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DFT artwork.

The AI predicts the distribution of electrons within a molecule (illustration) and uses it to calculate physical properties.Credit: DeepMind

The artificial-intelligence company DeepMind has developed a new machine-learning model to predict the density of a molecule’s electrons — a key step to calculating its physical properties. The algorithm relies on a technique called density functional theory (DFT), which has been hugely successful in chemistry, biology and materials science. But DFT goes a bit wonky in some cases, because it’s not a perfect reflection of the complex quantum mechanics that govern matter. Researchers trained an artificial neural network on data from hundreds of accurate solutions derived from quantum theory, plus some handy laws of physics. The outcome, says DeepMind, is a system that makes more accurate predictions — and, once it’s trained, doesn’t require a supercomputer.

DeepMind will be a familiar name to Briefing readers — recently it teamed up with meteorologists to ’nowcast’ imminent heavy precipitation, helped untangle the mathematics of knots and made a gigantic leap in solving protein structures.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Science paper

A tooth found in caves in Haida Gwaii in Canada is the earliest reported remains of a domestic dog in the Americas. Radiocarbon dating pinpoints the tooth’s age to 13,100 years ago — the oldest archaeological evidence of human occupation in the area by 2,000 years. The findings stand alongside oral histories that record the Haida people’s long history on the islands. Researchers predict more discoveries to come, because the caves on the west coast of Canada are mostly unexplored by archaeologists.

Hakai | 5 min read

Reference: Quaternary Science Reviews paper

The influential Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama is at the centre of allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment. Sixteen female scientists have “described a pattern of sexual misconduct by high-ranking men at the institute” spanning more than a decade, reports Buzzfeed News. Three women said that a man they reported for misconduct withheld data from them in retaliation. The STRI declined to comment on the allegations.

Buzzfeed News | 30 min read

Features & opinion

Your supervisor has a vested interest in your success, but talking to them might be intimidating, write five PhD students. They suggest ways to set the right tone and communication style when you meet with your mentor.

Nature | 5 min read

Futures: science fiction from Nature

In this week’s helping of short stories for Nature’s Futures series:

• An ageing screen idol leans that the fountain of youth is no cure for obscurity in ‘Bringing back the stars’

• A scientist ponders deep time and the future of exploration from their perspective on a spat-out piece of gum in ‘The wasted chewing gum bacteriome: an oral history’.

Andrew Robinson’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes a pragmatic call for climate adaptation, a look back at a verdant Sahara and a look at extinction events of the past — and future.

Nature | 3 min read

It’s tricky to predict which interventions will encourage behaviours that make us happier and healthier — going to the gym, for example. Researchers have shown that a ‘megastudy’ can help to overcome some of the limitations that exist even in gold-standard randomized controlled trials. The idea behind a megastudy is to have multiple small groups of researchers all study the same problem at the same time — but from different angles — and then compare their results. Teams of scientists tested 53 ways to induce people to keep returning to the gym, such as sending text messages offering redeemable points or giving monetary payments. The most effective: very small cash rewards (just 9 cents) for attendance.

Nature Podcast | 29 min listen

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Quote of the day

Kids know what’s up when it comes to the climate crisis, says climate policy researcher and activist Saad Amer. (Nature | 7 min read)

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