Daily briefing: Why cats love catnip

Nature

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Fast-spreading coronavirus variants have thrust children’s role in the pandemic back into the spotlight. Initial fears that a variant called B.1.1.7 was spreading more in children than in adults were unfounded. Researchers now say that the variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom, is spreading more in all ages. Still, scientists are calling for more testing and surveillance in children to inform policies on school closures. “We still don’t really know how much schools and children actually contribute to spread,” says epidemiologist Catherine Bennett.

Nature | 4 min read

No one quite knows what this captivating object in the constellation of Triangulum is. StDr 56, named after the amateur astronomers Xavier Strottner and Marcel Drechler who found it, could be a planetary nebula, made up of expanding shells of gas ejected by a dying Sun-like star. Except that its long, thin filaments are hard to explain, as is its massive size, perhaps as large as 33 light years across. Astronomer Phil Plait is baffled and wants other professionals to make more detailed observations. “Just what is StDr 56? Besides jaw-droppingly gorgeous, I mean. Maybe we can find out,” he writes.

Syfy Wire blog | 4 min read

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and a similar plant, silver vine (Actinidia polygama), seem to activate cats’ opioid systems much like heroin does in people. Rubbing themselves in iridoids — chemical compounds that protect against aphids, which both plants contain — also seems to protect cats from mosquitos. Researchers tested the chemicals by tempting domestic and feral cats and captive leopards, lynxes and jaguars with the iridoid nepetalactol.

Science | 5 min read

Reference: Science Advances paper

Features & opinion

Nature profiles the unsung heroes of science: ten computer codes that have transformed research over the past few decades. From the 1957 Fortran compiler that turned human-readable instructions into machine code, to AlexNet, a pioneering algorithm that heralded the rise of the kind of deep learning that now powers Siri and friends.To come up with our list, we polled dozens of researchers over the past year. Which code has had the biggest impact on your work? Please take the reader poll at the end of the article.

Nature | 16 min read

If you’re based in academia and have lined up interviews with industry employers, you can anticipate certain questions and prepare effective responses that improve your chances of getting the job. Be ready for queries that reflect stereotypes about academia and that probe why you’re switching sectors, says career coach and trainer Tina Persson. Here are 20 common questions, and how you could answer them.

Nature | 8 min read

Quote of the day

Loyce Pace, the executive director of the Global Health Council and a member of US President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, is among those welcoming the United States’ renewed relationship with the World Health Organization. (Forbes | 8 min read)

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