Daily briefing: Quantum tunnelling takes time


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A model of the face of a man with a prominent nose and eyebrows, a beard and moustache, long hair and brown eyes.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal.Credit: S. Entressangle/E. Daynes/SPL

Neanderthals had a biological predisposition to a heightened sense of pain. A first-of-its kind genome study found that the ancient human relatives carried three mutations in a gene encoding the protein NaV1.7, which conveys painful sensations to the spinal cord and brain. They also showed that in a sample of British people, those who had inherited the Neanderthal version of NaV1.7 tend to experience more pain than others. “This is beautiful work”, says neuroscientist Cedric Boeckx, because it shows how aspects of Neanderthal physiology can be reconstructed by studying modern humans.

Nature | 4 min read

Scientists in France have given mixed reviews to the nation’s first long-term strategy for research — a multibillion-euro plan designed to help the country to stand out in an increasingly competitive global research landscape. The plan will add €26 billion (US$30 billion) to the public research budget over 10 years, but some say that isn’t enough for the country to regain its place as a scientific leader.

Nature | 3 min read

Quantum tunnelling — when an atom shimmies its way through a barrier in a way forbidden by classical physics — is not instantaneous. The finding addresses a long-standing mystery about the effect, which underlies everything from photosynthesis to nuclear fusion. Physicists cooled a gas of rubidium atoms and ushered them towards a 1.3-micrometre-thick barrier made of laser light. While the atoms were inside the barrier, their spins atoms slowly rotated under the influence of a magnetic field. The researchers calculated from the spins that, for the atoms with the lowest energy that could get them through the barrier, the crossing took 0.61 milliseconds.

Scientific American | 7 min read

Reference: Nature paper

COVID-19 coronavirus update

All about COVID-19 immunity

The immune response that protects against COVID-19 is not yet well understood. Some anecdotes suggest that people might be able to get infected twice in quick succession. And preliminary studies indicate that antibodies produced to fight off SARS-CoV-2 might dissipate quickly. The message from the experts: more research is needed, but don’t panic. Our knowledge of other diseases suggests that repeated infections are unlikely. And our immune systems have an arsenal of weapons: when antibodies disperse, the T cells still stand guard. But for how long? With the coronavirus, we just don’t know yet.

The New York Times | 11 min read

Fallen on the front line

The Guardian and Kaiser Health News are documenting every US health-care worker who has died of COVID-19. Their reports include a family of five doctors that lost two members to the disease. “She navigated the world with kindness and delight,” said Laura Stanfill of her childhood friend, nephrologist Priya Khanna, who died along with her father, surgeon Satyender Khanna.

The Guardian | 7 min read

Features & opinion

Smallpox is the latest example of a serious infectious disease whose history has been suddenly and substantially rewritten by discoveries gleaned from ancient DNA. Before the ancient-DNA revolution, researchers had to rely on examining skeletons — or, more rarely, mummies — for visible evidence of disease. Now, scientists are able to trace the mark of pathogens in remains to help them determine how infections influenced life, death and migration.

Nature | 8 min read

B. Mühlemann, M. Sikora & T. Jones/ref. 1

A massive haul of stone tools discovered in a cave in Mexico is evidence that people occupied the area more than 30,000 years ago. The finding suggests that humans arrived in North America at least 15,000 years earlier than had been thought — adding fuel to a debate that has raged among archeologists for ages. On this week’s Nature Podcast, we hear from the researchers who uncovered the latest evidence. Plus, get the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic in our weekly Coronapod segment.

Nature Podcast | 42 min listen

Go deeper with anthropologist Ruth Gruhn’s expert analysis in the Nature News & Views article.

Reference: Nature paper 1 & Nature paper 2

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Books & culture

A new book by psychologist Stuart Ritchie presents case studies of replication failures and scientific misconduct from across scientific disciplines. Reviewer Fiona Fidler praises Ritchie’s criticism of perverse incentives and inappropriate metrics that have been steering science down the wrong road. But “occasionally he rests too heavily on the idea that there were once golden days when science was a pure truth-seeking enterprise”, writes Fidler.

Nature | 5 min read

In her latest book, anthropologist Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, surveys the factors that influence vaccine hesitancy. Larson’s research helps us to understand that facts are only one piece of this puzzle, writes reviewer Joan Donovan. “Vaccine hesitancy is a problem of dignity as much as of the abundance of falsehoods,” says Donovan. “Individuals want to have their choices respected.”

Nature | 5 min read

Andrew Robinson’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes what we owe to fire, home working vs the driverless car, and survival of the unfittest.

Nature | 3 min read

Postdoctoral-Researcher Survey

Please take our first postdoctoral-researcher survey. “We’re hoping to hear from postdoctoral researchers from around the world,” says Karen Kaplan, senior editor of the Nature Careers section. “These scientists help form the foundation of academic research, but they don’t always get the recognition they deserve. We’re eager to hear what they have on their minds, especially during these difficult times.” Everyone who responds has a chance to win £250 (US$310), or local equivalent.

Please click here to take the survey.

Where I work

Agnieszka Wykowska in her lab at the Italian Institute of Technology, Genoa, Italy.

Agnieszka Wykowska is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa.Credit: Mattia Balsamini for Nature

Cognitive neuroscientist Agnieszka Wykowska works with iCub robots to explore what sort of feelings or thoughts robots evoke in people. Despite her intimacy with the cold, hard truth of iCub’s nature, she’s not immune to anthropomorphizing it. “I must say that I do feel attached to the robot sometimes,” says Wykowska. “Very often, I think, ‘Oh, my robot is sad, annoyed or bored right now.’”

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