Daily briefing: Betelgeuse is going dim, exciting astronomers


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He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel

He Jiankui stunned the world when he declared that he’d created the first gene-edited babies.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock

On 30 December, a Chinese court sentenced biophysicist He Jiankui to three years in prison, a fine and a research ban for “illegal medical practice”. The court confirmed He’s claim that he created the world’s first gene-edited babies (twins born in late 2018) and a third baby sometime later. The sentence sends a strong message about China’s distaste for the research, which appeared to embarrass the country and was heavily censored as a topic on social media.

Nature | 5 min read

The Australian National University has returned hundreds of vials of blood collected more than 50 years ago from members of the Galiwin’ku community of Elcho Island off the coast of northern Australia. The repatriation is part of an ambitious plan to obtain informed consent for thousands of historical samples in the university’s collection that were taken from Indigenous people. Of the roughly 2,000 people contacted so far about their samples, or samples from a deceased relative, about 90% have agreed to allow DNA information to remain in a biobank specifically founded to manage it.

Nature | 5 min read

Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky and normally easily spotted in Orion’s armpit, is going dim. The red supergiant is a variable star that brightens and fades unpredictably, but after weeks of dimming, it’s currently at its faintest level so far. Astronomers are placing their bets as to whether the change is caused by instabilities in the star, a curtain of ejected dust or wilder possibilities such as an imminent supernova. (My money’s on a Dyson sphere.)

Space.com | 8 min read

This year will see a veritable Mars invasion as spacecraft carrying rovers from NASA, the European Space Agency and China head to the red planet. The first-ever image of a black hole might be followed up with a picture (and maybe even a movie) of the one at the centre of our own Galaxy. The COP26 climate conference — a moment of truth for the Paris agreement — kicks off in November in the United Kingdom. And companies large and small plan to start selling solar cells that use perovskites, hopeful that they will yield the most efficient solar panels on the market. Discover these and more about the year ahead in science.

Nature | 6 min read

Features & opinion

Paints, plastics and even wood can be engineered to stay cool in direct sunlight using a natural heat-shedding effect known as passive radiative cooling. The materials absorb and then emit infrared energy at specific wavelengths, which pass straight through the atmosphere and into space — effectively linking them to an inexhaustible heat sink. Researchers hope that the materials could displace some power-hungry air conditioners or even harvest water from the atmosphere.

Nature | 12 min read

It’s time to wake up to the night-time life of our cities, says urban researcher Michele Acuto. Long nights working with waste collectors opened Acuto’s eyes to the world of night workers, homeless people and others whose needs are sometimes neglected by day dwellers. “McDonald’s, as a $30-billion real-estate powerhouse with an explicit night-time strategy, probably knows more about the after-hours than most policymakers,” argues Acuto.

Nature | 4 min read

Highly treated wastewater that is reused as drinking water is subject to stricter regulations, monitoring, assessments and auditing than the stuff that usually comes out of the tap. But many people are averse to filling their glass with water that so recently went down the drain. Policy researchers Cecilia Tortajada and Pierre van Rensburg set out some solutions to squash squeamishness and better harness this precious resource.

Nature | 9 min read

For players in the California Institute of Technology’s self-proclaimed ‘Nerd League’, a kickabout is a chance to get out of their labs at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for some fun and camaraderie. “Soccer is a very good outlet. My life is research and soccer,” says biophysicist Rachel Banks.

The Los Angeles Times | 7 min read

News & views

Our only vaccine for tuberculosis, which is normally injected into the skin, seems to work much better when delivered into a vein. The BCG (bacille Calmette–Guérin) vaccine has been given to more than one billion people, but its efficacy varies wildly. Researchers tested various ways of administering BCG to rhesus macaques and found that intravenous vaccination afforded nearly complete protection from the disease. Tuberculosis researchers Samuel Behar and Chris Sassetti explore what the discovery might mean for the fight against the world’s deadliest infectious killer.

Nature | 6 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Quote of the day

The November meeting of the European Biological Rhythms Society rigorously tested how people attending remotely can still enjoy the benefits of interaction and networking, says circadian biologist Martha Merrow. (Nature)

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