communications) Magdalena Skipper offers advice on how best to pitch to an editor on any journal. You don’t need to be in a ‘hot’ field, and you don’t need to have broken records — but it does help if you can tap into your passion for your own research, says Skipper.
IMAGE OF THE WEEK
A large-scale excavation in Pompeii has uncovered the remains of two prestigious houses, revealing mosaics, paintings — such as the pictured portrait — and graffiti. Scrawled on one of the walls is the date “XVI K NOV”, or 17 October, in fragile charcoal. The finding suggests that Mount Vesuvius erupted in October AD 79, and not in August, as is commonly assumed.
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