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Around 2009, Earth’s solid-iron inner core might have stopped rotating faster than the rest of the planet. Researchers studied seismic waves generated by US nuclear test blasts during the cold war, and later by earthquakes, to discover that the inner core started spinning faster than the mantle after 1971, then slowed back down. The results could help to shine light on mysteries including what part the inner core plays in maintaining the planet’s magnetic field and in affecting the speed of the whole planet’s rotation — and thus the length of a day. But the latest study is unlikely to have the final word on the disputed topic.
Nature | 5 min read
Reference: Nature Geoscience paper
Researchers have found a link between common viral infections and an elevated risk of having a neurodegenerative condition, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, later in life. Such links have been found between single viruses and diseases before — for example, between Epstein–Barr virus and multiple sclerosis. The new study looked more broadly, analysing about 450,000 electronic health records from Finland and the United Kingdom. Researchers caution that the data show only a possible connection, and that it’s still unclear how or whether the infections trigger disease onset.
Nature | 5 min read
Job satisfaction among early-career scientists in Australia has dropped over the pandemic years. In a survey of 500 researchers, 57% were satisfied with their jobs, compared with 62% in a similar survey in 2019. That’s much lower than the average of 80% across the nation’s entire workforce. The survey’s authors suggest that the root cause might be the high number of science PhD degrees awarded in Australia each year despite a paucity of secure science positions.
Nature | 5 min read
Reference: bioRxiv preprint (not peer-reviewed)
An influx of funding and a renewed place at the centre of public policy has reinvigorated the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To help achieve US President Joe Biden’s bold environmental and climate goals, the agency must codify about a half dozen highly complex rules and regulations at lightning speed. But the EPA must simultaneously recover from an era in which it was largely sidelined, morale plummeted and many scientists left. “You have an organization that was at some level traumatized to begin with, that was facing difficulties created over many, many years of divestment, and now you have a new set of requirements that are going to call for new capabilities,” says policy analyst Max Stier. “They’re going to have to build up their strength, and that does not happen overnight.”
The New York Times | 8 min read
Read more: Can Joe Biden rebuild the ravaged US Environmental Protection Agency? (Nature | 8 min read, from December)
Last week, we learnt that the artificial-intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT can write fake abstracts that scientists have trouble distinguishing from those written by humans. And that publishers are scrambling to regulate the use of the easy-to-use, free tool, which has already started popping up on author lists.
We asked you whether researchers should be allowed to use generative AIs like ChatGPT to help them write academic papers, and almost 58% of the more than 3,600 Briefing readers who responded to our poll said no.
Many respondents were worried that chatbots make it easy to create fake and inaccurate papers, so it would be best to ban their use until there are systems that can detect this type of fraud.
Others pointed out that AI, when used ethically, could play a part in making research more accessible: it could help non-native English speakers write up their work, or create simple-language summaries of papers. “AI systems should be used to speed up workflows that take human scientists long periods of time to accomplish with no tangible gain,” suggested materials scientist Shaun McAnally. In ChatGPT’s own words, “the relationship between humans and AI is not a competition, but a partnership”.
Features & opinion
Nature’s pick of the tools and technologies that are poised to shake up science includes single-molecule protein sequencing, high-precision radiocarbon dating and more CRISPR editing everywhere.
Nature | 14 min read
Foreign researchers working in Indonesia say that the government is freezing them out to protect its standing as a conservation success story. They say that the result is a data ‘black hole’ that makes it hard to know whether endangered orangutan, elephant, rhino and tiger populations are recovering as much as official figures claim. A group of Indonesian and international non-governmental organizations is planning to launch a court action that seeks to overturn what they say is a pattern of undermining science.
Yale Environment 360 | 10 min read
Image of the week
The remains of ten crocodile mummies that had lain undisturbed until 2019 were found in an ancient Egyptian tomb underneath a Byzantine-era rubbish dump. The linen bandages that would have wrapped the bodies had been eaten away by insects, allowing researchers to observe that they were different species — Crocodylus niloticus and Crocodylus suchus. Egyptologist Salima Ikram says the mummies’ presence offers insight into how ancient Egyptians might characterize their role in the afterlife, “because niloticus will eat you, whereas with suchus, you can conceivably swim in the same pool and live”. (The New York Times | 4 min read)
Reference: PLoS One paper (Patri Mora Riudavets, member of the Qubbat al-Hawā team (CC-BY 4.0))
Today I’m enjoying this video of 500 Indian runner ducks (Anas platyrhynchos domesticus) that act as natural pest-controllers on the Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate in South Africa. The ducks’ erect posture and habit of marching in ranks gives them a martial appearance that is also delightfully silly.
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With contributions by Katrina Krämer and Smriti Mallapaty
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