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Firefighters continue removing rubble near the bell tower in Amatrice, central Italy on August 30, 2016 Italy.

A powerful earthquake on 24 August 2016 killed hundreds of people in Amatrice, Italy (pictured) and was followed by destructive aftershocks. New machine learning models hold potential for predicting the number of quake aftershocks.Credit: Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty

AI predicts earthquake aftershocks

Seismologists are finally gaining traction on one of their most tantalizing but challenging goals: using machine learning to improve earthquake forecasts. Three new papers describe deep-learning models that perform better than a conventional state-of-the-art model for forecasting earthquakes. The findings are preliminary and apply only to limited situations, such as in assessing the risk of aftershocks after a ‘big one’ has already hit.

Nature | 4 min read

References: Geophysical Research Letters paper, Earth’s Future paper & Scientific Reports paper

Cells could defend against Alzheimer’s

Scientists have identified two types of brain cell linked to a reduced risk of dementia — even in people who have lots of the amyloid ‘plaques’ that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. The neurons might have a role in the types of cognitive function that are lost during Alzheimer’s, hinting at future treatments that focus on protecting them.

Nature | 5 min read

How to squish water

Under normal conditions, water is almost incompressible because there’s hardly any space between the molecules. Researchers mixed tiny particles of a hydrophobic, porous solid into water and managed to compress the liquid by 7% at 500 times atmospheric pressure — up to 20 times more than is normally possible. At this pressure, the water molecules are forced into the solid’s pores, decreasing the liquid’s volume.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: Advanced Materials paper

A US shutdown would disrupt science

Fuelled by infighting among Republicans in the House of Representatives over spending cuts, the United States is barreling towards a government shutdown. Lawmakers in the US Congress have until tomorrow (the end of the fiscal year) to reach an agreement over how to keep money flowing to federal agencies, or the government will have to close many of its doors and furlough staff — including tens of thousands of scientists — without pay. Nature takes a look at what’s driving this latest budgetary crisis, and what’s in store for scientists if the US government shuts down next week.

Nature | 6 min read

3D-printed SCOD shown relative to a one-cent coin.

This little suction cup could deliver medication straight into the bloodstream without an injection. Inspired by octopuses — who know something about grabbing onto wet bits — researchers designed the cup to stick to the inside of a person’s cheek. It painlessly grabs and stretches the inner mouth tissue so that a drug, stored inside, can enter the blood. Most people who tested the device preferred using it to being injected with a needle. “The biggest problem with insulin is the degradation in the gastrointestinal tract, which can be minimized thanks to this suction patch,” says clinical pharmacist Simon Matoori. (Nature | 4 min read)

Reference: Science Translational Medicine paper (ETH Zurich)

Reader poll

A bar graph showing poll results on the question ‘What do you think about the Nobel Prizes?’.

Nobel Prize week is almost upon us. Critics have argued that the way the Nobel Prizes recognize individuals doesn’t reflect the collaborative nature of modern research — and that the prizes perpetuate biases and sexism.

When we asked readers what they thought about the Nobel Prizes, more than half of the respondents said that there should be changes to the way they are awarded. Many suggested that there should be prizes for teams, as well as for researchers in fields that aren’t currently included — mathematics and biology, in particular. “The committee should not feel obliged to award a prize in every category every year," suggests historian Tim Baker. “This could increase the range of prized categories.”

Others argued that the Nobel Prizes are fine the way they are. “Yes, they are elitist and they give the mistaken impression that there is only a handful of brilliant scientists in the world, but the attention they bring to science in general is crucial in these days of relentless attacks on science and scientists,” says climate scientist Neville Nicholls.

Features & opinion

US universities axe diversity statements

Five states have passed laws that bar diversity statements from hiring practices, and universities in other states are voluntarily removing them. The statements allow potential faculty members to discuss how diversity will factor into their teaching and mentoring. The move, which comes in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that overturned ‘affirmative action’ admission policies, could freeze under-represented groups out of academia, educators warn.

Nature | 7 min read

The Kinderbeobachtungsstation

As a child, Evy Mages was confined to a mysterious and terrifying “child-observation station” run by a sadistic but respected psychologist named Maria Nowak-Vogl. Mages’s quest to understand what happened to her there is horrifying, but ultimately hopeful. It reveals the history of Nowak-Vogl’s twisted psychological experiments — which ran until her retirement in 1987 — and how it is entwined with Austria’s failure to fully grapple with the scientific legacy of Nazism.

The New Yorker | 56 min read

Podcast: This isn’t the Nature Podcast

From just 10 minutes of audio, an artificial intelligence (AI) tool created a copy of science reporter Nicola Jones’s voice so convincing that even her kids thought it sounded just like her. Researchers are trying to tackle these deepfakes, either by designing tags to identify them or by creating algorithms to detect them, explains Jones (the real one) on the Nature Podcast. Sometimes, even low-tech solutions are surprisingly effective at preventing deepfake-powered fraud, says AI researcher Hany Farid: “My wife and I, we have a passcode.”

Nature Podcast | 31 min listen

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Quote of the day

“In the end, taste is required. I think that is what gives the Nobel Prize the beautiful patina that it radiates.”

Research analyst David Pendlebury, who is exploring how generative AI could help to predict future Nobel prizewinners, says that the tool could improve the pool of nominations by trawling through the extent of scientific achievement, but ultimately would be no match for human judgement. (Nature | 5 min read)