Daily briefing: The periodic table is about the future of chemistry as well as its past

Research at the edge of the periodic table, stunning tiny forests in Ethiopia and US scientists face life after the shutdown

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Mekame Selam Kolala Meskel church is surrounded by fields.

A protective wall surrounds the Mekame Selam Kolala Meskel church’s forest in South Gonder, a region of northern Ethiopian.Credit: Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Biodiversity thrives in Ethiopia’s church forests

Tiny pockets of forest are maintained by Ethiopia’s orthodox churches as a symbol of heaven on Earth in a nation that has given over most of its land to farming. Now the churches are starting to work with ecologists to preserve — and even expand — these refuges for the country’s dwindling biodiversity.

Nature | 6 min read

Tiloma Gabriel church in West Gojam and Entos Eyesus church on an island in Lake Tana.

Fields encroach on the Tiloma Gabriel church in West Gojam (left); the Entos Eyesus church forest (right) sits on an island in the northerly Lake Tana.Credit: Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

US scientists face life after the shutdown

Uncertainty, lost data and months of catch-up work greet US scientists returning to work after the longest government shutdown in history. Adding to the stress is the fact that the government could shut down again on 16 February, when a temporary funding deal will expire. “It’s hard to plan to move forward when the worry in our minds is that this shutdown will happen again,” says an anonymous postdoc at the Environmental Protection Agency whose experiment was scuppered by the break.

Nature | 5 min read

GM cotton patent reinstated in India

The Indian supreme court has reinstated a Monsanto patent on genetically modified cotton that had been quashed by a lower court. Supporters say the decision will reverse a chilling effect on investment and innovation in the field. But the ruling is not the end of the legal road: the dispute has been kicked back to a lower court to re-examine the details of the patent.

Nature | 5 min read

Scientists criticize plan to weaken US gender-discrimination law

A controversial US government proposal to change Title IX has drawn critical comments from scientists. The statute is the primary legal weapon for battling sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct in US academia. The proposal would change the law’s definition of sexual harassment, how an accuser is treated in hearings and possibly an institution’s responsibilities if an incident occurs off-campus. The 60-day public-comment period on the government's plan ends at 11:59 p.m. US Eastern time tonight.

Nature | 4 min read


Illustration by Señor Salme

Beyond the periodic table

The International Year of the Periodic Table celebrates 150 years of Dimitri Mendeleev’s achievement — but the table’s arrangement of elements is about the future of chemistry as well as its past.

• Research at the edge of the periodic table is shifting focus: rather than chasing new elements, some scientists are digging deeper into the bizarre properties of the superheavy elements. Among other prizes, they seek the fabled ‘island of stability’: a hypothesized region of element-land where some superheavy isotopes might exist for minutes instead of milliseconds. (15 min read)

• More than 2,000 years before the periodic table was conceived, ancient philosophers were already grappling with the nature of ‘stuff’. Science historian Jennifer Rampling traces how ideas of material essence and indivisibility evolved in the centuries before modern atomic theory. (7 min read)

• The placement and selection of elements on the periodic table are far from settled, explains historian and philosopher of chemistry Eric Scerri. A deep dive into quantum mechanics might reveal how the table should be set, once and for all. (9 min read)

• In 1937, element 43 — technetium — became the first to be discovered by synthesis in a laboratory and paved the way to the atomic age. (6 min read)

Nature | Browse the whole special issue


“Diversity without inclusion is an empty gesture.”

Inclusion is a feeling of belonging, and so creating an empowering, embracing, egalitarian environment starts with the heart, says biologist and science education leader David Asai. (Nature)

The #UnscienceAnAnimal hashtag is inspiring some very unscientific — but hilarious — animal diagrams. Here’s my favourite via ecologist Lewis Bartlett.

Thanks for reading!

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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