Daily briefing: Bejewelled dental tartar points to female scribes

Thousand-year-old teeth show women worked on medieval manuscripts, the magnetic north pole is fleeing Canada and why your PhD is not a liability.

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Aurora Borealis close to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories in Canada.

The north magnetic pole is heading from Canada into Siberia.(Vincent Demers/Getty)

Magnetic north flees Canada

Earth’s magnetic field is acting up — and geologists don’t know why. The magnetic north pole wanders in unpredictable ways, influenced by complex flows and jets in the planet’s liquid iron core. In the mid-1990s, it picked up speed, from around 15 kilometres per year to around 55 kilometres per year. In 2018, the pole crossed the International Date Line into the Eastern Hemisphere, and it’s currently moving over the top of the world. The rapid changes have prompted an earlier-than-planned revision to the World Magnetic Model, which underlies all modern navigation. (But we’ll have to wait a little longer for the new model: its release has been delayed due to the ongoing US government shutdown).

Nature | 4 min read

Source: World Data Center for Geomagnetism/Kyoto Univ.

Bejewelled dental tartar points to female scribes

Tiny flecks of a brilliant blue pigment produced from lapis lazuli in 1,000-year-old dental plaque reveal that monks weren’t the only ones illuminating medieval manuscripts. The teeth in question belonged to a woman who lived sometime between 997 and 1162 in Germany. The fact that she was working with a pigment that was as rare and as expensive as gold bolsters other evidence that female scribes worked at the highest levels of book production in the European medieval period.

The Atlantic | 7 min read

Reference: Science paper

Tenuous lifeline for UK nuclear-fusion lab

A UK-based nuclear-fusion facility that is largely funded by the European Union has secured a temporary extension to its contract that will allow it to run until 28 March — the day before Brexit. The Joint European Torus, known as JET, is testing technologies for the world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment, ITER. The lab’s future after Britain exits the EU is uncertain.

Nature | 3 min read

One cat wipes out rare bird colony

A population of rare fairy terns has abandoned an Australian bird sanctuary after a feral cat seems to have killed dozens of chicks and adults. Local conservationists and politicians are calling for stronger laws declaring feral cats to be pests instead of pets. “For a nesting bird species, one cat, as you've seen, is enough to wipe out an entire colony," says seabird ecologist Claire Greenwell.

WA Today | 4 min read

Colombia creates its first science ministry

Colombian scientists are cautiously optimistic after the country’s Senate voted to create the nation’s first Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Researchers hope more resources and better policy coordination will fuel a renaissance in science in the country as it recovers from 50 years of civil conflict.

Nature | 4 min read


Your PhD is not a liability

Don’t despair if people try to talk you out of pursuing an industry position — your degree can open many doors, argues Isaiah Hankel, a career strategist with a PhD in biology. The key is to use the skills you gained as a graduate student to drive your career forward, rather than focus on dispiriting anecdotes and advice.

Nature | 4 min read

How to take the circular economy around the world

Worldwide manufacturing is letting down people and the planet with its ravenous hunger for resources and disregard for waste, argue three researchers who focus on sustainable global resources. They call for an international platform to share knowledge, coordinate industrial policies and ramp up efficient reuse. Look to the aluminium industry, they suggest: it recycled more than one-third of the metal worldwide in 2016.

Nature | 11 min read

Bad times in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The anti-climactic return of an ambitious floating device that was intended to gather rubbish from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch raises questions about whether such anti-pollution moonshots are just a waste of money. The project, known as the Ocean Cleanup, has cost about US$360 million so far and returned from its first test damaged and almost empty-handed. The idea is “easy, it’s digestible, and it plays to the lack of information on ocean plastics”, says environmentalist Marcus Eriksen. “We need all hands on deck to focus on prevention.”

Outside | 5 min read


“My particular favourite is the periodic table, which I had never even heard of a year ago.”

Rupert Pennant-Rea, formerly the editor of The Economist and deputy governor of the Bank of England, delights in taking a secondary-school science course at the age of 70. (Financial Times via Neil Withers)

Tell me about your favourite (or least favourite) planet-saving moonshots, what treasures hide in your dental tartar, or any other feedback at

Thanks for reading!

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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