Nature: The Nobels and diversity
The Nobel Prizes in science are selected through a secretive process by a select group of people who are already empowered and respected. It’s the kind of system that doesn’t just support the status quo, it’s tailor made to keep those on the outs … out. And it absolutely supports white male domination of the awards. So what is the Nobel foundation doing to change that?
If a woman wins the Nobel Prize in Physics next week, she will be the first to do so in more than 50 years. Over the same period, just one woman has won in chemistry.
This gender imbalance is the subject of increasing criticism, much of which is aimed at the Nobel committees that award the honours. In the awards’ history, women have won only 3% of the science prizes (see ‘Nobel imbalance’), and the overwhelming majority have gone to scientists in Western nations. Some argue simply that the prizes tend to recognize work from an era when the representation of women and non-Western researchers in science was even lower than it is today. But studies repeatedly show that systemic biases remain in the sciences, and the slow pace of progress was especially evident in 2017, when there were no female laureates for the second year in a row.
In 2016 and in 2017 there were no women nominated for a Nobel prize in any science. That’s on top of the already acknowledged decades in which the Nobels have sometimes gone to ludicrous lengths to avoid acknowledging the contributions of women. It’s the kind of statistic that argues for radical reform — or for abandoning the idea that the Nobels are in any way connected to scientific excellence. If you’d like to get a better sense of the true scale of the imbalance, I’d encourage checking out the charts connected to this article.
In a week where the focus seemed to be the coordinated effort to keep marginalize women — one that included the Republican Party taking extraordinary steps to even acknowledge the existence of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford by preventing any of their senators from as much as exchanging a word of greeting with her — the baked-in sexism of the Nobels is way, way past the point where it can be ignored, or treated as something that can be handled with a long-term look by a committee. This kind of imbalance calls for direct and immediate address, or the Nobels should be regarded as something that used to be handed out for good performance — to good old boys.
Science: Hummingbirds face off their their dark nemesis … the nectar bat
Okay, maybe nectar bats aren’t the arch enemies of hummingbirds. The arch enemy of hummingbirds is probably all the physics that makes their lives so on-the-edge that they have to split their time between constantly feeding or near-hibernation torpor. Or die. But nectar bats are sometimes hummingbird competitors, and the similarity of their targeted food has resulted in parallel evolution of feeding strategies, including that insane hovering. That includes the way that hummingbirds generate lift not just on the downbeat of their wings, but also on the upstroke. So who does it better, bat or bird? The answer is that while the approaches are similar, they’re not the same.
While hummingbirds converged on an efficient horizontal wingbeat to mostly generate lift, bats rely on lift and drag during the downstroke to fully support their body weight. Furthermore, whereas the ability of nectar bats to aerodynamically support their body weight during the upstroke is elevated, it is much smaller than that of hummingbirds. Bats compensate by generating more aerodynamic weight support during their extended downstroke. Although, in principle, it requires more aerodynamic power to hover using this method, bats have adapted by evolving much larger wings for their body weight. Therefore, the net aerodynamic induced power required to hover is similar among hummingbirds and bats per unit body mass. This mechanistic insight into how feathered wings and membrane wings ultimately require similar aerodynamic power to hover may inform analogous design trade-offs in aerial robots.
Medicine and Health
PNAS: Genetics may indicate the best time to take medicines
There’s more to just the genetic code than the genes that create proteins. Regulatory mechanisms are also present that determine when those genes will be “expressed.” By matching the time when certain proteins are being made and connected processes are engaged, drugs can be much more effective, even at reduced doses.
Here, we introduce TimeSignature, an algorithm that robustly infers circadian time from gene expression. We demonstrate its application in data from three independent studies using distinct microarrays and further validate it against a new set of samples profiled by RNA-sequencing. Our results show that TimeSignature is more accurate and efficient than competing methods, estimating circadian time to within 2 h for the majority of samples. Importantly, we demonstrate that once trained on data from a single study, the resulting predictor can be universally applied to yield highly accurate results in new data from other studies independent of differences in study population, patient protocol, or assay platform without renormalizing the data or retraining. This feature is unique among expression-based predictors and addresses a major challenge in the development of generalizable, clinically useful tests.
Science: New South African dinosaur gets fresh insight into the origin of sauropods
Other than T. rex, the long neck, long tailed sauropods are probably what most people think of when they hear the word “dinosaur.” Those giants reached their peak in the late Jurassic and Cretaceous. But early dinosaurs were small and walked on two legs, so where did these four-legged beasts come from?
Researchers have discovered fossils from South Africa’s largest dinosaur yet — a find that they say changes their understanding of how four-legged walking evolved in the lingeage that includes some the biggest animals ever to walk the planet.
The newly described species, called Ledumahadi mafube, would have weighed about 12 tonnes and is a type of sauropodomorph, a large group of dinosaurs with long necks and tails. When L. mafube lived around 200 million years ago during the early Jurassic period, it would have been the largest animal walking on Earth.
In a study describing the find, published on 27 September in Current Biology1, the researchers argue that this species walked on four legs, which upsets the current understanding of how and when this behaviour evolved in the lineage.
Science: Bringing objects to life with origami robotics
This was one of several articles this week on the fascinating intersection of robotics and origami. In this case, “OmniSkins” are kind of foldable robotic shells that can be wrapped around an articulated framework, or a soft body, to create a kind of instant robot. Somewhere in the near future, expect a horror film that combines a stack of these with all the stuffed animals on your child’s bed.
To increase versatility in robot design, we present robotic skins that can wrap around arbitrary soft bodies to induce the desired motions and deformations. Robotic skins integrate actuation and sensing into a single conformable material and may be leveraged to create a multitude of controllable soft robots with different functions or gaits to accommodate the demands of different environments. We show that attaching the same robotic skin to a soft body in different ways, or to different soft bodies, leads to distinct motions. Further, we show that combining multiple robotic skins enables complex motions and functions. We demonstrate the versatility of this soft robot design approach in a wide range of applications—including manipulation tasks, locomotion, and wearables—using the same two-dimensional (2D) robotic skins reconfigured on the surface of various 3D soft, inanimate objects.
More of that foldable, flexible, robotical goodness. This time in the form of system that wraps flying rotorcraft in a shell that provides both feedback and protection.
Here, we report the development of a protection system for robotic rotorcraft consisting of a free-to-spin circular protector that is able to decouple impact yawing moments from the vehicle, combined with a cyclic origami impact cushion capable of reducing the peak impact force experienced by the vehicle. Experimental results using a sensor-equipped miniature quadrotor demonstrated the impact resilience effectiveness of the Rotary Origami Protective System (Rotorigami) for a variety of collision scenarios. We anticipate this work to be a starting point for the exploitation of origami structures in the passive or active impact protection of robotic vehicles.
Rotorigami vs. Omniskins. Consider that the sequel to the angry robot teddy bear movie.
Nature: Well-respected plant lab fudged the numbers in a major way
There are lies, damn lies, statistics, and also statistics that are just fabricated lies. And it looks like the French Institute of Plant Molecular Biology in Strasbourg was guilty of all of the,
The now-defunct lab was renowned for its work on how a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference helps plants, invertebrates and mammals to combat viruses. …
In early 2015, the group’s work attracted the attention of PubPeer, an online forum that allows users to comment anonymously about research articles. Some commenters on the site raised questions about figures in the lab’s publications.
The damage done by the kind of dedicated, long-term lying that happened at the CNRS Plant Institute isn’t limited to just the direct effects of their misleading information. Other researchers who took the information as given have likely spent months, or years, going down blind alleys on the basis of bad data. The cost here could be measured in millions of dollars of derailed research and worse, years of scientists’ lives.
Nature: Arctic sea ice continued its “downward spiral”
Sea-ice extent bottomed out for the season at 4.59 million square kilometres, tying levels seen in 2008 and 2010. The sea ice reached its last minimum this year on 23 September, which is one of the latest dates observed for this annual occurrence.
The most recent calculations, from 2017, show that Arctic sea-ice coverage each September has declined by 13.2% per decade. A relatively cool July helped to slow this year’s rate of loss.
PNAS: “Deep learning” helps refine climate change models
For skeptics, models will never be good enough. If they predict things with 90 percent accuracy, they will point to the 10 percent of misses. If it’s 99, they’ll go for the one. But for those genuinely looking to both alleviate climate change or deal with the effects, such models are critical. And new machine learning techniques are helping them improve. And improving the details.
Current climate models are too coarse to resolve many of the atmosphere’s most important processes. Traditionally, these subgrid processes are heuristically approximated in so-called parameterizations. However, imperfections in these parameterizations, especially for clouds, have impeded progress toward more accurate climate predictions for decades. Cloud-resolving models alleviate many of the gravest issues of their coarse counterparts but will remain too computationally demanding for climate change predictions for the foreseeable future. Here we use deep learning to leverage the power of short-term cloud-resolving simulations for climate modeling. Our data-driven model is fast and accurate, thereby showing the potential of machine-learning–based approaches to climate model development.
PNAS: Does the urgency of Climate change call for a fresh look at bioenergy?
The use of bioenergy has grown rapidly in recent years, driven by policies partly premised on the belief that bioenergy can contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions mitigation. However, the experience with bioenergy production and the pressure it places on land, water, biodiversity, and other natural resources has raised questions about its merits. Recent studies offer a lesson: Bioenergy must be evaluated by addressing both the stocks and flows of the carbon cycle. Doing so clarifies that increasing the rate of carbon uptake in the biosphere is a necessary condition for atmospheric benefit, even before considering production-related lifecycle emissions and leakage effects due to land-use change. To maximize the role of the biosphere in mitigation, we must focus on and start with measurably raising rates of net carbon uptake on land—rather than seeking to use biomass for energy. The most ecologically sound, economical, and scalable ways to accomplish that task are by protecting and enhancing natural climate sinks.
The image, as in most weeks, is from Andy Brunning at Compound Interest. Visit Andy’s site for a larger version that’s much easier to read.