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This image of Neptune’s spectacular rings was taken with the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera. The camera captures infrared light, which has been mapped into the visible spectrum in this image. The bright spots in and near the rings are some of Neptune’s moons, including Galatea, Despina, Larissa and Proteus.
The researchers behind the AlphaFold protein-prediction system have won one of this year’s US$3-million Breakthrough prizes — the most lucrative awards in science. Demis Hassabis and John Jumper were recognized for creating the artificial-intelligence tool, which has predicted the 3D structures of almost every known protein on the planet. “Few discoveries so dramatically alter a field, so rapidly,” says computational biologist Mohammed AlQuraishi. This year’s other Breakthrough prizes went to:
• Sleep scientists Masashi Yanagisawa and Emmanuel Mignot, for independently discovering that narcolepsy is caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical orexin.
• Biophysical engineer Clifford Brangwynne and molecular biologist Anthony Hyman, for discovering a mechanism by which cell contents organize themselves by segregating into droplets.
• Four founders of the field of quantum information: Peter Shor, David Deutsch, Charles Bennett and Gilles Brassard. Their research laid the groundwork for the development of ultra-secure communications and computers that might one day outperform standard machines at some tasks.
• Mathematician Daniel Spielman, who was recognized for multiple advances, including the development of error-correcting codes to filter out noise in high-definition television broadcasts.
US universities hire most of their tenure-track faculty members from the same handful of elite institutions. Researchers looked at hires between 2011 and 2020 and found that 80% came from just 20% of PhD-granting institutions. No historically Black colleges and universities or Hispanic-serving institutions were among that 20%. One in eight hires got their PhDs from just five schools: the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University; the University of Michigan; Stanford University; and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “It’s not surprising, but it is jarring,” says social scientist Leslie Gonzales.
The European University Association has invited universities, scientific academies, funding institutions and other organizations around the world to sign an agreement changing how they assess researchers for jobs, promotions and grants. The Agreement on Reforming Researcher Assessment asks signatories to commit to moving away from standard metrics, such as impact factors, and adopting a system that rewards researchers for the quality of their work and their full contributions to science. “This initiative is an excellent move,” says Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a biophysical chemist and a member of a Nobel Committee. But “it’s going to be really hard as it speaks for doing quality evaluations, which take more time”.
Features & opinion
How do you define ‘mid-career’ in academia — and how do you know when you’re in it? Less support, more work and higher stakes are all hallmarks of this ‘grey murky zone’, say scientists in the first episode of Muddle of the Middle, a six-part Working Scientist podcast series about the mid-career stage in science. “It just slowly dawns on you that suddenly you’re mid-career, much like being middle aged, actually,” says Inger Mewbourne, the director of research development at the Australian National University. “Suddenly, you find yourself extremely busy.”
Photographer Thierry Ardouin captures the extraordinary variety and outrageous beauty of seeds. His extreme close-up portraits against a stark black background capture “the beauty, the fragility, the precious quality they possess”, he says.
Image of the week
Researchers say they have the first direct evidence that fetuses older than 32 weeks gestation can smell and taste while in the womb. Fetuses exposed to delicious carrots seemed to show more ‘laughter-face’ responses (left), and those exposed to arguably-not-so-nice kale showed more ‘cry-face’ responses (right) compared with a control group that was not exposed to either flavour. The next step, says the team, is to see whether fetuses can learn to like certain flavours over time — possibly encouraging healthier eating once they’re out.