Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here

The alien from the 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Machine learning is good at picking out unconventional signals that might have come from an E.T.Credit: Universal Pictures/Allstar/Alamy

AI could spot alien signals humans miss

Researchers have described how to use a type of artificial intelligence (AI) called machine learning to help sift through the reams of data coming from telescopes that are searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. “We can’t always be anticipating what ET might send to us,” says mathematician and physicist Peter Ma, a co-author of the study. Ma and his colleagues have already used the method to analyse millions of ‘signals of interest’ from a telescope in the United States — but didn’t catch any ETs phoning home this time.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature Astronomy paper

COVID cost children months of learning

Children lost out on more than one-third of a school years’ worth of learning because of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis of almost 300 learning-deficit estimates from 15 high- and middle-income countries found that children with disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds have experienced the largest learning losses. Kids’ mathematics skills were more affected than their reading abilities — and, as of May 2022, the learning gaps had not been filled. “This is going to be a real problem for this generation that experienced the pandemic in school,” says sociologist Bastian Betthäuser.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature Human Behaviour paper

How dolphins and people fish together

Researchers have confirmed how people and dolphins benefit from a centuries-old practice of fishing together in southern Brazil. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus gephyreus) find schools of fish and herd them to the shallows, where fishers stand and wait. The dolphins even signal, usually by making a sudden deep dive, the perfect time to throw the nets. When the process works in harmony, the fishers are more successful. In turn, their nets separate individual fish that are easier prey for the dolphins. Unfortunately, the traditional practice is on the wane: artisanal fishing methods are dying out, and some fishers are turning to modern gear, such as trammel netting, that actually kills dolphins.

Scientific American | 6 min read

Reference: PNAS paper

Features & opinion

Maths charts course to decolonization

Mathematicians who are leading decolonization efforts describe how they are ushering in a new era of teaching in one of the least diverse scientific disciplines. Some are working on rooting racism out of the curriculum, and others are including examples of problems from different cultural backgrounds in their teaching — all in the context of diversifying who is teaching and learning mathematics. Lecturers need to make human connections if they want to introduce examples from communities that they don’t belong to, says mathematician and Native Hawaiian Kamuela Yong. Otherwise, he notes, “it’s appropriation all over again”.

Nature | 13 min read

The harsh realities of drug discovery

In 2008, entrepreneur Robert Duggan took over Pharmacyclics, a US biotechnology firm that seemed to be on its last legs after a failed clinical trial for a brain-tumour drug. Under Duggan, the company created the transformative leukaemia drug ibrutinib, which made Duggan billions. Yet the story that business reporter Nathan Vardi tells in his book For Blood and Money is no fairy tale, writes reviewer and Nature reporter Heidi Ledford. The book is an engaging reality check for academic researchers, showing how science often takes a back seat to money and chance.

Nature | 5 min read

Coffee works by borrowing your energy

Coffee doesn’t actually give you extra energy — it is more a loan of the awake feeling, writes molecular nutritionist Emma Beckett. She explains how caffeine staves off drowsiness by temporarily blocking adenosine, a by-product from cells using energy, from binding to its receptors. Once the caffeine breaks down, sleepiness returns, sometimes with vengeance: “The debt you owe the caffeine always eventually needs to be repaid, and the only real way to repay it is to sleep.”

The Conversation | 4 min read

Where I work

Lucia Rapp Py-Daniel, on the ichthyofauna team of the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) collects specimens.

Lucia Rapp Py-Daniel is an ichthyologist at the National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil.Credit: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty

In 1978, ichthyologist Lucia Rapp Py-Daniel started preserving and cataloguing Brazil’s Amazonian fish. “I was planning to stay just a year, but I was mesmerized by the size of the rainforest’s rivers and its biodiversity,” she says. The collection that she helped to kickstart now contains more than 600,000 specimens. In this photo, she’s collecting fish at the Manicoré River, where her biodiversity mapping helps local communities that are advocating for a reserve. (Nature | 3 min read) (Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty)

Quote of the day

“The most important thing to remember is that, miracle of miracles, we’re still here. We still have time to turn things around, no matter how late the hour.”

Risk researcher Daniel Zimmer says that it’s not a bad thing that people have become inured to the message behind the Doomsday Clock, which reflects how close humankind is to global ruin. It means that more people are already aware of the grave risks the world faces — and are motivated to do something about them. (Inverse | 6 min read)