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M87 black hole

A view of the M87 supermassive black hole in polarized lightEHT Collaboration

Iconic black-hole image gets swirly

This swirling version of the now-iconic black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy reveals the nature of the region’s magnetic field. The image was produced by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — which in 2019 produced the first-ever image of a black hole. It shows polarized light emitted by jets hurled by the black hole, accelerating along magnetic fields as they go. “The polarised light has these curved swoops like a spiral,” says astrophysicist Sara Issaoun. “This tells us that the magnetic field around the black hole is ordered, and this is really important because only an ordered magnetic field can launch jets — a scrambled magnetic field cannot do that.”

New Scientist | 3 min read

Read more: Black hole pictured for first time — in spectacular detail (Nature | 7 min read, from 2019)

Reference:The Astrophysical Journal Letters paper 1 & paper 2

3,000-year-old treasures of Sanxingdui

Archaeologists in China have unveiled more than 500 artefacts from six ‘sacrificial pits’ in Sanxingdui dating back more than 3,000 years. The site in southwestern Sichuan province provides a glimpse into an ancient civilization at the heart of what is thought to be the Shu kingdom. The findings include artistic carvings on a bean-sized piece of ivory, and fragments of a golden mask described as a “rare, dazzling treasure” by archaeologist Zhao Congcang.

Sixth Tone | 5 min read

How humans grow such large brains

Scientists have identified a molecular switch that controls brain growth, making human brains three times larger than those of great apes. In studies on mini-brains grown in a dish, they were able to tinker with the mechanism to make gorilla brain tissue larger and human brain tissue smaller.

The Guardian | 4 min read

Reference: Cell paper

Features & opinion

SARS-CoV-2 variants are converging

Evidence is growing that the SARS-CoV-2 variants that are evolving around the world share similar combinations of mutations, writes evolutionary microbiologist Vaughn Cooper. In the United States, Cooper’s laboratory has found at least seven genetically independent lineages that acquired a mutation at one particular spot on the virus’s infamous spike protein. Limiting infections will be key to reducing the virus’s opportunity to mutate in ways that make it even more dangerous. “These viral adaptations are already rewriting our biology textbooks on convergent evolution,” writes Cooper. “Let’s strive to limit new material.”

Scientific American | 6 min read

The cruel wages of lead

Hundreds of workers have been exposed to extreme amounts of lead at Florida’s lone lead smelter, which recycles car batteries. A Tampa Bay Times investigation, which is being revealed in a series of stories starting today, reveals dangerous levels of the neurotoxin and the profound consequences for workers and their families.

Tampa Bay Times | 24 min read

Don’t miss it: the week’s most-read stories

Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine: the facts

Results confirming the vaccine’s strong protection against COVID-19 were welcomed after last week’s pause in roll-outs — but fresh questions have now emerged about the data.

Nature | 8 min read

The fight against fake-paper factories

Some publishers say they are battling industrialized cheating. A Nature analysis examines the 'paper mill’ problem — and how editors are trying to cope.

Nature | 14 min read

The future of variant-proof vaccines

New data show that people infected with the B.1.351 variant of SARS-CoV-2, first identified in South Africa, develop immune responses that can fend off multiple variants. Scientists want to learn from people who recover from COVID-19 and make antibodies that, over time, become more capable of blocking diverse coronavirus variants.

Nature | 7 min read

Oldest wooden relic reshapes history

The world’s oldest wooden sculpture is even older than previously thought. A study suggests that the 2.7-metre-tall Shigir Idol was carved more than 12,000 years ago from a tree that was already more than 150 years old.

New York Times | 8 min read

Quote of the day

“People in politics must leave judgements on vaccination safety and efficacy to the independent experts that they — and their publics — have entrusted with making these decisions.”

Vaccine confidence will be the casualty of Europe’s war of words over the AstraZeneca–Oxford vaccine, argues a Nature editorial. (5 min read)