A PhD student coaxed superconductivity from sheets of atom-thick
By Elizabeth Gibney
Yuan Cao’s teenage years were hardly typical. By age 18, he had
already graduated from high school, completed an undergraduate degree
at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, and
travelled to the United States to begin his PhD. He hasn’t slowed down
since: this year, aged just 21, Cao had two papers published on
strange behaviour in atom-thick layers of carbon that have spurred a
new field of physics. Cao admits that his situation is unusual, but
says he isn’t special. After all, he did spend a full four years at
university: “I just skipped some of the boring stuff in middle
Pablo Jarillo-Herrero’s group at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) in Cambridge was already layering and rotating sheets
of carbon at different angles when Cao joined the lab in 2014. Cao’s
job was to investigate what happened in two-layer stacks when one
graphene sheet was twisted only slightly with respect to the other,
which one theory predicted would radically change the material’s
Many physicists were sceptical about the idea. But when Cao set out to
create the subtly twisted stacks, he spotted something strange.
Exposed to a small electric field and cooled to 1.7 degrees above
absolute zero, the graphene — which ordinarily conducts electricity —
became an insulator (Y. Cao et al. Nature556, 80–84; 2018). That by itself was surprising. “We knew already that it would have
a big impact on the community,” says Cao. But the best was yet to
come: with a slight tweak to the field, the twisted sheets became a
superconductor, in which electricity flowed without resistance (Y. Cao et al. Nature556, 43–50; 2018). Seeing the effect in a second sample convinced the team that it
The ability to coax atom-thick carbon into a complex electronic state
through a simple rotation now has physicists clamouring to engineer
exciting behaviour in other twisted 2D materials. Some even hope that
graphene could shed light on how more-complex materials super-conduct
at much higher temperatures. “There are so many things we can do,”
says Cory Dean, a physicist at Columbia University in New York City.
“The opportunities at hand now are almost overwhelming.”
Hitting graphene’s ‘magic angle’ — a rotation between parallel sheets
of around 1.1° — involved some trial and error, but Cao was soon able
to do it reliably. His experimental skill was crucial, says
Jarillo-Herrero. Cao pioneered a method of tearing a single sheet of
graphene so that he could create a stack composed of two layers with
identical orientation, from which he could then fine-tune alignment.
He also tweaked the cryogenic system to reach a temperature that
allowed superconductivity to emerge more clearly.
Cao loves to take things apart and rebuild them. At heart, he is “a
tinkerer”, his supervisor says. On his own time, this means
photographing the night sky using homemade cameras and telescopes —
pieces of which usually lie strewn across Cao’s office. “Every time I
go in, it’s a huge mess, with computers taken apart and pieces of
telescope all over his desk,” says Jarillo-Herrero.
Despite his youth and shy manner, colleagues say that Cao’s maturity
shines through in his persistence. Having missed out by a whisker on a
place in MIT’s physics graduate programme, for example, Cao found a
way to pursue the subject by joining Jarillo-Herrero’s team through
the electrical-engineering department. Cao also shrugged off a
disappointing start to his PhD, after realizing that seemingly
exciting data that he had spent six months trying to understand were
due to a quirk of the experimental set-up. “He wasn’t happy, but he
just rolled up his sleeves and continued working,” Jarillo-Herrero
Cao, now 22, doesn’t yet know where he’d like his career to lead. “On
magic-angle graphene, we still have a lot of things to do,” he says.
But universities around the world are already eyeing him for not only
postdoctorate jobs, but also faculty positions, says physicist
Changgan Zeng, Cao’s undergraduate supervisor and mentor at the
University of Science and Technology of China. “Among condensed-matter
physicists in China, everybody knows his name,” Zeng says. The
university would gladly have him back, but Zeng expects that Cao will
stay in the United States for now. “There, it’s easier to see the
A palaeogeneticist discovered a remarkable ancient hybrid hominin:
half Neanderthal, half Denisovan.
by Ewen Callaway
Viviane Slon was sure she had made a mistake three years ago, when DNA
tests on an ancient bone fragment pointed to a union of two extinct
human groups. Half of the genome looked like a Neanderthal’s; the
other half matched sequences from Denisovans — a group once found
“I was very much of the mindset that this cannot be,” says Slon, a
palaeo-geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Slon told no one for several days,
and wondered whether she had made some mistake.
When she couldn’t find an error, Slon shared the results with her
colleagues and began to ponder what they might mean. Further tests
determined that the individual — a young adult female affectionately
named Denny by colleagues — was the daughter of a female Neanderthal
and a male Denisovan who lived roughly 90,000 years ago.
Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes point to past interbreeding, but a
direct product of such an encounter had never been found.
reported in August, reverberated with other scientists and the public, triggering
hundreds of news articles and thousands of tweets. “It’s probably the
most fascinating person who’s ever had their genome sequenced,” one
geneticist said at the time.
Slon’s perspective is unique among her peers, says Israel Hershkovitz,
a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel. He
supervised some of Slon’s graduate-degree research, which spanned
archaeology, anthropology, pathology and anatomy; she even supported
herself by working in a cadaver lab. “She was not born in a sterile
DNA lab,” says Hershkovitz. “When she speaks about the Neanderthal,
she sees the Neanderthal. She sees its physiology, its anatomy, not
just its genes.”
Slon says she is drawn to using genetics and other scientific
approaches to study prehistory because of the lack of written records.
“Every-thing you can infer is from what people left behind,” she says.
“It’s almost like solving a riddle.”
Much of her palaeogenetics research has centred around material from
Denisova Cave, the vast cavern in southern Siberia that gave its name
to the Denisovans, a cousin group to Neanderthals.
Slon’s first project on remains from the cave was to sequence the DNA
in a tooth from the fourth Denisovan individual found there. She also
co-led a team that found Denisovan DNA in excavated dirt, an approach
that could transform palaeogenetics — because it doesn’t rely on
finding rare hominin bones. Slon’s colleagues had to screen more than
2,300 unidentified bone fragments to find Denny.
Slon is still working on material from Denisova Cave, which she got to
visit for the first time earlier this year. And she will continue to
work on extracting hominin DNA from sediments. She doesn’t expect to
happen on another once-in-a-lifetime find like Denny, but she is eager
to plumb ancient genomes for
all sorts of personal insights, such as family relationships between ancient humans or how living
conditions influenced the individuals’ health. She also hopes to
examine the lives of hominins who lived beyond Eurasian sites.
“There’s a whole world that can still be explored,” she says.
A scientist’s claim to have created gene-edited babies generated
By David Cyranoski
He Jiankui knew he was crossing a new bioethical boundary, when he
revealed in November that he had altered the genomes of two infants —
in a way that would be passed on to future generations. “I understand
my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this
technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” he said in
a video announcing the births of twin girls whose genomes he had
edited using CRISPR, ostensibly to protect them from HIV infection.
The reaction to the news was
stronger than He had expected. He was widely criticized for ignoring important ethical
considerations and exposing the girls to unknown risks for an
uncertain benefit. The Southern University of Science and Technology
in Shenzhen, China, where He works, distanced itself. The Chinese
science ministry forbade him from continuing research. And the health
ministry launched an investigation. He, who is now not speaking to the
press, disappeared from the world stage as quickly as he had emerged.
He came to gene editing as an outsider. The first publication listed
on his website, from a decade ago, is related to quantum physics. In
2010, he had publications on economics, evolution and the nature of
curious repeated sections of DNA in bacterial genomes. He won some
acclaim for his work in genome sequencing. A company he founded,
Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, targeted the clinical-sequencing market
and pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in investments.
But He wanted to get into gene editing. He visited Feng Zhang, a
CRISPR pioneer, at his laboratory at MIT, who warned him against
editing human embryos for reproduction. Mark DeWitt, a geneticist at
the University of California, Berkeley, says that he advised the same.
Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, another CRISPR pioneer, refused He’s
request for a visit because she thought he wasn’t doing anything
related to this technology. Now, she wonders whether He was “trying to
leave a trail” of reputable contacts so he could say that he had broad
He will leave a complicated legacy. Scientists worry that the field of
gene editing might now
struggle to secure funding, regulatory approval or support from the public. And although the
technology could lead to new insights into human development and
potentially some ways of preventing deadly genetic disorders, few
would argue that He’s approach has helped. “I think he will be judged
harshly,” says DeWitt.
Additional reporting by Ewen Callaway.
A physicist wrote hundreds of Wikipedia pages to boost the profiles
of scientists from under-represented groups.
By Nisha Gaind
When Jess Wade started writing a Wikipedia page every day, she didn’t
expect her efforts to earn her global attention. She was simply trying
to correct the online encyclopaedia’s under-representation of
women and people of colour in science. But in July, when she tweeted about a trollish comment she’d
received about the work, it prompted an outpouring of support and a
big boost for her quest. “That wouldn’t have happened without that one
mean comment,” she says.
Wade, a polymer physicist at Imperial College London, has tackled many
science-outreach projects aimed at fostering diversity. She took up
her page-a-day habit after learning that 90% of Wikipedia editors are
men and only about 18% of people profiled on the site are women.
She has now created about 400 pages and works with organizations to
host regular ‘edit-a-thons’ — in which people create and edit
Wikipedia content with an eye to inclusivity. These have inspired
similar events around the world, including some focused on other
The visibility and momentum that Wade’s project created is important,
says Lenna Cumberbatch, who studies diversity at the University of St
Andrews, UK. Although Wikipedia entries won’t fix science’s
inclusivity problems, efforts such as Wade’s help to change people’s
expectations. “She’s redressing an imbalance that’s existed for
aeons,” says Cumberbatch. “When you’re literally writing history —
that’s kind of cool.”
Wade’s Wikipedia campaign isn’t the only thing that thrust her into
the spotlight this year. In September, she spoke about her engagement
work at a conference on gender at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab
near Geneva, Switzerland. On the same day, physicist Alessandro
Strumia from the University of Pisa in Italy delivered a presentation
questioning women’s ability in physics and attacking policies that
encourage diversity. “His presentation was totally inappropriate,”
Wade says, “telling a room of mainly young woman scientists that
they’d only ever achieve success in physics due to affirmative
Wade once again used social media to highlight the comments, and they
were widely condemned. Strumia has been
suspended from his work
with CERN while an investigation is ongoing.
Wade expects to press on with her outreach, including stocking school
libraries with the book Inferior by Angela Saini, which
explores the harm caused by gender stereotypes. “I think diverse teams
do better science,” she says. “Doing all this stuff definitely makes
sure that the academic community is more robust, resilient and
A climatologist was a driving force behind the IPCC’s stark report
on global warming.
By Jeff Tollefson
In October, Valérie Masson-Delmotte and her colleagues presented the
world with alarming news about its future. Within as little as a dozen
years, Earth’s average temperature could reach 1.5 °C above what it
was in the mid-nineteenth century, triggering a wave of changes that
would transform ecosystems and kill off most of the world’s coral
reefs, among many other impacts.
The warning came courtesy of a
from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which
Masson-Delmotte played a primary part. A climatologist at the
Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment in Gif-sur-Yvette,
France, and co-chair of the IPCC working group that assesses the
physical science of climate change, Masson-Delmotte helped to gather
the report’s authors, coordinate their work and, ultimately, get the
report approved by governments.
The IPCC normally takes the better part of a decade to produce its
massive assessments, but the 1.5 °C report came together quickly,
incorporating research published just weeks before the final draft was
submitted for government review. “I’m really proud,” Masson-Delmotte
says. “We had a horribly stringent timeline, but I think we managed to
build trust and ownership of the report by the authors.”
The report makes clear that limiting warming to 1.5 °C would have huge
benefits compared with allowing temperatures to surge to the 2 °C
level. But keeping to 1.5 °C would require aggressive action to curb
greenhouse-gas emissions. And even if nations could somehow achieve
that, the world would look very different: entire ecosystems could be
destroyed across more than 6% of the planet’s terrestrial surface, and
70–90% of coral reefs would probably disappear.
“This report will be a hard one to ignore,” says co-author Ove
Hoegh-Guldberg, who is director of the Global Change Institute at the
University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia.
Diana Liverman, a geographer at the University of Arizona in Tucson,
singles out Masson-Delmotte’s work to improve diversity and
representation in the IPCC. Women made up just 22% of the author team
on the last assessment, completed in 2014; in this report, they
comprised an unprecedented 40%. Masson-Delmotte also worked to elevate
the role of early-career scientists and researchers from the global
south. And for the next full climate assessment, due out in 2021, she
has introduced procedures to promote engagement by all authors —
including an online participation tool for scientists who are
uncomfortable speaking up during meetings.
In an attempt to break down scientific silos, researchers from various
disciplines worked together on every chapter. The result,
Masson-Delmotte says, was an analysis that focused less on emissions
scenarios and more on social, technological and governmental policies
that could foster change — without exacerbating poverty and inequality
around the world.
Masson-Delmotte spent ten days talking about the report and the wider
IPCC process with delegates at the United Nations climate summit in
late 2018. Now, she and the other co-chairs are pushing forward with
two more reports — one on terrestrial biomes, the other on oceans and
polar regions, slated for release in August and September 2019,
Similar to the IPCC itself — participation in which is a voluntary
affair — Masson-Delmotte says that she is stretched to the limit. Her
own research has been relegated to occasional nights, weekends and
train rides, and she doesn’t see as much of her two daughters and
husband as she used to. “It’s frustrating,” she says. “But at the same
time, it’s awfully stimulating.”
Working behind the scenes, an astronomer coordinated the release of
Gaia’s long-awaited bounty of Milky Way data.
Researchers around the world were eager to dive into the data. But
Anthony Brown, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands,
had a different feeling when the catalogue finally rolled out:
“Tired,” he says.
Brown had good reason. He leads the Gaia project’s Data Processing and
Analysis Consortium, a group of more than 400 researchers that had
been crunching the numbers for years. The Gaia spacecraft, which
launched in 2013, spins to scan the sky and records the starlight that
streaks across the camera. Boiling the craft’s data down into precise
information on stellar positions, motion and other properties requires
sophisticated processing on the ground.
To researchers who are more interested in using Gaia to explore the
mysteries of the Milky Way, Brown’s job might seem less than
glamorous. A calm and measured character, Brown has worked as the
data-processing consortium’s chair since 2012. His day-to-day job is
intensively administrative: much of his time involves coordinating
with and meeting consortium teams to make sure that the mission’s
data-crunching pipeline, which fans out from an operations centre near
Madrid, works smoothly.
But Brown’s care and expertise have been crucial to the success of
Gaia’s data set, which has already been cited in
more than 700 research papers. His efforts have helped to steer the collaboration through myriad
snags, including a systematic error in the telescope’s parallax data
-— measures of angles to stars that enable astronomers to work out
distances. The team decided to characterize the problem carefully and
explain it in the release, rather than delay for more than a year to
collect more data to reduce the error, says Amina Helmi, an astronomer
at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in Groningen, the Netherlands,
and a member of the consortium. Brown has an impressive ability to
motivate researchers who would rather be working on science, Helmi
says. “I don’t know how he does it,” she says. “We all respect him.
There is really this feeling that we all share that wants to make Gaia
Brown and his colleagues have had little time to catch their breath.
They are already preparing the next data release, which will probably
be ready some time in the first half of 2021. Another is planned after
that, and more could follow: in November, the mission was extended to
at least the end of 2020. Brown, who has been involved with Gaia since
1997, is in no rush to see it end: “Having worked on this mission more
than 20 years now, it’s definitely part of who I am.”
Bee Yin Yeo:
Force for the environment
Malaysia’s new science and environment minister became a strong
voice against plastic pollution.
By Yao-Hua Law
Bee Yin Yeo began to question the future of the world — and her own
career — while evaluating oil wells in the deserts of Turkmenistan.
The new university graduate decided that humanity would eventually
move away from fossil fuels, so she decided to find another profession
that would serve the well-being of the world.
A few years later, in 2010, she returned home to Malaysia, armed with
a master’s degree in advanced chemical engineering from the University
of Cambridge, UK. She joined politics and won a seat in a state
legislative assembly in 2013. Then, a political tsunami hit Malaysia:
on 9 May 2018, voters ousted the coalition that had held uninterrupted
power since the country’s founding in 1963. The new government brought
in its own cabinet members, including Yeo, who was appointed Minister
of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change.
Yeo was “shocked” when she first heard of her appointment. “It was
unimaginable,” said the 35-year-old, who grew up in a small town amid
oil-palm and rubber-tree estates in southern Malaysia. Yeo had spent
the previous 5 years attacking national policies, and now she could
Since taking office on 2 July, Yeo has made several bold steps in
reforming how Malaysia manages its environment and research. She
announced goals to increase renewable energy from 2% to 20% of total
energy generation by 2030, to reform the electricity market and to
ramp up energy efficiency. She also went to battle against plastics
pollution — which plagues southeast Asia. She criticized the influx of
plastic waste into Malaysia, and helped to set a nationwide ban on its
import. On 31 October, Yeo launched a 12-year roadmap and legal
framework towards eliminating single-use plastic in Malaysia by 2030,
which also calls for research and commercialization of eco-friendly
alternatives, such as biodegradable plastics.
parallel an escalating global concern
over single-use plastics. In October, the European parliament voted to
ban their use in products such as straws and cutlery. And a growing
number of other nations have issued similar bans.
Julian Hyde, general manager of the environmental organization Reef
Check Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, praises Yeo’s efforts and roadmap.
“The most important thing about it is that it’s over a realistic
But the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) sees
problems ahead. Ching Yun Wee, who chairs the MPMA’s sustainability
subcommittee, says that local manufacturers can now produce
bio-degradable plastics, but that the material cannot yet decompose as
quickly or completely as is needed to solve the problem of plastic
Wee says, however, that compared to her predecessors, Yeo has given
the MPMA more opportunities to voice its opinion.
Yeo says that by funding local research and adopting foreign
techniques, Malaysia can develop the technology for biodegradable
plastic. “Some people think of problems to solutions, and not
solutions to the problem,” she says. “When business as usual is not
possible, you find another solution.”
A genealogist helped to identify a serial killer and paved the way
for DNA to play a larger part in solving crimes.
By Brendan Maher
In February 2017, Barbara Rae-Venter got a call from an investigator
looking for help with a criminal case. “I said, ‘Sure,’” says
Rae-Venter, a retired patent attorney in northern California, unaware
that she was signing up to try and catch one of the most notorious
serial killers and rapists in US history. This year, Rae-Venter’s work
not only led to the killer’s arrest, but also demonstrated a powerful
— approach for identifying criminals through genetic genealogy.
“She opened the door for others who wanted to do this, but had
reservations,” says CeCe Moore, who heads a forensic-genealogy unit at
the company Parabon Nanolabs in Reston, Virginia.
Rae-Venter first trained in genetic genealogy — which uses DNA to fill
out family trees — to explore her own ancestry. Eventually, she
started using the tools to aid others, such as people who had been
adopted as children, which drew the attention of Paul Holes, an
investigator with the Contra Costa county district attorney’s office
Holes was on the trail of a man who had terrorized California during
the 1970s and 1980s. With 12 murders, 45 rapes and 120 burglaries
attributed to him, the elusive perpetrator had become known as the
East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker and the Golden State
Killer. Holes reasoned that if Rae-Venter could piece together the
killer’s family history, it could help to find his true name.
Rae-Venter uploaded a profile made from crime-scene DNA into GEDmatch,
a public database used by genealogists. Although not nearly as large
as commercial genealogy websites, GEDmatch’s terms of service didn’t
expressly prohibit law enforcement from doing searches.
Right away, she found someone who seemed to be a third or fourth
cousin to the killer. With the help of the FBI and local law
officials, she worked to triangulate a common ancestor and then build
the family tree. She eventually zeroed in on Joseph DeAngelo, a former
police officer living in Sacramento. A direct test of his DNA proved
Many in the genealogy community knew that this approach was possible
and there had been
ongoing debates over whether it constituted an invasion of
privacy. Moore says that she had been approached in the past to help in this
way, but declined because of the debate and because most people who
used GEDmatch were unaware that it could be done. DeAngelo’s highly
publicized arrest changed that: the genealogy community, by and large,
embraced this use of data, at least for finding violent criminals.
Curtis Rogers, a co-founder of GEDmatch, has amended the database’s
rules to make it clearer that law enforcement might use the
information. He hasn’t seen a mass exodus from his site, he says.
The floodgates have now opened for these kinds of cases. Under Moore’s
direction, Parabon Nanolabs has uploaded about 200 perpetrator
profiles to GEDmatch, resulting in at least 22 identifications and
nearly as many arrests.
Rae-Venter says that she has been approached for help in more than 70
cases. Quiet and private, she is nevertheless excited to get more
involved. After all, her new calling seems to run in the family. In
her own research, she identified a great uncle who was a detective
inspector with the London Metropolitan Police during the time of Jack
the Ripper. “I would love to find out which cases he worked on,” she
A bureaucrat launched a drive to transform science publishing.
By Holly Else
The architect of this year’s bold push to get rid of paywalls in
says he got his ideas from an unlikely source: the publishers
In March, Robert-Jan Smits was tasked by the European Union’s research
commissioner, Carlos Moedas, with a special one-year mission: to get
more research papers published outside journal paywalls, and fast. A
veteran science-policy bureaucrat, Smits decided to go to the source:
he asked big publishers how he could do it. They told him that if the
organizations that pay for research insisted the findings had to be
published openly, journals would have to adapt.
So that’s what Smits set out to persuade research funders to do — in a
plan launched in September
that has sent shock waves through science publishing.
Smits has spent decades
pulling the science-policy strings at the European Commission, and, until his current assignment, had served eight years as the
director-general of research. He was ideally connected to begin
rallying Europe’s agencies with the idea, dubbed Plan S for ‘science,
speed, solution, shock’, as he puts it. As Nature went to
press, 16 funders had signed the plan; they require that the results
of work they support be made freely available at the time of
publication, starting in 2020.
Publishers have been dictating how research is published for decades,
Smits says. “Now it is the funders calling the shots, and we will do
It’s too early to know what the ultimate impact of Plan S on research
publishing will be. Its details are open for consultation, and much
might depend on how many other funders adopt the idea — but it will at
least improve access to research, says Peter Suber, director of the
Harvard Open Access Project and the Harvard Office for Scholarly
Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Smits has been overwhelmed
with messages of support. But the initiative has also met with
resistance: several publishers have said it could put them out of
business, and some researchers have said that they don’t want their
choice of where to publish to be restricted.
Smits is no stranger to disrupting the status quo in European science.
In 2007, he was instrumental in setting up the excellence-focused
European Research Council (ERC) funding agency — when, he says, very
few member states wanted it. “We had to go country by country to
convince people that we needed it,” he says.
Those who have worked with Smits are not surprised by his ability to
get consensus on controversial policies. “Robert-Jan has a fantastic
memory, of people, events, documents, policies. His networking
capacity is spectacular,” says Helga Nowotny, a former president of
Smits’ short tenure as open-access tsar is almost over. Next year, he
will leave to become chair of the Eindhoven University of Technology
in his native Netherlands. “It’s time for me to leave the commission
at what I consider my height,” he says.
An astronomer leads a mission to collect samples from an asteroid.
By Davide Castelvecchi
In June 2018, astronomer Makoto Yoshikawa stayed up around the clock
as the space mission he was leading
zeroed in on its quarry
— a dumpling-shaped rock called Ryugu. In a delicate manoeuvre after a
journey of more than three years, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft fired its
thrusters so that it moved in synchrony with the 1-kilometre-wide
asteroid as they orbited the Sun together.
That task achieved, Yoshikawa and his team at the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency (JAXA) moved on to the exploration phase. By early
October, the craft had successfully
dropped three small rovers
onto Ryugu — providing the first close-ups of the asteroid.
Hayabusa2 faces a bigger test next year, when it will gently touch
down on Ryugu and collect a sample. Any navigational imprecision could
send it crashing against a boulder. In an even more daring manoeuvre,
the craft will then shoot a projectile at the asteroid and analyse the
material that gets kicked up. The probe is due to come back to Earth
in 2020, carrying specimens that could shed light on the early stages
of the Solar System’s evolution.
Yoshikawa has been through nail-biters before. As a JAXA astronomer,
he helped to mastermind two of the most spectacular rescue operations
in the history of uncrewed space exploration.
The first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid, the original
Hayabusa, touched down on asteroid Itokawa in 2005. Soon afterwards,
mission control lost touch with the craft. The team managed to restore
piloted Hayabusa back to Earth, despite having lost its main engine. The speeding craft burnt up
during its re-entry, but its sample-return capsule was eventually
Then, in 2010, another JAXA probe, Akatsuki, had an engine malfunction
as it tried to decelerate to enter into orbit around Venus. Akatsuki
drifted away and went many times around the Sun until 2015, when it
passed Venus again and the team
managed to put it into orbit.
Some mishaps were inevitable, Yoshikawa says, given that Japan’s space
programme does not have a long tradition of deep-space exploration.
“We need experience,” he says. But Hayabusa2 has, so far, provided
some redress for JAXA’s historic ill-fortune.
Stephan Ulamec, a geophysicist at the German Aerospace Center in
Cologne who had a leading role in developing one of the Hayabusa2
landers, MASCOT, says that risk-taking and the ability to learn from
failures set Japanese space endeavours apart from more-cautious — and
better-funded — agencies in the West. “They have a tendency to do bold
missions, to take risks NASA would not,” he says.
Yoshikawa has the rare ability to lead a collaboration of many
different laboratories without having a big ego, and that has been key
to the success of these missions, says Aurélie Moussi, an
astrophysicist at the French space agency CNES in Toulouse and a
co-project manager for MASCOT. “He is the kindest scientist I’ve ever
worked with,” she says.
Yoshikawa has had an interest in asteroids ever since he was a child
and read The Little Prince — a 1943 novella that features a boy
who lives on an asteroid and visits Earth. Asteroids are potential
menaces that need to be kept track of — but they also hold the secrets
to the Solar System, and are a possible source of materials to mine
for future space exploration, Yoshikawa says.
“Asteroids are very small objects in the Universe — but very important
for the future life of humans.”
Ones to watch in 2019
Director-general of the Democratic Republic of the Congo National
Institute for Biomedical Research
As his nation battles a worsening Ebola outbreak, this veteran
virologist is spearheading the deployment of experimental
therapies and a new vaccine.
Co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States
This lawyer is suing the US government on behalf of people who
claim that the country has violated their rights by not preventing
Project director of India’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon mission
A big moment for this engineer could come in early 2019, as India
plans to land a rover near the lunar south pole and explore that
region for the first time.
Chair of management team at the North American Nanohertz
Observatory for Gravitational Waves
This astronomer and her colleagues monitor neutron stars, and
could soon detect gravitational waves created by supermassive
black holes for the first time.
Co-leader of the Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem
Díaz and researchers from more than 50 countries will release a
major biodiversity report as part of the Intergovernmental
Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
About Nature’s 10
Nature’s 10 is the journal’s annual list of ten people who
mattered in science this year. Their role in science may have had a
significant impact on the world, or their position in the world may
have had an important impact on science. In ten short profiles we
reveal the human stories behind some of the year’s most important
discoveries and events.
About the Nature’s 10 image
This design highlights advances in studies of atom-thick materials
with unusual properties. The image represents two graphene sheets
offset by a ‘magic’ angle, an arrangement that can behave as a
superconductor in certain conditions. Image by JVG.
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