Daily briefing: What is reality?

Is reality more than what we see about us? Plus, a flurry of new fast radio bursts, ‘magic angle’ graphene, and a face-scanning app that spots signs of genetic disease.

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An 11-year-old girl who has Cornelia de Lange

Researchers are improving the ability of algorithms to help spot the physical characteristics of conditions such as Cornelia de Lange syndrome.Credit: Michael Ares/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA

AI face-scanning app spots signs of rare genetic disorders

A deep-learning algorithm within a smartphone app is helping to pinpoint a range of rare genetic disorders by analysing pictures of people’s faces. The Face2Gene app classifies distinctive facial features in photos of people with congenital and neurodevelopmental disorders, then uses the resulting patterns to home in on possible diagnoses. After being trained on more than 17,000 images spanning 216 syndromes, the app’s best diagnostic guess was correct in about 65% of cases. The tool isn’t intended to provide a definitive diagnosis, and the technology raises a number of ethical and legal concerns. But the app is currently available for free to health-care professionals, many of whom use it as a kind of second opinion for diagnosing rarely seen genetic disorders.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: Nature Medicine paper

NASA exoplanet hunter racks up bizarre worlds and exploding stars

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has identified at least eight planets, including a world with a mass more than 20 times that of Earth. TESS launched nine months ago, with a mission to hunt for worlds around nearby bright stars — and it is already outpacing scientists’ expectations. Details on another 20 or 30 planets are on the verge of being published, according to mission scientists, with hundreds of potential planets awaiting the satellite’s probing gaze. TESS has also captured unprecedented views of exploding stars — more than 100 likely supernova explosions have already been studied by the team.

Nature | 2 min read

Reference: arXiv preprint

Bevy of mysterious fast radio bursts spotted

A radio telescope in Canada has spotted a number of new fast radio bursts (FRBs), one of the most intriguing mysteries in astrophysics because they appear all over the sky, yet their cause is unknown. The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), was originally designed to explore the early Universe but turned out to be ideal for detecting FRBs. In just two months of early testing last year, CHIME spotted 13 FRBs. It has also detected only the second known ‘repeating’ FRB, which popped up at least five times.

Nature | 2 min read


How ‘magic angle’ graphene is stirring up physics

“I haven’t seen this much excitement in the graphene field since its initial discovery.” When they unearthed an exotic behaviour in single-atom-thick layers of carbon, MIT physicists caused a buzz that rippled through the field. They had found that by placing one sheet of graphene over another, rotating the other sheet to a special orientation and cooling the ensemble to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, the material became a superconductor, allowing electricity to flow without resistance.

Nature | 12 min read

Human-genome editing: ask whether, not how

In calling for standards for producing ‘CRISPR-edited’ babies, J. Benjamin Hurlbut argues that leaders have shunted aside a crucial and as-yet-unanswered question: whether it is (or can ever be) acceptable to genetically engineer children by introducing changes that they will pass on to their own offspring.

Nature | 3 min read

Six project-management tips for your PhD

A PhD project can feel like it demands more time than is humanly possible. PhD candidate Angel Santiago-Lopez came up with a list of project-management skills that could you help tame the beast.

Nature | 3 min read

Nature’s best audio and video of 2018

Discover the secrets of dandelion seeds, the mystery of the Baobabs, an ion-powered plane and more as we dip back into last year’s unmissable videos and podcasts.

Nature | 11 podcasts and videos


“To put it bluntly, the claim that there’s nothing but physical reality is either false or empty.”

Two physicists and a philosopher dissect how science presents ‘reality’, and the risk of excluding human perception and experience from the equation. (Aeon)

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