Daily briefing: How bizarre animal sounds have confused and flummoxed humans

The Cuban ‘sonic weapon’ was crickets. Plus: The US Shutdown could leave Hubble hobbled and machine learning leads mathematicians to an unsolvable problem.

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The hubble telescope in orbit

The Hubble telescope launched in 1990. Credit: NASA

US Shutdown could leave Hubble hobbled

One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s main instruments, the wide-field camera, stopped working yesterday — and the US government shutdown could delay repairs. A skeleton crew has been allowed to keep working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to operate spacecraft that are actively flying, including Hubble. But fixing the telescope, which is almost 30 years old, will almost certainly require more staff. In the meantime, the satellite has another camera and two spectrographs that will keep collecting data.

Nature | 3 min read

Super-cassava could help feed the world

Researchers in Nigeria are using genomics and conventional breeding to harness the best features of cassava plants from around the world. They hope to combine traits such as the high yields of Asian and South American varieties with the disease resistance of heartier African types. The Next Generation Cassava Breeding project is turbocharging research into the starchy staple, which has languished in the scientific shadow of corn, wheat and rice, despite being a staple for hundreds of millions of people.

Nature | 7 min read

Machine learning leads to unsolvable problem

A relatively simple machine-learning problem has led researchers to a question that is mathematically unanswerable. The surprise finding links the ability of artificial intelligence to learn from limited data with logical paradoxes discovered by mathematician Kurt Gödel in the 1930s. The discovery shows that machine learning shares the fate that Gödel revealed for any mathematical language — some things just can’t be proved.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: Nature Machine Intelligence paper

Scientists protest against conference quackery

Researchers took to the streets last weekend to criticize claims made at India’s largest annual gathering of scientists. Two speakers at the Indian Science Congress made controversial statements, including a university vice-chancellor who said that ancient Hindus invented stem-cell science. Another speaker contested Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity during the children’s section of the science congress. Scientists already had their hackles up about the conference offering a platform for outlandish beliefs: in 2015, a symposium speaker claimed that ancient Indians were the first to build aeroplanes.

Nature | 3 min read


A father’s fight to fix clinical trials

Nick Sireau’s quest to treat his baby with an unapproved drug — initially developed as a weedkiller — drew him into the labyrinthine process of clinical trials. Sireau’s son, now 18 years old, finally received his first dose of the treatment last August. Sireau’s crusade could help thousands of people with rare genetic conditions who are struggling with a system that both protects and restricts them.

Nature | 14 min read

Dreaming of death rays

A new book delves into the long, strange search for an energy weapon, from Star Wars-style laser guns to Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence system. Science writer Jeff Hecht brings decades of experience covering the field to his story of the vast cast of scientists who have chased the death-ray dream.

Nature | 6 min read

The Cuban cricket crisis

A recording of a ‘sonic weapon’ that supposedly injured diplomats in Cuba in 2016 was actually the surprisingly mechanical sound of crickets, say two biologists in a recent bioRxiv preprint. The Atlantic offers a survey of bizarre animal sounds that have confused and flummoxed humans, from the ‘Sausalito hum’ to the ‘bio-duck’. “These noises sound strange, unnatural and even mechanical because most of us have absolutely no idea what the vast majority of animals sound like,” writes science journalist Ed Yong.

The Atlantic | 6 min read

Reference: bioRxiv preprint

‘Genius’ is no excuse

“The life of the scientist cannot be separated from the science,” argues writer Leila McNeill in her exploration of the controversial behaviour of physicist Richard Feynman and recent sexual-harassment scandals in science. “Their stature in the world of science lent them the permission and the protection to prey upon women without consequence.”

The Baffler | 13 min read


“I want my students to succeed as much as I want my own kids to succeed.”

Analytical and materials chemist Isiah Warner reveals the mentoring chops that won him one of four 2018 Nature Awards for Mentoring in science. (Nature)

It’s great to be back! I spent my holiday thrilling to the space-based shenanigans of the Chang’e-4 Moon lander and the New Horizons probe. Send me your optimism-inducing moments from the year so far — and any other feedback — at

Thanks for reading!

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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