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The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that it will spend US$1.15 billion over 4 years on research into ‘long COVID’ — the long-lasting health effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The funding comes as the scientific community is just starting to recognize the impact of the condition and unravel why it occurs. The NIH has begun referring to the collection of after-effects as post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection, or PASC.
Nature | 5 min read
In recent weeks, US researchers have identified a host of new COVID variants, including in California, New York State, Louisiana and elsewhere. The rush of findings comes after a fallow period in which the United States lagged far behind in sequencing coronavirus genomes. Now, scientists are grappling with how to characterize the danger posed by newly identified variants. “It’s a Wild West,” says virologist Jeremy Kamil. “It’s as if there’s an unofficial policy that every variant is a variant of concern until proven otherwise.”
Nature | 6 min read
People rarely know when to stop — or continue — talking in a conversation. Psychologists put 126 pairs of strangers together to talk and found that only 2% of conversations ended at the time both parties desired. The rest were too long or too short. When participants guessed at when their partner had wanted to stop talking, they were off by about 64% of the total conversation length. Lead author Adam Mastroianni concludes that “you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less”. Others aren’t so sure. “How many new insights, novel perspectives or interesting facts of life have we missed because we avoided a longer or deeper conversation that we might have had with another person?” asks behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley.
Scientific American | 5 min read
Reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper
When we say a vaccine is 95% effective, it means that it prevents 95% of cases — not that 5% of people who receive that vaccine will get COVID. And just because one vaccine has a higher efficacy than another in trials doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superior. Their confidence intervals may overlap, or their efficacy might have been measured in different ways. The New York Times spells it out with the help of simple graphics.
The New York Times | 6 min read
Read more: Why COVID vaccines are so difficult to compare (Nature | 6 min read)
News & views
A self-powered soft robot can handle the pressure 10,900 metres deep in the Mariana Trench. The robot’s delicate electronic components are embedded in soft silicone, so it doesn’t need a hard, pressure-resistant case. Its ‘muscles’ contract when an electric current from the robot’s battery is applied, which flaps its two thin side fins. Taking inspiration from the bones in the skull of the hadal snailfish (Pseudoliparis swirei), the designers distributed the electronic components in the silicone, rather than grouping them together as in a typical design. This reduces the stress at the interfaces between components under pressure, write bioroboticists Cecilia Laschi and Marcello Calisti.
Nature | 6 min read
Reference: Nature paper
Features & opinion
Ten years have passed since a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, triggering the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. It led to global retrenchment and fresh concerns over the technology’s vulnerabilities, write three researchers at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom. Amid the urgent need to decarbonize, they urge the industry to confront two crucial questions: can the sector ever overcome public disapproval? And are its benefits worth the risks and costs?
Nature | 10 min read
Catch-stealing pirates face unexpected consequences on a distant world in the latest short story for Nature’s Futures series.
Nature | 4 min read
Although 2020 saw a huge uptick in the number of research papers submitted, these increases were not evenly distributed among male and female scientists. The Nature Podcast looks at how this could widen existing disparities in science and damage future career prospects.
Nature Podcast | 26 min listen
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Where I work
In this photograph, electroacoustics researcher David Monacchi stands in the Sonosfera, a geodesic theatre in Pesaro, Italy, in which audiences can experience rainforest soundscapes captured in the Amazon, Africa and Borneo. “My vision was to build a collection of 24-hour-long ‘acoustic fragments’,” he says, “recorded at the highest definition possible, capturing the sonic heritage of ancient, biodiverse, untouched tropical rainforests — before climate change damages them irreversibly.” (Nature | 3 min read)