NATURE BRIEFING

Daily briefing: The physics of the tragic explosion in Beirut

A blast-injury specialist explores the tragic chemistry and physics of the Beirut explosion. Plus, front-line physicians tussle over unproven coronavirus treatments and a question of bias in pulse oximeters.

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Some researchers are concerned about growing ties between China‘s military and its universities.Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty

Australia’s foreign-interference plan under fire

Almost a year after Australia introduced a pioneering system for minimizing the risk of foreign interference in research, in particular from overseas militaries, experts are divided about whether it is working. Although other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, are grappling with similar concerns, Australia is the first to set a specific set of guidelines for its universities. But some experts warn that Australia’s guidelines and export laws aren’t sufficient to help universities to identify collaborations in which research could lead to military applications.

Nature | 6 min read

The tragic science of the blast in Beirut

On 4 August, a massive explosion at a fireworks-storage area sent deadly waves through downtown Beirut. A blast-injury specialist explores the tragic chemistry and physics of the explosion. Videos of black and red clouds curling over the pier in Beirut suggest that the blast was caused by ammonium nitrate, a flammable chemical used in fertilizer and as an explosive in coal mines. The blast formed a pressure wave, which travelled slower than the speed of sound and created a crater some 120–140 metres in diameter, leaving behind destruction, confusion and shattered glass.

Wired | 12 min read

Researchers overturn US sanctions on a virtual summer school

US rules forced an online neuroscience course to block people in Iran from signing up. Outrage on social media helped the organizers to win a last-minute reprieve. “It was quite shocking for the science community that something like this [would be included]”, says Elnaz Alikarami, an Iranian student in Canada, who volunteers at the Neuromatch Academy course. “It’s just basic science.”

Nature | 6 min read

Human genes renamed to fix Excel glitch

Dozens of human human genes have been renamed because Microsoft Excel was auto-formatting their names as dates. For example, the gene MARCH1 — short for membrane-associated ring-CH-type finger 1 — is now MARCHF1.

The Verge | 6 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Deflated plastic Earth placed on an orange background.

Credit: Daniel Grizelj/Getty

Collaboration without contagion

International collaborations account for almost one-quarter of all publications. Researchers are trying to find ways to maintain that productivity, but many — especially those in developing nations — are experiencing major setbacks because of travel bans and visa restrictions. Nature spoke to five scientists about the reality of collective-research ventures in the face of a pandemic.

Nature | 8 min read

Front-line doctors lock horns over treatment

Randomized, controlled trials are essential to prove which treatments can safely and effectively treat COVID-19 — but these take time. When the disease is tearing through a community, doctors on the front line use their best judgement to help their terribly ill patients. The result is a tug-of-war between physicians over safety, science and saving lives.

The New York Times | 27 min read

Are pulse oximeters racist?

Pulse oximeters, which quickly and painlessly measure the amount of oxygen in the blood, have become a key tool to monitor the health of people with COVID-19. But there is some evidence that the tool’s accuracy can vary depending on your skin colour. With her own experience in hospital as a basis, cultural anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas explores how research about racial bias in diagnostic tools can languish, leaving essential medical questions unanswered.

Boston Review | 19 min read

Notable quotable

“For all nations working in Antarctica, it is the main goal to keep the virus off the ice.”

Christine Wesche, logistics coordinator at Germany’s Antarctic programme, explains how scientists are adapting to maintain its status as the last continent free of COVID-19. (National Geographic | 8 min read)

Features & opinion

Audio long-read: secrets of Pluto’s dark side

You’ve seen the stunning close-ups taken by New Horizons of Pluto’s ‘near side’— the hemisphere that the Sun was illuminating at the time the NASA spacecraft zipped past the planet in 2015. Now astronomers are beginning to analyse the dwarf planet’s ‘dark side’, which New Horizons had photographed days before. Hundreds of images are providing a new view of this active world — one that offers crucial insight into how it formed, whether there’s an ocean hiding beneath its icy crust and the complex ways that compounds freeze out of its atmosphere and sculpt the surface. “I expected Pluto to be a scientific wonderland, but it did not have to be so beautiful,” says planetary scientist Leslie Young.

Nature | 18 min listen

This is an audio version of our feature: Pluto’s dark side spills its secrets — including hints of a hidden ocean

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

One-room schoolhouse to supercomputer

Computer scientist Frances Allen was born on a dairy farm with no electricity or running water, and eventually helped to build the foundations of modern programming. Allen was a pioneer in compiler optimization — improving the software that translates human-readable programming into ones and zeros — and parallel computing, which spreads tasks across more than one computer. She was the first woman to win computing’s top prize, the A.M. Turing Award. “She broke the glass ceiling,” said her colleague Mark Wegman. “At the time, no one even thought someone like her could achieve what she achieved.”

The New York Times | 6 min read

Quote of the day

“It is impossible to calculate how much money has been made in the world of science from the use of HeLa cells.”

Author Rebecca Skloot responds to announcements from a laboratory and a life-sciences company that they will donate to the foundation she set up in the memory of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot’s 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brought attention to the story of Lacks, whose fatal tumour — taken without her knowledge or permission — gave rise to the first immortal human cell line, HeLa. (The Wall Street Journal | 8 min read)

On Friday, Leif Penguinson pondered the mysteriously twisted trees of Poland’s Crooked Forest. Did you spot the penguin? When you’re ready — here’s the answer.

This newsletter is always evolving — tell us what you think! Please send your feedback to briefing@nature.com.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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