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Twisted pulses of light swirl like a corkscrew.

Judy Gallagher/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Twisted light steps closer to the Internet

Researchers have demonstrated that a photonic device can produce twisted pulses of light, meaning that their electromagnetic waves swirl in a vortex. The ring-shaped, microscopic ‘tunable vortex microlaser’ is a step towards faster optical communications. Contrary to the properties of light that are commonly used to encode information — wave phase and amplitude — vortices come in discrete types. This makes it harder to mistake one phase for another, which could help to increase the capacity of optical fibres.

Ars Technica | 6 min read

Source: Science paper

Hackers hobble European supercomputers

University supercomputers in the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland were disabled last week after hackers tried to take control of them to mine cryptocurrency. "We now believe this to be a major issue across the academic community as several computers have been compromised in the UK and elsewhere in Europe," said staff at the University of Edinburgh.

BBC | 3 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

American mink in tree

Animals, such as minks, that can be infected with the coronavirus could reveal clues about the virus’s origins.Jorma Luhta/Nature Picture Library

Animal source still eludes scientists

Researchers are using computer models, cell studies and animal experiments to discover the intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2. Researchers overwhelmingly think that the virus originated in the wild in bats, and moved to people through another species — but no one has found the virus in the wild yet. Pangolins were among the first suspected, but the link is far from confirmed. “It is quite possible we won’t find it. In fact, it would be exceptionally lucky if we land on something,” says geneticist Lucy van Dorp.

Nature | 7 min read

The outsized toll on people of colourEvidence from the United States and United Kingdom shows that COVID-19 is taking a disproportionate toll on people of colour. For example, in Michigan, black people make up 14% of the population, but account for 32% of COVID-19 cases and 41% of deaths. Some of the causes are well-known — “we are exposed more and less protected,” notes epidemiologist Camara Phyllis Jones. Some dangerous pre-existing conditions have a higher incidence in many minority ethnic and racial groups. And the way tests have been allocated — to people who have recently travelled internationally, for example — excludes those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.The UK government announced in mid-April that it would launch an inquiry into the reasons why the disparities exist. In the United States, researchers and lawmakers are calling for a national commission devoted to identifying racial disparities in health that would act as a unified voice in trying to overcome them.

Nature | 6 min read

The COVID-19 cartoonists

The animations made by cartoonist Toby Morris and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles manage to be both helpful and charming — and even got a cameo in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s press conference. Come away feeling smarter about bubbles and curves after reading this collection of all their work for The Spinoff.

The Spinoff | 5 min read

Notable quotable

“It’s an imbalance between skepticism for anything an official may say and complete gullibility for something some random dude on the internet will tweet out. It’s that imbalance that differentiates conspiracy thinking from standard cognition.”

Cognitive psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky says that COVID-19 conspiracy theorists enjoy a bottomless, never-ending pit of skepticism — so it’s better to focus your debunking efforts elsewhere. (ProPublica | 4 min read)

Features & opinion

The age of anomalies

Betting against the standard model of particle physics is like most gambling: the house always wins. And the standard model usually smothers hints of contradictory experimental results. When anomalies occur — except for marvellous exceptions like the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 — most turn out to be flukes. But that doesn’t stop physicists from chasing clues that could point to what is beyond the standard model. “We think there should be more to life than just what the standard model can predict,” says physicist Chris Polly.

APS Physics | 9 min read

Top science communicators share secrets

Six physicists who are science-communication maestros — Katie Mack, ‘Dr Karl’ Kruszelnicki, Lisa Randall, Jess Wade, Jim Al-Khalili and Vlatko Vedral — reflect on how to reach out. “People want answers — at a rate faster than we can find them,” says Randall. “But they also want to hear trustworthy information from people who are not afraid to tell the truth.”

Nature Reviews Physics | 11 min read

When your research gets a backlash

When clinical researcher and psychiatrist Anita Thapar and her team went public with research about the genetic factors behind attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, they were shocked by an unexpected backlash. “Usually, my team is just a bunch of people quietly getting on with research,” writes Thapar. “In the future, I would clear time in my diary to handle the resulting feedback and fallout.”

Nature | 5 min read

Image of the week

An infectious-waste-collection robot operates during a demonstration.

Wastie, a robot built by the Mahidol University Engineering Department near Bangkok, will be used to collect infected rubbish inside the COVID-19 ward of Golden Jubilee Medical Center at the university.Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Quote of the day

“Having that perspective allows you to see the Earth for what it is. It’s one body. We’re all in this together.”

Space exploration can inspire us during this difficult time, says planetary geologist and newly-minted NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins. (Nature | 4 min read)