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Daily briefing: Nuclear-bomb test created ‘impossible’ quasicrystals

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Red trinitite sample which contained the quasicrystal

This sample of red trinitite was found to contain a previously unknown type of quasicrystal.Credit: Luca Bindi, Paul J. Steinhardt

First nuke made ‘impossible’ quasicrystals

Scientists searching for quasicrystals — so-called ‘impossible’ materials, with unusual, non-repeating structures — have identified one in remnants of the world’s first nuclear-bomb test. The previously unknown structure, made of iron, silicon, copper and calcium, probably formed from the fusion of vapourized desert sand and copper cables. Similar materials have been synthesized in the laboratory and identified in meteorites, but this is the first example of a quasicrystal with this combination of elements.

Nature | 5 min read

Reference: PNAS paper

Do humans dream of randomized data?

The inherent strangeness of dreams might help us to prepare for the unexpected, according to a new dream theory inspired by artificial intelligence (AI). The theory’s proponents drew from a study showing that randomized data helped AI to learn and adapt to new information. The study led neuroscientist Erik Hoel to suggest that “it is the very strangeness of dreams in their divergence from waking experience that gives them their biological function”. The idea joins a pantheon of dream theories, all hoping to explain why our brains spout nonsense when we sleep.

The Guardian | 5 min read

Reference: Patterns paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Feature

How COVID changed social science

For social scientists, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity — a natural experiment that cuts across cultures and socio-economic groups. With many people facing similar threats to their health and livelihoods, researchers have been able to, for example, compare people’s behaviours before and after large policy changes, and more easily study the flow of information and misinformation. And the pandemic's global scope has brought groups together from around the world like never before.

Nature | 10 min read

News

Vaccines can block a version of B.1.617

Gold-standard laboratory experiments on the Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna vaccines suggest that they confer immunity against a subtype of the SARS-CoV-2 variant tearing through India. “These vaccines are working,” says immunologist Mehul Suthar. But the research also hints that this subtype — B.1.617.1 — is more resistant to antibodies than are other forms of the virus.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: bioRxiv preprint

Features & opinion

University of Cape Town battles racist legacy

Six years after a statue of Cecil Rhodes — a nineteenth-century diamond magnate and representative of colonial rule over southern Africa — was toppled at the University of Cape Town (UCT), students and staff are still working to improve equity and representation. Four UCT students and staff members reflect on developments since 2015, including the 2018 suicide of Bongani Mayosi, UCT’s dean of health sciences; a 2019 report on UCT’s institutional culture; the COVID-19 pandemic; and a devastating fire last month that gutted the university’s African studies reading room and some of South Africa’s most treasured histories.

Nature | 11 min read

‘Angell rushes in where fools fear to tread’

Austen Angell, who has died aged 87, was one of the most versatile physical chemists of his generation, write colleagues Pablo Debenedetti, Peter Poole, Srikanth Sastry and Francesco Sciortino. His pioneering experimental discoveries on glasses and liquids shaped the ideas that chemists, physicists and engineers use to investigate these challenging materials. He was also an irrepressible explorer, unafraid to to speculate, and had an infectious love of discovery. Robin Speedy, his long-time colleague and collaborator, quipped, “Angell rushes in where fools fear to tread.”

Nature | 5 min read

Why bother with presentation skills

There are good reasons to move ‘polish my presentation skills’ up on your priority list, argues David Rubenson, director of the scientific-communications firm No Bad Slides. Insights gained from audiences and the opportunity to take a fresh look at your research are among the benefits, he writes.

Nature | 5 min read

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01350-y

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty & Freda Kreier

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