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Advances in technologies that directly interact with the brain to monitor or change its activity are raising thorny questions for ethicists. Delegates at a meeting two weeks ago organized by the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO plotted the next steps in governing brain-reading devices to protect human rights such as privacy. Policymakers face the challenge of creating regulations that protect against potential harms — such as profiling individuals or manipulating people’s thoughts and behaviours — without restricting research into their benefits. It “is not a technological discussion — it’s a societal one, it’s a legal one”, says Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences.
Nature | 4 min read
References: Nature paper & The Lancet Neurology paper
A 2,000-year-old stone slab unearthed in Vietnam is the earliest evidence of curry preparation in the region. The grinding slab contained traces of spices that are still popular, such as turmeric, ginger, galangal, clove and cinnamon. Researchers could still smell the aroma of one nutmeg seed that was found in the muddy soil at the site, probably because the humidity slowed its degradation. The find suggests that dishes that people in south Asia had been preparing for millenia were introduced into southeast Asia through Indian Ocean trade networks about 2,000 years ago.
Science | 4 min read
Reference: Science Advances paper
Between 2004 and 2019, 26 megatonnes of very hazardous chemicals were illegally traded. An analysis of more than 66,000 trade records reveals that there is continuous global trade of phased-out substances, such as the neurotoxic fuel additive tetraethyl lead and the carcinogenic pesticide 1,2-dibromoethane. Their transport and use are highly restricted by an international treaty — but it has no formal enforcement mechanisms. On a positive note, trade of 70% of the hazardous chemicals listed in the treaty has decreased since it came into effect in 2004.
Chemistry World | 4 min read
Reference: Nature Sustainability paper
Features & opinion
Table of Contents
“We will all take our largest and sharpest carving knives and have a row,” said Raphael Weldon about his long-running disagreement with William Bateson over the nature of inheritance. In Disputed Inheritance, historian Gregory Radick provides a scholarly, detailed and perceptive analysis of how this spat shaped the field for decades, writes biologist and reviewer Brian Hall. Weldon’s view that traits are influenced both by genes and the environment was sidelined after his death, while Bateson’s staunch defence of Mendelian inheritance came to dominate.
Nature | 6 min read
Well-funded researchers from the global north often initiate short-term projects in southern countries without seeking substantive local input or expertise. This ‘parachute’ approach has to change, say four researchers who explore how to conduct equitable collaborations. Lingering aspects of colonialism need to end, whether it’s extracting indigenous knowledge or scientific resources such as fossils. Projects need to be reciprocal, mutually beneficial engagements and start with intellectual exchange or idea development. “Inviting someone just because they are from the global south is worse than not inviting them at all,” says climate scientist Minal Pathak. “It’s insulting.”
Nature | 11 min read
Today’s mega-fires are so intense that they can render standard firefighting useless: leaping across firebreaks, creating heat too intense to approach and vapourizing water dropped from above before it can curb the flames. “It’s like spitting on a campfire,” says wildland-fire researcher Mike Flannigan. Wildfire specialists are changing their focus to prevention, mitigation and preparedness. But in a warming world, “there’s no technofix, no silver bullet or vaccine”, says Flannigan. “We’re in for the long haul. Dante’s circles of hell — we’re probably on level four and we’ve got a way to go.”
The Financial Times | 17 min read
Where I work
Fisheries engineer Ekrem Cem Çankırılıgil collects seaweed samples near Horseshoe Island in Antarctica. “The only other study of seaweed diversity near the island was in 1976, which identified six species,” he says. “We think we have found more than 15.” Çankırılıgil analyses the samples for compounds that could improve human health, and then determines how the plant makes them. “Last year, we increased antioxidant compounds in Gongolaria barbata, a common brown seaweed, by changing how much light it received and the salinity of the water in which we grew it.” (Nature | 3 min read)
This week, I’ll be taking some time staring at the moon to look for earthshine. The light creating the faint glow on the moon’s dark side has quite the journey. It first travels millions of kilometres from the Sun to Earth. Earth reflects the light, some of which reaches the moon, which then reflects the light back to anyone looking at it on Earth.
You won’t need to take a million-miles journey to tell me what you think about this newsletter — just send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading,
Katrina Krämer, associate editor, Nature Briefing
With contributions by Gemma Conroy and Flora Graham
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