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Nature Podcast

09 January 2020: A look ahead at science in 2020

In this episode of the podcast, Nature reporter Davide Castelvecchi joins us to talk about the big science events to look out for in 2020.

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  • Hybrid working works: huge study reveals no drop in productivity

    00:48 Short-haul spaceflight's effect on the human body.A comprehensive suite of biomedical data, collected during the first all-civilian spaceflight, is helping researchers unpick the effects that being in orbit has on the human body. Analysis of data collected from the crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission reveals that short duration spaceflight can result in physiological changes similar to those seen on longer spaceflights. These changes included things like alterations in immune-cell function and a lengthening of DNA telomeres, although the majority of these changes reverted soon after the crew landed.Collection: Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA) across orbits12:13 Research HighlightsResearchers have discovered why 2019 was so awash with Painted Lady butterflies, and the meaning behind gigantic rock engravings along the Orinoco river.Research Highlight: A huge outbreak of butterflies hit three continents — here’s whyResearch Highlight: Mystery of huge ancient engravings of snakes solved at last14:55 The benefits of working from home, some of the timeA huge trial of hybrid working has shown that this approach can help companies retain employees without hurting productivity. While a mix of home and in-person working became the norm for many post-pandemic, the impacts of this approach on workers’ outputs remains hotly debated and difficult to test scientifically. To investigate the effects of hybrid working, researchers randomly selected 1,612 people at a company in China to work in the office either five days a week or three. In addition to the unchanged productivity, employees said that they value the days at home as much as a 10% pay rise. This led to an increase in staff retention and potential savings of millions of dollars for the company involved in the trial.Research article: Bloom et al.Editorial: The case for hybrid working is growing — employers should take note25:50: Briefing ChatGermany balks at the $17 billion bill for CERN’s new supercollider, and working out when large language models might run out of data to train on.Nature News: CERN’s $17-billion supercollider in question as top funder criticizes costAssociated Press: AI ‘gold rush’ for chatbot training data could run out of human-written textSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Subscribe to Nature Briefing: AI and Robotics
  • Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts after the Capitol riots and it curbed misinformation

    In this episode:00:46 Making a molecular Bose-Einstein condensateFor the first time, researchers have coaxed molecules into a bizarre form of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate, in which they all act in a single gigantic quantum state. While condensates have been made using atoms for decades, the complex interactions of molecules have prevented them from being cooled into this state. Now, a team has successfully made a Bose-Einstein condensate using molecules made of caesium and sodium atoms, which they hope will allow them to answer more questions about the quantum world, and could potentially form the basis of a new kind of quantum computer.Research article: Bigagli et al. News: Physicists coax molecules into exotic quantum state — ending decades-long quest9:57 How deplatforming affects the spread of social media misinformationThe storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 resulted in the social media platform Twitter (now X) rapidly deplatforming 70,000 users deemed to be sharers of misinformation. To evaluate the effect of this intervention, researchers analysed the activity of over 500,000 Twitter users, showing that it reduced the sharing of misinformation, both from the deplatformed users and from those who followed them. Results also suggest that other misinformation traffickers who were not deplatformed left Twitter following the intervention. Together these results show that social media platforms can curb misinformation sharing, although a greater understanding of the efficacy of these actions in different contexts is required.Research article: McCabe et al.Editorial: What we do — and don’t — know about how misinformation spreads onlineComment: Misinformation poses a bigger threat to democracy than you might think20:14: Briefing ChatA new antibiotic that can kill harmful bacteria without damaging the gut microbiome, and the tiny plant with the world’s biggest genome.News: ‘Smart’ antibiotic can kill deadly bacteria while sparing the microbiomeNews: Biggest genome ever found belongs to this odd little plantSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • How AI could improve robotics, the cockroach’s origins, and promethium spills its secrets

    In this episode:00:25 What the rise of AI language models means for robotsCompanies are melding artificial intelligence with robotics, in an effort to catapult both to new heights. They hope that by incorporating the algorithms that power chatbots it will give robots more common-sense knowledge and let them tackle a wide range of tasks. However, while impressive demonstrations of AI-powered robots exist, many researchers say there is a long road to actual deployment, and that safety and reliability need to be considered.News Feature: The AI revolution is coming to robots: how will it change them?16:09 How the cockroach became a ubiquitous pestGenetic research suggests that although the German cockroach (Blattella germanica) spread around the world from a population in Europe, its origins were actually in South Asia. By comparing genomes from cockroaches collected around the globe, a team could identify when and where different populations might have been established. They show that the insect pest likely began to spread east from South Asia around 390 years ago with the rise of European colonialism and the emergence of international trading companies, before hitching a ride into Europe and then spreading across the globe.Nature News: The origin of the cockroach: how a notorious pest conquered the world20:26: Rare element inserted into chemical 'complex' for the first timePromethium is one of the rarest and most mysterious elements in the periodic table. Now, some eight decades after its discovery, researchers have managed to bind this radioactive element to other molecules to make a chemical ‘complex’. This feat will allow chemists to learn more about the properties of promethium filling a long-standing gap in the textbooks.Nature News: Element from the periodic table’s far reaches coaxed into elusive compoundSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • How mathematician Freeman Hrabowski opened doors for Black scientists

    Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, mathematician Freeman Hrabowski was moved to join the civil rights moment after hearing Martin Luther King Jr speak. Even as a child, he saw the desperate need to make change. He would go on to do just that — at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, one of the leading pathways to success for Black students in STEM subjects in the United States.Freeman is the subject of the first in a new series of Q&As in Nature celebrating ‘Changemakers’ in science — individuals who fight racism and champion inclusion. He spoke to us about his about his life, work and legacy.Career Q&A: I had my white colleagues walk in a Black student’s shoes for a day
  • Audio long read: How does ChatGPT ‘think’? Psychology and neuroscience crack open AI large language models

    AIs are often described as 'black boxes' with researchers unable to to figure out how they 'think'. To better understand these often inscrutable systems, some scientists are borrowing from psychology and neuroscience to design tools to reverse-engineer them, which they hope will lead to the design of safer, more efficient AIs.This is an audio version of our Feature: How does ChatGPT ‘think’? Psychology and neuroscience crack open AI large language models
  • Fentanyl addiction: the brain pathways behind the opioid crisis

    00:45 The neuroscience of fentanyl addictionResearch in mice has shown that fentanyl addiction is the result of two brain circuits working in tandem, rather than a single neural pathway as had been previously thought. One circuit underlies the positive feelings this powerful drug elicits, which the other was responsible for the intense withdrawal when it is taken away. Opioid addiction leads to tens of thousands of deaths each year, and the team hopes that this work will help in the development of drugs that are less addictive.Research Article: Chaudun et al.09:16 Research HighlightsHow an ‘assembloid’ could transform how scientists study drug delivery to the brain, and an edible gel that prevents and treats alcohol intoxication in mice.Research Highlight: Organoids merge to model the blood–brain barrierResearch Highlight: How cheesemaking could cook up an antidote for alcohol excess11:36: Briefing ChatWhy babies are taking the South Korean government to court, and Europe’s efforts to send a nuclear-powered heater to Mars.Nature News: Why babies in South Korea are suing the governmentNature News: Mars rover mission will use pioneering nuclear power sourceSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Lizard-inspired building design could save lives

    In this episode:00:45 A recyclable 3D printing resin from an unusual sourceMany 3D printers create objects using liquid resins that turn into robust solids when exposed to light. But many of these are derived from petrochemicals that are difficult to recycle. To overcome this a team has developed a new type of resin, which they’ve made using a bodybuilding supplement called lipoic acid. Their resin can be printed, recycled and reused multiple times, which they hope could in future contribute to reducing waste associated with 3D printing.Research Article: Machado et al10:05 Research HighlightsHow housing shortages can drive a tiny parrot resort to kill, and the genes that gave cauliflower its curls.Research Highlight: These parrots go on killing sprees over real-estate shortagesResearch Highlight: How the cauliflower got its curlicues12:27 To learn how to make safe structures researchers... destroyed a buildingMany buildings are designed to prevent collapse by redistributing weight following an initial failure. However this relies on extensive structural connectedness that can result in an entire building being pulled down. To prevent this, researchers took a new approach inspired by the ability of some lizards to shed their tails. They used this to develop a modular system, which they tested by building — and destroying — a two storey structure. Their method stopped an initial failure from spreading, preventing a total collapse. The team hope this finding will help prevent catastrophic collapses, reducing loss of life in aid rescue efforts.Research Article: Makoond et al.Nature video: Controlled failure: The building designed to limit catastrophe23:20: Briefing ChatAn AI algorithm discovers 27,500 new asteroids, and an exquisitely-accurate map of a human brain section reveals cells with previously undiscovered features.New York Times: Killer Asteroid Hunters Spot 27,500 Overlooked Space RocksNature News: Cubic millimetre of brain mapped in spectacular detailSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Subscribe to Nature Briefing: AI and robotics
  • Alphafold 3.0: the AI protein predictor gets an upgrade

    In this episode:00:45 A nuclear timekeeper that could transform fundamental-physics research.Nuclear clocks — based on tiny shifts in energy in an atomic nucleus — could be even more accurate and stable than other advanced timekeeping systems, but have been difficult to make. Now, a team of researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of these clocks, identifying the correct frequency of laser light required to make this energy transition happen. Ultimately it’s hoped that physicists could use nuclear clocks to probe the fundamental forces that hold atoms together.News: Laser breakthrough paves the way for ultra precise ‘nuclear clock’10:34 Research HighlightsWhy life on other planets may come in purple, brown or orange, and a magnetic fluid that could change shape inside the body.Research Highlight: Never mind little green men: life on other planets might be purpleResearch Highlight: A magnetic liquid makes for an injectable sensor in living tissue13:48 AlphaFold gets an upgradeDeepmind’s AlphaFold has revolutionised research by making it simple to predict the 3D structures of proteins, but it has lacked the ability to predict situations where a protein is bound to another molecule. Now, the AI has been upgraded to AlphaFold 3 and can accurately predict protein-molecule complexes containing DNA, RNA and more. Whilst the new version is restricted to non-commercial use, researchers are excited by its greater range of predictive abilities and the prospect of speedier drug discovery.News: Major AlphaFold upgrade offers huge boost for drug discoveryResearch Article: Abramson et al.Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Talking about sex and gender doesn't need to be toxic

    Ever since scientific enquiry began, people have focused mainly on men, or if studies involve animals, on male mice, male rats or whatever it may be. And this has led to gaps in scientists’ understanding of how diseases, and responses to treatment, and many other things might vary between people of different sexes and genders.These days, mainly thanks to big funders like the NIH introducing new guidelines and mandates, a lot more scientists are thinking about sex and, where appropriate, gender. And this has led to a whole host of discoveries.But all this research is going on within a sociopolitical climate that’s becoming increasingly hostile and polarized, particularly in relation to gender identity. And in some cases, science is being weaponized to push agendas, creating confusion and fear.It is clear that sex and gender exist beyond a simple binary. This is widely accepted by scientists and it is not something we will be debating in this podcast. But this whole area is full of complexity, and there are many discussions which need to be had around funding, inclusivity or research practices.To try to lessen fear, and encourage clearer, less divisive thinking, we have asked three contributors to a special series of opinion pieces on sex and gender to come together and thrash out how exactly scientists can fill in years of neglected research – and move forward with exploring the differences between individuals in a way that is responsible, inclusive and beneficial to as many people as possible.Read the full collection: Sex and gender in science