Daily briefing: The science of superspreading events — and how to stop them

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Moon, showing part of its far side, photographed from the Apollo 16 spacecraft after its landing on the Moon in April 1972.

China is heading back to the Moon later this month.Credit: NASA/SPL

Chinese spacecraft, Chang’e-5, will depart later this month on a mission to gather rocks from the Moon. If successful, it will be the first material collected from the Moon since the US and Soviet missions in the 1960s and 1970s. The rocks will be retrieved from a previously unexplored region of the Moon’s near side, which researchers will use to study the celestial body’s evolution. Scientists say the mission will be technically challenging, but good practice for China’s space agency, which plans to send people to the Moon around 2030.

Nature | 5 min read

As the US election drags on, so does the construction of the 9-metre-high wall made of steel and concrete that the country is constructing along its southern border. Among the nature reserves that have been bisected by the heavily reinforced wall is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Arizona. Conservationists’ concerns include that the wall blocks hunting and migration routes, has disruptive 24-hour lighting and has tapped uncounted litres of precious desert water to make cement. If completed as planned, a complete border wall could “alter the evolutionary history of North America forever”, says conservation scientist Myles Traphagen.

National Geographic | 8 min read

Two thousand years ago, the Maya built the oldest known zeolite water-filtration system in their city Tikal, in what is now Guatemala. Anthropologists have discovered that the Maya filtered reservoir water through a mixture of zeolite — a volcanic rock with a high silicon content used for many similar applications today — and coarse quartz sand. “A lot of people look at Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere as not having the same engineering or technological muscle of places like Greece, Rome, India or China,” says Tankersley. “But when it comes to water management, the Maya were millennia ahead.”

Smithsonian Magazine | 5 min read

Reference: Scientific Reports paper

The evidence is building that hyper-magnetized stars called magnetars are the source of at least some fast radio bursts (FRBs) — powerful cosmic flashes that flare for just milliseconds. The origin of FRBs is one of astronomy’s biggest puzzles. Simultaneous observations from radio telescopes in Canada, the United States and China spotted an FRB coming from a magnetar called SGR 1935+2154 in our own galaxy. Other FRBs have been tracked back to their host galaxies, but the source of an FRB hasn’t been pinpointed before.

New Scientist | 4 min read

Go deeper with the expert analysis by astrophysicists Amanda Weltman and Anthony Walters in the Nature News & Views article.

Reference: Nature paper 1, Nature paper 2 & Nature paper 3

Figure 1

Figure 1 | A potential mechanism for the formation of fast radio bursts. A bright, millisecond-long burst of radio waves, known as a fast radio burst (FRB), has been detected13 coming from a highly magnetized stellar remnant (a magnetar) in our Galaxy. The radio waves were accompanied by X-ray emissions46. One possible mechanism9,10 for the formation of such an FRB is that the magnetar produces a submillisecond-long flare of electrons and other charged particles, which collides with particles that had been emitted from previous flares (note that the collision occurs a great distance away from the magnetar; this distance is not shown to scale). The collision generates an outward-moving shock front, which in turn produces huge magnetic fields. Electrons gyrate around the magnetic field lines, and thereby emit a burst of radio waves. The shock wave also heats the electrons, which causes them to emit X-rays.

COVID-19 coronavirus update

President Donald J. Trump listens to Dr. Anthony Fauci

Trump and his administration have sidelined scientists like Anthony Fauci throughout the pandemic when the scientists’ messaging did not align with political agendas.Credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

How Trump interfered with COVID science

Last month, a coronavirus-crisis sub-committee within the US House of Representatives released a report documenting 47 instances in which government scientists had been sidelined or had their recommendations altered by the administration of US President Donald Trump. From ignoring expert advice to prematurely approving COVID treatments, Nature chronicles some of the most significant cases of interference so far, and assesses their impact.

Nature | 7 min read

Reference: US House of Representatives report

Superspreading and how to stop it

In late February, when the US had fewer than 20 known cases of COVID-19, a single small conference probably led to tens of thousands of cases in the Boston area alone. It was a superspreader event — a type of outbreak that appears to be especially significant in the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies estimate that a small percentage of infected people — maybe 10% — are responsible for the vast majority of the coronavirus’s spread. Using interactive graphics, Science offers case studies of superspreader events, how they happen and how ‘backward contact tracing’ can help to curtail the damage that they cause.

Science | 5 min scroll

Denmark to kill up to 17 million mink

Denmark will mobilize its army, police and national-emergency service to help farmers to kill all of the country’s farmed mink. Scientists in Denmark have found that a mutated form of the virus in mink, which has passed to several people, weakens the body’s ability to form antibodies. “The mutated virus in mink may pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink fur.

BBC | 3 min read & The Guardian | 5 min read

Features & opinion

Junior researchers need to engage with policymakers, institutions, funders and media outlets to argue against planned budget cut-backs, argue Brian Cahill at advocacy group EuroScience and Marco Masia at the Initiative for Science in Europe. “It is time for early-career researchers to look ahead and beyond the laboratory bench” to build political weight, they write.

Nature | 7 min read

For 13 years, evolutionary ecologist Anne Charmantier kept her chronic health condition private. “For many years, it was important for me to know that my weaknesses could not be seen,” she writes. But a leadership programme in Antarctica changed her perspective. “It has made me realize that I could promote a workplace environment that’s supportive of my illness, rather than one in which I have to hide a part of myself.”

Nature | 7 min read

Quote of the day

Reproductive toxicologist Genoa Warner knows from first-hand experience how wearing your baby in a sling can free scientist-parents to work and give them more bonding time. (Nature | 5 min read)

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