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Three researchers have won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on describing complex physical systems — including foundational research that predicted that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere would raise global temperatures. Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann share half of the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (US$1.15 million) for modelling the physics of Earth’s climate. Theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi was awarded the other half for his contributions to the theory of complex systems. His work has affected many areas, from neuroscience to how granular materials pack.
Asked if the Nobel committee was sending a message to world leaders with the award, Göran Hansson, secretary-general of the prize-awarding Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said: “What we are saying is that the modelling climate is solidly based in physical theory and solid physics.” He added: “Global warming is resting on solid science. That is the message.”
Read more about how Syukuro Manabe’s research was among those early climate models that successfully predicted global warming.
Read a celebration in Nature Climate Change of Klaus Hasselmann’s landmark paper, widely regarded as the first serious effort to provide a sound statistical framework for identifying a human-caused warming signal.
The first study to look directly at how well the Oxford–AstraZeneca and Pfizer–BioNTech vaccines prevent the spread of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 brings good news and bad. In the rare cases when fully vaccinated people became infected with the Delta variant, they were less likely to pass it on than unvaccinated people. But a vaccinated person with a Delta infection was almost twice as likely to pass on the virus as someone infected with Alpha. And the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine’s beneficial effect on Delta transmission waned to almost negligible levels three months after the second dose. The preprint study analysed testing data from thousands of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 and their close contacts between January and August 2021 in the United Kingdom, when the Alpha and Delta variants were competing for dominance.
Reference: medRxiv preprint (not peer reviewed)
US National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins will step down from the agency by the end of the year, reports Politico. Collins, who is best known for leading the Human Genome Project and co-discovering the genetic cause of cystic fibrosis, has led the nation’s leading biomedical-research funder for 12 years. “I fundamentally believe… that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future,” Collins said in a statement.
The estate of Henrietta Lacks is suing Thermo Fisher Scientific for profits made from commercializing her cells. Lacks’s cells were taken without her knowledge or permission as she underwent cancer treatment in 1951. They gave rise to the first immortal human cell line, HeLa, which is used for research into almost every disease, but the ethical and racial issues involved in the cell line’s development were neglected for decades. The suit also asks that the company be prohibited from using HeLa cells without the estate’s permission. “Why is it they have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?” said attorney Ben Crump.
Meanwhile, a statue celebrating Lacks has been unveiled at the University of Bristol, UK. “She has saved lives and given to countless people around the world,” said Lacks’ granddaughter, Jeri Lacks-Whye, at the unveiling yesterday. The inscription on the statue’s base reads: “More than a cell”.
Features & opinion
Our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic has been bolstered by the laudable, but ad hoc, efforts of volunteers, media organizations and, notably, the non-profit organization Our World in Data. That’s not good enough, argues Hannah Ritchie, a global-development researcher and the head of research at Our World in Data. “I get e-mails daily from policymakers, investors, researchers and journalists asking for data on other issues — energy or the Sustainable Development Goals, say — that are impossible to find,” she writes. “Instead of leaving such work to volunteers, global institutions should marshal the funding and expertise to collect crucial data, and mandate their publication.”
Extreme heat can kill, but — unlike for flooding or wildfire — no single organization or department is responsible for coordinating a response. It doesn’t strike equally: those who are marginalized, poor, young, old, homeless or institutionalized, or who have pre-existing medical conditions, are affected most. And its impacts are only set to intensify because of climate change. Five researchers call for a focused research programme to support ‘heat governance’ — including the actors, strategies, processes and institutions that can mitigate and manage this hazard.
An exotic quantum state that could revolutionize computing is proving to be so evasive that it has led to high-profile retractions and a debate over whether it exists at all. The quasiparticles, known as Majorana fermions, should make for exceptionally stable quantum bits that could allow us to build an error-resistant quantum computer. But Majoranas are exquisitely difficult to produce — and it’s even harder to prove that you’ve definitely produced one and not some other quasiparticle. The solution, say some physicists, is to try to build a quantum computer out of whatever they’ve got and see what happens.
Image of the week
The European and Japanese BepiColombo mission made its first fly-by of Mercury over the weekend, passing just 199 kilometres above the planet’s surface. BepiColombo captured this view of Mercury from about 1,400 kilometres away. To the right, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter’s magnetometer boom and part of the spacecraft can be seen. The shots were taken by auxiliary cameras at relatively low resolution, because the mission’s main cameras are tucked away during interplanetary travel. (Nature | 3 min read)
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