Daily briefing: Mysterious dimming of Betelgeuse caused by dust

Astronomers have solved the puzzle of why one of the sky’s brightest has been getting dimmer. Plus: New Zealand races to eliminate the coronavirus again, and an algorithm flags signs of ‘citation hacking’ in scientific papers.

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Artist’s impression of Betelgeuse’s dust cloud

This image, released by NASA, suggests that Betelgeuse’s unexpected dimming was probably caused by hot material ejected into space, forming a dust cloud.ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Betelgeuse dimming explained by dust

Astronomers say they have solved the mystery of why Betelgeuse, one of the sky’s brightest stars, started getting dimmer in 2019. By mid-February this year, Betelgeuse had lost more than two-thirds of its brilliance — a difference noticeable to the naked eye. Some people speculated that this was a sign that the star was approaching the end of its life, but researchers working with the Hubble telescope now say it was probably caused by hot material that the star ejected into space, which then cooled and turned into dust. “The resulting cloud blocked light from about a quarter of the star’s surface,” the European Space Agency said in a statement.

The Guardian | 5 min read

Algorithm flags signs of ‘citation hacking’

Scientists who get too many references to their own work inserted in others’ papers — whether by previous arrangement or by asking for extra references during peer review — might leave telltale fingerprints in the citation record, say two researchers who have developed a way to detect what they call citation hacking. A statistical analysis of more than 20,000 authors’ citation patterns found at least 80 scientists whose citations indicate “chronic, repeated” reference-list manipulation, the researchers say. The patterns also suggest that around 16% of authors in their sample “may have engaged in reference list manipulation to some degree”.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: bioRxiv preprint

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Two women wearing face masks and carrying a large pack of toilet paper walk past the illuminated Sky Tower in Auckland.

Restrictions have been reintroduced in New Zealand after a new coronavirus outbreak.Credit: Li Qiaoqiao/Xinhua/ZUMA Press

New Zealand’s race to eliminate the virus

A week ago, New Zealand was an exemplar for how swift and decisive action can stifle the spread of the coronavirus. But the emergence this week of a cluster of cases has caught the nation by surprise, and is a blow to the government’s strategy to eliminate the virus. Amanda Kvalsvig, an epidemiologist who has been assisting with the country’s COVID-19 response, speaks to Nature about the rapid response to the new cases, and whether an elimination strategy is still possible. (Nature | 6 min read)

What the ‘anthropause’ means for wildlife

Scientists have begun to investigate how animals reacted to a dramatic slowdown in human activity caused by the pandemic — dubbed the anthropause. Several large-scale studies have launched to assess how animals changed their behaviour during lockdowns, for example by crossing roads more frequently or venturing out more during daylight. “There is a gold mine of data,” says biologist Christian Rutz. (Science | 10 min read)

Notable quotable

“It’s like baking a cake at home. You can spend hours preparing the perfect cake and now you’ve got to go out and bake 70 million of them and they all have to be perfect.”

Matthew Duchars, chief executive of the UK Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, describes the challenge of mass-producing a coronavirus vaccine. (BBC News | 5 min read)

Features & opinion

A life studying ice at the end of the world

Arctic scientist Konrad Steffen, whose work showed how Greenland’s ice sheet is melting as a result of climate change, has died in a tragic accident near the research station that he set up 30 years ago, called Swiss Camp. Steffen went missing while installing new equipment at the site, and it was later discovered that he had fallen into a crevasse in the ice. He was a “larger than life explorer-scientist that you typically only get the chance to read about”, says climate scientist Ryan Neely, who studied with Steffen. “In the end, it looks like climate change actually claimed him as a victim.”

The New York Times | 10 min read

Brewing a career outside academia

Many scientists start hobbies to take their minds off research and to connect with people outside academia. Some make these pastimes their careers. Nature spoke to four researchers who turned their brewing and fermentation hobbies into business ventures. One started making kombucha after finishing an internship at NASA. Another champions diversity in the craft-brewing community. “If you are scientifically minded, home-brewing gives you a chance to practically apply knowledge about biology, chemistry and physics, and at the end of the process, you end up with beer,” says yeast supplier Richard Preiss.

Nature | 10 min read

Podcast: Chemical turns locusts from Jekyll into Hyde

Swarms of migratory locusts regularly devastate crops across the world, but why these swarms form has been a mystery. Now, a team of researchers has identified a compound that causes solitary locusts to come together in their billions. On this week’s Nature Podcast, we discuss how the discovery could have practical applications for preventing future swarms. Plus, get the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic in our weekly Coronapod segment.

Nature Podcast | 32 min listen

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

Where I work

Researchers look for deep sea creatures with their underwater cameras and sample tubes.

Greg Rouse is a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Marine biologist Greg Rouse (pictured with colleagues Nerida Wilson and Kaycee Handley) spotted a creature that ‘nobody could have imagined’ one day during an expedition through the Ningaloo Canyons off the northwest coast of Australia, aboard the research ship RV Falkor. A massive siphonophore, a colonial organism related to corals, sea anemones and jellyfish, was discovered by the Falkor’s remote submersible. Well over 100 metres in length, the creature is much longer than any animal previously recorded. “The Falkor is an amazing ship with an amazing crew,” Rouse says. “It offers a wonderful combination of science and outreach. I felt privileged to be on board.” (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

“Understanding the scope of systemic inequality in science will enable genuine and sustainable efforts to make scientific institutions fair for all.”

Antibody engineer Esther Odekunle offers suggestions on how to create a more inclusive, diverse and fair research community. (Science| 5 min read)

This is your last Briefing before we take a short break for the summer. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be sending you one e-mail a week featuring a hand-picked round-up of the best science books of the season (exclusively for Briefing readers), a selection of award-winning science writing from the year so far and some of Briefing readers’ own favourites.

We’ll also be running a very special ‘find the penguin’, featuring Leif Penguinson and some friends. So be sure to stay tuned. In the meantime, Leif is finding work–life balance in the Fann Mountains in Tajikistan. Can you find the penguin?

The answer will be in your holiday-style newsletter on Thursday, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.

We’ll return to our regular routine on Monday 31 August. As always, your feedback is very welcome at

Emma Stoye, news editor, Nature

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty

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