How to consolidate the Great Green Wall of Africa

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A recently identified pulsar is difficult to spot in this part of the Large Magellanic Cloud under normal viewing conditions (sunglasses removed). But the pulsar becomes clear in polarized view (sunglasses on).(Yuanming Wang)

An object astronomers thought was a distant galaxy is actually the brightest extra-galactic pulsar ever seen. Pulsars are among the few celestial objects that emit circular polarized light. The scientists therefore used a computer program that works like sunglasses: it filters out other types of light. The team was then able to spot the “hidden” pulsar. “We should expect to find more pulsars using this technique,” says radio astronomer and co-author Tara Murphy. “This is the first time that we have been able to systematically and routinely search for the polarization of a pulsar.”

Nature | 4 minute read

Reference: The Astrophysical Journal paper

Researchers and biosafety experts are calling on the US government to issue clearer guidelines on what experiments it could fund to make pathogens more transmissible or deadly. They made the pleas in the first of a series of public listening sessions hosted by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosafety. Manipulating viruses, for example by making them more transmissible to humans, can help scientists answer important questions about how a pathogen evolved or how to defeat it. But U.S. policymakers have struggled to determine when the risk of creating a more dangerous pathogen outweighs the benefits of research. The council plans to write a report outlining its recommendations by the end of the year.

Nature | 6 minute read

Eight vaccines that fight COVID-19 at the frontline of infection — in the nose — are in clinical development. The developers hope to give us better protection against infection by harnessing the mucosal immune system: disease-fighting cells that inhabit the mucus-rich lining of our airways and gut. But it’s not easy to develop a safe and effective vaccine that takes this unknown route through the body. “While the human immune system is a black box, the mucosal immune system is probably the blackest of black boxes,” says epidemiologist Wayne Koff.

American scientist | 6 minute read

Opera-inspired breathing techniques have been found to improve shortness of breath and mental well-being in people with long-term COVID. The researchers reported on the six-week online program they developed with English National Opera, which uses singing techniques and soothing lullabies. This is the first randomized controlled trial to evaluate an intervention for people with long COVID, say the study authors. The benefits came “both from the practical breathing techniques learned, but also from the creative, humane and positive way in which the program is delivered,” says respiratory physician and co-author Keir Philip.

i news | 4 minute read

Reference: The Lancet paper

Features & Reviews

As of 2013, a Dutch government algorithm that identified innocent families as welfare fraudsters pushed tens of thousands into poverty and placed more than 1,000 children in foster care. Regulations introduced to stop such artificial intelligence (AI) scandals will not be enough to make it fair, argues sociologist Mona Sloane. “There must be practical know-how on how to build AI so that it does not exacerbate social inequalities,” she writes. “This means defining clear ways for social scientists, affected communities and developers to work together.”

Nature | 5 minute read

The rapidly evolving pandemic has thrown health researcher Laura McCosker’s clinical trial into chaos. As I investigated vaccination strategies for homeless people, “balancing participant well-being and research integrity became a major struggle for me,” she writes. She shares strategies that have helped her overcome challenges while keeping trial participants front and center in her decision-making.

Nature | 6 minute read

The Great Green Wall of Africa is one of the most ambitious ecological projects in the world: an 8,000 kilometer effort to restore degraded lands, capture carbon dioxide and create jobs. Under the pressure of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, the dream is in danger of flying away, pleads a Nature editorial. It proposes improvements in funding, governance and evaluation that are needed to ensure the wall achieves its bold goals

Nature | 5 minute read

Infographic of the week

UNEXPLORED NUTS.  Graph showing measured and observed isotopes versus those that will potentially be produced by FRIB.

Source: Neufcourt, L. et al. Phys. Rev. VS 101044307 (2020).

A long-awaited US accelerator is ready to go live, five months early and on budget. The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) will map unexplored regions of the landscape of exotic atomic nuclei and shed light on how stars and supernova explosions create most of the elements of the Universe. The system will crush atoms to create isotopes of all kinds, including the rarest, whose production rates could be as low as one nucleus per week. “This project has been a dream come true for the entire nuclear physics community,” says Ani Aprahamian, experimental nuclear physicist. (Nature | 7 min read)

Check out other key infographics of the week, selected by Naturenews and artistic teams.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

Work that contributes to the scientific community — such as reviewing, editing and writing letters of recommendation — needs to be factored into the growing workload for academics, says biological psychologist and deputy vice-chancellor Marcus Munafò. (News from Research Professionals | 4 min read)

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