Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here
T. rex sale a potential loss for science
For the first time in Europe, a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil will go under the hammer in Switzerland next month. The 67-million-year-old skeleton, named Trinity, is a mash-up of bones from three dinosaurs unearthed between 2008 and 2013 in Montana and Wyoming. Trinity has been valued at between US$5.5 million and $8.8 million. Its price tag could put it out of reach of museums and make it inaccessible to researchers. “Everyone who is interested in the natural world loses, from schoolchildren to scientists," says palaeontologist Thomas Carr.
The Times | 2 min read (paywall) & The Independent | 2 min read
Top maths prize for ‘smooth’ physics
Argentinian mathematician Luis Caffarelli has won the 2023 Abel Prize — essentially a Nobel prize for mathematics — for his work on differential equations. These describe simple-sounding phenomena, such as how the shape of a piece of ice changes as it melts. Yet these problems are often impossible to solve ‘smoothly’, meaning without the numbers running away to unphysical infinites. Caffarelli says his proudest achievement is a milestone result on the smoothness of solutions to the notoriously complex Navier–Stokes equations, which describe how fluids move. Caffarelli is the first person born in South America to win the award.
Typhoid-killing viruses pinpoint outbreaks
Scanning sewage for viruses that infect the typhoid bacterium could reveal where typhoid vaccines are most needed. Although the disease can be treated with antibiotics, some countries have started to immunize people to avoid fuelling antibiotic-resistant typhoid strains. Outbreaks can be traced through waste water, but detecting the bacteria is difficult and expensive. Typhoid-killing viruses can serve as a proxy for typhoid burden. They can be detected by dropping sewage water onto a ‘lawn’ of typhoid bacteria in a Petri dish: if the viruses are present, they will kill the bacteria, forming clear patches on the dish.
References: medRxiv preprint & bioRxiv preprint (not peer reviewed)
Features & opinion
Bats’ weird immunity could stop pandemics
The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled a niche research field to prominence: bat immunology. Bats are a possible source of catastrophic viral outbreaks in people because the animals can tolerate an exceptionally diverse array of viruses, including coronaviruses, rabies and Ebola. The biological mechanisms behind bats’ weird immune systems are slowly emerging: “There’s kind of a peace treaty,” between bats and the pathogens they host, explains virologist Joshua Hayward. Bats’ genomes seem to suck up viral information like a sponge. It is possible that this protects bats from the negative outcomes of viral infections, just as a vaccine would.
How to make metal mining sustainable
The US administration is stuck between a rock and a hard place: the country’s climate movement wants clean energy but doesn’t want the necessary minerals mined close to home. “There is virtue in embracing tough trade-offs,” says environmental-security scholar Saleem Ali. Mining has a sordid history of exploitation and plunder. It doesn’t have to be that way: regulatory oversight to ensure mining practices are sustainable can have workable impact–benefit agreements with communities.
When an AI says you have cancer
When data scientist Meredith Broussard found out that an artificial intelligence (AI) had been looking through her medical records, it led her down a winding path of testing a cancer-detection algorithm using her own mammography images. We liken computers’ methods to brain processes, which is wrong on many levels, Broussard writes. “A computer generates a prediction — which is different from a diagnosis.” The results of her experiment left her sceptical about whether AI could work well enough outside highly constrained circumstances to replace physicians. “Someday? Maybe. Soon? Unlikely.”
Confront the Taliban to fight climate change
Afghan scientists say the world must engage with Afghanistan and its regime on climate issues, which could help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country. A series of droughts over the past few years has been made worse by decades of conflict, poor water management and the Taliban takeover in 2021. The regime abolished the agency responsible for managing water resources. Many former officials with technical expertise have fled, and aid agencies have suspended work. “Some key positions in climate sectors are filled by mullahs” — or religious scholars — “who have zero understanding about climate issues,” says water researcher Najibullah Sadid.