Daily briefing: Why measuring Mount Everest is surprisingly difficult

A new official height for the world’s tallest mountain, India’s bold plan to make scholarly literature free to all and how diseases could be diagnosed from just your voice.

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Cartoon of a smart speaker listening to a woman's voice with the sound waves turning into virus particles

Illustration by Rune Fisker

Alexa, do I have COVID-19?

Researchers are exploring ways to use people’s voices to diagnose everything from coronavirus infection to depression. They are using artificial intelligence to recognize when a condition is disturbing the delicate dance of the brain, nervous system and vocal anatomy. Even the words you use can be a sign: for example, a shrinking vocabulary might indicate a neurodegenerative disease. Researchers emphasize that the technology would be only a part of a clinician’s diagnostic arsenal, and there are serious privacy concerns — but the advantages of such a light-touch tool are clear. “This is not invasive, it’s not a drug, we’re not changing anything,” says Tal Wenderow of the voice-analysis company Vocalis. “All you need to do is speak.”

Nature | 12 min read

India’s ‘one nation, one subscription’ plan

The Indian government is pushing a bold proposal that would make scholarly literature free to all of its 1.3 billion people. Researchers consulting for the government say it wants to negotiate with the world’s biggest scientific publishers to allow authors to archive their accepted manuscripts in public online repositories. If successful, India would become the largest country to wrangle access to paywalled articles for everyone.

Nature | 6 min read

Disgraced trachea surgeon indicted

Prosecutors in Sweden have reopened their case against thoracic surgeon Paolo Macchiarini over three artificial-trachea transplants he did at Karolinska University Hospital. “It has become clear to me that the operations were carried out in conflict with science and proven experience, and were therefore not carried out based on any legal form of medical care or licensed research study,” says public prosecutor Mikael Björk. Macchiarini was once a leading voice in regenerative medicine. He coated donor or synthetic windpipes with people’s own stem cells, and used those to replace their damaged (but functioning) ones. Macchiarini was later found to have committed misconduct, and The Lancet retracted his publications. Of the 20 people who underwent Macchiarini’s experimental transplants, only 3 are still alive.

Associated Press | 3 min read

Features & opinion

Democracy suffers when official statistics fail

The lack of innovation at statistical agencies in the United States contributes to the slow, bureaucratic and hidebound nature of government, argues economist Julia Lane in her new book. “If you think statistics and government sounds like twice the tedium for half the price, you would be entirely wrong,” writes reviewer Beth Simone Noveck, once the country’s deputy chief technology officer under president Barack Obama. “Democratizing Our Data is an illuminating and powerfully argued case that the United States must change the system it uses to produce public statistics.”

Nature | 6 min read

Wildfires: count more than hectares

Record-breaking fires in California will probably ravage more than 1.5 million hectares over 2020. It’s a shocking statistic, but a better marker of why 2020 is a tragic year (and one for the record books) is the thousands of homes destroyed and scores of lives lost, argues fire scientist Crystal Kolden. As a former firefighter, Kolden has seen how fire suppression at all costs ultimately harms lives, landscapes and property. “If we stop simply focusing on area burnt, we can start asking how much fire is too much and how much fire burning, at what intensity, is actually good,” she writes.

Nature | 5 min read

Attention science: we have only one name

Like many Indonesian people, conservation scientist Sheherazade and biodiversity scientist Ardiantiono have just one name, so they face hurdles when filling out registration forms and grant applications and in the publishing process. Sheherazade and Ardiantiono argue for making unique identifiers such as ORCID codes compulsory for academic papers, and for more sensitivity when designing things such as forms.

Nature | 5 min read

Measuring the world’s tallest mountain

Nepal is braced to announce a new official height for Mount Everest — a measurement that cost surveyor Khimlal Gautam a toe lost to frostbite. Slow-motion plate tectonics, a powerful 2015 earthquake and the uneven shape of Earth all contribute to a surprisingly thorny problem. Not to mention diplomatic considerations: the border dividing Nepal and Tibet runs through the summit.

National Geographic | 11 min read

Quote of the day

“I don’t need a clock extension… I need an acknowledgment that this year is trash.”

Geobiologist Magdalena Osburn responds to the added pressure that disrupted child care is putting on the tenure process for female faculty members. (The New York Times | 7 min read)

We’re halfway through the delights of Black in Microbiology week, focusing on Black microbiologists and their accomplishments. From virology to mycology, it’s all happening over a series of virtual events.

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by David Cyranoski

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