This year’s science Nobels
Two years ago, physicists detected for the first time the infinitesimal ripples in space called gravitational waves caused by the merger of two black holes. This observation fulfilled a century-old prediction from Albert Einstein and opened up a whole new way to explore the heavens. This week, three leaders of the massive experiment that made the discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Physiology or Medicine Prize recognized work on how several genes work together to control the basic circadian clock, encoding proteins that build up during the night and are broken down during the day. And three pioneers of a technique called cryo–electron microscopy won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The technique helped visualize biomolecules—everything from the needles that bacteria use to attack cells to the structure of Zika virus—with unprecedented detail.
The insult "You're a Neandertal!" has taken on dramatic new meaning in the past few years, as researchers have begun to identify the genes many of us inherited from our long-extinct relatives. By sequencing a remarkably complete genome from a 50,000-year-old bone fragment of a female Neandertal found in Vindija Cave in Croatia, researchers report a new trove of gene variants that living people outside of Africa obtained from Neandertals. Some of this DNA could influence cholesterol levels, the accumulation of belly fat, and the risk of schizophrenia and other diseases.
Boston University is investigating sexual harassment complaints made against a prominent Antarctic geologist by two of his former graduate students. The women allege that David Marchant, then an assistant professor, harassed them during different research expeditions starting 2 decades ago, while they were isolated in small groups in the Antarctic. In supporting documents and interviews, several other women report similar treatment from Marchant in that period. But other women he has worked with defend Marchant, saying they do not recognize the man described in the complaints.
When engineers want to make an object weigh less, they literally cut corners. Using a tool called topology optimization, they enlist computers to snip as much material as possible from the inside of objects, reducing the number of spokes on a bicycle wheel, for example. But current methods can only optimize simple objects such as brackets and pipes. Now, a team of researchers says it has created a new method of paring down large-scale objects, such as plane wings.
Researchers who are on the move are cited on average 40% more than those who aren’t, according to an analysis published this week. The study analyzed 14 million scholarly papers published between 2008 and 2015 by nearly 16 million individual authors. They found about 4%—more than 595,000 scholars—to be “mobile,” meaning they had affiliations with academic institutions in more than one nation. Of these, roughly 73% retained a footing at their original institution while gaining additional international affiliations. The remaining 27% became detached from the institution in their original country after moving and were the most highly cited, the study finds.
Long thought to be extinct, Lord Howe Island stick insects (Dryococelus australis) are actually alive and well. The 15-centimeter-long bugs once thrived only on Lord Howe Island, near Australia. But after a ship accidentally introduced black rats to the island about a century ago, the stick insects disappeared, only to be found 40 years later on a nearby volcanic sea stack. But these critters didn't look like old stick insect museum specimens, leaving scientists wondering. Now, a DNA analysis shows that the live sticks and dead specimens are the same species.
The farming town of Broo on Scotland’s Shetland Islands was no stranger to extreme weather. Located on an archipelago just south of the Arctic Circle, its inhabitants had braved lashing winds and bitterly cold winters. But it was something else that did Broo in: sand. Beginning around 1665, a series of sandstorms like nothing seen before buffeted the island, burying homes, destroying fertile soil, and eventually forcing the townspeople to flee. Now, scientists think they know what caused the freak weather event—and why it left neighboring towns relatively unscathed.