New type of dark energy could solve Universe expansion mystery

Davide Castelvecchi

Nature | September 17, 2021

Atacama Cosmology Telescope in the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile.
Data from the Atacama Cosmology Telescope suggest the existence of two types of dark energy at the very start of the Universe.Credit: Giulio Ercolani/Alamy

Cosmologists have found signs that a second type of dark energy — the ubiquitous but enigmatic substance that is pushing the current Universe’s expansion to accelerate — might have existed in the first 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

Two separate studies — both posted on the arXiv preprint server in the past week1,2 — have detected a tentative first trace of this ‘early dark energy’ in data collected between 2013 and 2016 by the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) in Chile. If the findings are confirmed, they could help to solve a long-standing conundrum surrounding data about the early Universe, which seem to be incompatible with the rate of cosmic expansion measured today. But the data are preliminary and don’t show definitively whether this form of dark energy really existed.

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The global research community must not abandon Afghanistan

Here’s how Afghanistan’s scholars can be supported.

Two silhouetted Afghan students talk in the American University of Afghanistan
Students from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul in 2017. The university says it is relocating temporarily to another country.Credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

“The situation in Afghanistan is horrifying. We need immediate assistance.”

This is one of several distressing messages sent to Nature by researchers in Afghanistan, following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul on 15 August and the evacuation of US military forces on 31 August. Researchers are among those who are now especially vulnerable. The United States has been their main source of funding and collaborations, and that puts them at increased risk of persecution by the new rulers. Most institutions remain closed, and many staff and students — women and men — are in hiding.

For now, the Taliban has announced an amnesty, and is urging Afghanistan’s professionals to stay in the country and continue to go to work. But researchers interviewed by Nature are not taking any risks. Many remember the Taliban’s previous rule (1996–2001), and the systematic human-rights violations, particularly against girls, women and minority communities.

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Diversity in science workforce an ‘economic imperative’

UK parliamentary group calls for greater representation of women and minority ethnic groups.

Chris Woolston

A professor in a wheelchair helps students in a lab
Credit: Getty

A cross-party group of UK parliamentarians is urging the government to increase the diversity of the nation’s workforce in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Among other recommendations, a report issued by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths calls on the government’s Office for Science and Technology Strategy to review all departments involved with the STEM workforce to ensure that they are committed to diversity. Departments subject to review would include those responsible for education, research and development investments, and professional qualifications standards.

“Diversity is not an optional add-on, it is an economic imperative,” says Chi Onwurah, a Member of Parliament and chair of the APPG. “It needs to be at the heart of policy, because we cannot build a more prosperous economy without making use of the talents of everyone.”

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Climate science is supporting lawsuits that could help save the world

Governments have failed to slow climate change quickly enough, so activists are using courts to compel countries and companies to act — increasingly with help from forefront science.

Quirin Schiermeier

Demonstrators march with placards and banners reading 'Fridays for Justice' and 'Climate justice now', Munich 2019
Thousands of people marched in Munich, Germany, in September 2019 to call for more urgency in fighting climate change. Credit: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

Friederike Otto hadn’t really thought much about the legal world when she answered the phone one day in 2018. On the other end of the line was Petra Minnerop, a scholar of international law at the University of Durham, UK, who was exploring how the legal system might help to save the planet.

Minnerop had developed an interest in climate litigation — efforts to hold governments and companies legally responsible for contributing to global warming. Following the success of several climate lawsuits, she was seeking to get involved and thought Otto’s research might help. Otto, a climate modeller at the University of Oxford, UK, is one of the world’s leaders in attribution science — a field that has developed tools to assess how much human activities drive extreme weather events, including the heatwaves, fires and floods that have ravaged parts of the globe this year. In their telephone call, the pair realized that they had similar aims and they set about thinking how science and environmental law might trigger more action to limit climate change.

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Made-Up Sounds Convey Meaning across Cultures

Newly created vocalizations can convey concepts remarkably well

Katherine Kornei

Scientific American | September 2021

Made-Up Sounds Convey Meaning across Cultures
Credit: Getty Images

Some gestures can be understood almost anywhere: pointing to direct someone’s attention, for instance. New research shows that certain vocalizations can also be iconic and recognizable to people around the world—even when a speaker is not simply imitating a well-known sound. These findings, published in Scientific Reports, may help explain the rise of modern spoken language.

In 2015 language researchers challenged some English speakers to make up sounds representing various basic concepts (“sleep,” “child,” “meat,” “rock,” and more). When other English speakers listened to these sounds and tried matching them to concepts, they were largely successful. But “we wanted to be able to show that these vocalizations are understandable across cultures,” says study co-author and University of Birmingham cognitive scientist Marcus Perlman.

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Swedish research misconduct agency swamped with cases in first year

The newly formed government organization tackled 46 research-fraud investigations in 2020 — three times as many as expected.

Holly Else

Nature | September 13, 2021

Sveriges Riksdag, Swedish parliament, building, Stockholm.
The Swedish parliament building in Stockholm. In 2019, Sweden created a government agency to handle research-misconduct investigations.Credit: Alamy

Scientists have inundated Sweden’s new national research-misconduct investigation agency with cases, and there is no sign of a let-up in referrals.

Researchers brought 46 cases to the organization — called the National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (NPOF) and based in Uppsala — in its first year, according to a report detailing its activities in 2020. This caseload was three times higher than officials were expecting.

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This early ocean predator was a giant ‘swimming head’

Rachel Fritts

Science | September 08, 2021

The mothership has landed. Two years after scientists dubbed one of Earth’s first sea-dwelling predators the “Millennium Falcon” for its sci-fi carapace, the same researchers have identified an even larger spaceshiplike creature at the same site, in Canada’s Burgess Shale. The half-meter-long arthropod, described in a study out today, was essentially a giant “swimming head” that prowled the Cambrian seas half a billion years ago, says Joseph Moysiuk, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto (U of T) who helped uncover the fossil in 2018. “The first word that comes to mind when I think of this new species is big.”

Titanokorys gainesi, whose head takes up nearly half the length of its body, was covered in a domed, spike-tipped carapace that inspired its Latin name: “Titan’s helmet.” The creature likely swam along the ocean floor, Moysiuk says, flushing prey from the mud with appendages built like “baskets of spines” (see video, above). And whereas its spiky helmet might have helped with that digging, its eyes, which sat at the back of its carapace, facing straight up, would have been useless for finding prey. Those were probably for spotting other predators—threats to Titanokorys itself.

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Panda cubs and termite guts — August’s best science images

The month’s sharpest science shots, selected by Nature’s photo team.

Emma Stoye

Nature | September 02, 2021



Afghanistan’s terrified scientists predict huge research losses

Smriti Mallapaty

Nature | August 27, 2021

Afghans make their way through a flooded street towards a nearby airport entrance
Afghans who hope to be evacuated head through flooded streets towards Kabul’s airport.Credit: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock

On Sunday 15 August, geologist Hamidullah Waizy was interviewing job candidates at the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in Kabul when he was told the Taliban had entered the city, and he must evacuate. The next morning, he saw armed militants on the streets.

Waizy, a researcher at Kabul Polytechnic University who was recently also appointed director-general of prospecting and exploration of mines at the ministry, was shocked by the city’s rapid fall. Since then, he’s lived in limbo, mostly shuttered up in the relative safety of his home.

Across Kabul, most universities and public offices remain closed. The Taliban says it wants officials to continue working, but it is not clear what this will look like. “The future is very uncertain,” Waizy told Nature.

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Carolyn S. Shoemaker (1929–2021)

Co-discoverer of first comet known to collide with a planet in modern times.

David H. Levy

Nature | August 26, 2021

Black and white photo of Carolyn SHoemaker standing nest to a telescope in 1985
Credit: University of Chicago Library

For many years, Carolyn S. Shoemaker held the record for the largest number of comets discovered by an individual, but by far her most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker–Levy 9. From 16 to 22 July 1994, fragments of this comet, travelling at some 60 kilometres per second, collided with Jupiter, resulting in the most dramatic explosions in the Solar System ever witnessed by humanity. The dark spots left by the impacts were visible for almost a year. This singular experience had begun almost 16 months previously at the Palomar Observatory, California, when Shoemaker stopped scanning her photographic plates, looked up and said, “I do not know what I have, but it looks like a squashed comet.” In the following few minutes, her husband Gene and I confirmed the sighting.

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