Daily briefing: We are exceeding the limits of Earth’s ability to support us

Daily briefing: We are exceeding the limits of Earth’s ability to support us

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Waves of electrical activity spread across the resting brain in this simulation.J. C. Pang et al./Nature

Our brains’ walnut-like wrinkles have a large effect on brain activity, in much the same way that the shape of a bell determines how it sounds. The discovery challenges the paradigm that brain function emerges from the intricate web of connections between specialized brain-cell populations, called the connectome. Researchers used mathematical models that predict how waves travel across surfaces, and found that the shape of the brain’s outer surface was a better predictor of brainwave data than was the model of the connectome.

Nature | 5 min read

Go deeper with the authors’ summary and an expert opinion (6 min read, Nature paywall)

Reference: Nature paper

Text and images generated by artificial intelligence (AI) are complicating publishers’ efforts to tackle paper mills, companies that produce fake scientific papers to order. ‘Milled’ papers are a growing problem: the publisher Taylor & Francis saw instances of potential misconduct increase more than tenfold from 2019 to 2022, and half of the cases were because of paper mills. Some publishers are already using paper-mill detection software. Asking authors to provide raw experimental data, potentially with digital watermarks, could be another strategy to confirm that research is genuine.

Nature | 5 min read

After 60 years of searching, mathematicians might have finally found a true single aperiodic tile — a shape that can cover an infinite plane and never make a repeating pattern. In March, a team of hobbyist and professional mathematicians found a shape that, together with its mirror image, could be used to build infinite aperiodic tilings. The same team has now modified the shape so it doesn’t need its mirror image to create the never-repeating pattern.

Nature | 3 min read

Reference: arXiv preprint (not peer reviewed)

a pattern of polygon tiles with black outlines and some coloured green transitioning from straight edges to curved

A shape (highlighted in green) that can endlessly tile an area without making a repeating pattern has been discovered.Credit: D. Smith et al./arXiv

Earth system boundaries

In 2009, a seminal paper in Nature showed that humanity had crossed three of nine ‘Earth-system boundaries’: the limits of what the planet can support before human activities make it uninhabitable. Now, there’s a reboot of the extraordinarily influential concept that takes into account how changes to climate, ecosystems and other factors disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. We have crossed seven of the eight safe and just boundaries. Only air pollution was inside dangerous limits globally, despite it causing an estimated 4.2 million deaths annually. If our planet got a check-up, “our doctor would say that the Earth is really quite sick right now, and it is sick in terms of many different areas or systems, and this sickness is also affecting the people living on Earth”, says climate-policy researcher and co-author Joyeeta Gupta.

Associated Press | 6 min read

Reference: Nature paper & Nature Sustainability perspective (& the landmark 2009 Nature paper)

Doughnut chart showing earth's current 'safe and just' status with regard to categories such as climate, water and nitrogen.

Planetary boundaries reboot. The concept of ‘planetary boundaries’ has been updated to take into account the fact that everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, has an absolute right to water, food, energy and health, alongside the right to a clean environment. The red lines indicate a limit to what is ‘safe’ for the planet. The green space represents the threshold that is both safe for the planet and protects the world’s most vulnerable populations (‘safe and just’). The Earth-shaped icons show how, in seven of eight cases, thresholds for a safe and just world have already been crossed.Source: J. Rockström et al.

“If seven of the eight thresholds have been crossed, what does that mean for our still-feeble efforts to move to a more sustainable path?” asks a Nature editorial. Researchers vary widely in their views on how this question should be addressed — from those who advocate working within the current economic system (known as green growth) to those arguing to transform it (known as post-growth or degrowth). And, in an accompanying News & Views article, law and social-justice researcher Stephen Humphreys acknowledges the difficulty of setting numerical values when integrating ideas from the natural and social sciences.

Nevertheless, notes the editorial, “if the findings are anything to go by, there is no time to lose”. Last year, while they toiled on the latest research, the authors outlined how to develop science-based targets to stay within the planet’s finite budgets.

Nature editorial | 6 min read & Nature News & Views | 7 min read (Nature paywall) & Nature comment | 11 min read (from September)

Features & opinion

Elizabeth Holmes has begun her 11-year prison sentence for fraud against investors in her blood-testing company, Theranos. Theranos claimed it could run more than 200 health tests on just a few drops of blood taken from a finger prick — but the claims were exaggerated. Last year, observers told Nature that the debacle is a cautionary tale for scientific entrepreneurs: share your data early on, and participate in some kind of peer-review process.

The Guardian | 6 min read & Nature | 6 min read (from 2022)

Gender made little difference for people living 9,000 years ago in Çatalhöyük, in modern-day Turkey: men and women had identical diets and did similar kinds of work. So what changed? History points to patriarchy beginning not with agriculture, work that requires physical strength, but with those in power. “Person power is the key to power in general,” explains anthropologist James Scott. The elites in the first states needed people to produce resources for them and to defend the state. Women were expected to focus on having more babies and were eventually pushed into the domestic shadows.

BBC Future | 8 min read

Image of the week

A crocodile emerging from its egg, one of over 2,000 specimens on display in the new Hunterian Museum.

This crocodile hatchling is one of more than 2,000 specimens in the Hunterian Museum.Credit: Hunterian Museum

This crocodile hatchling is one of more than 2,000 anatomical specimens in the Hunterian Museum in London. The collection has reopened after a six-year refurbishment. The treasure chest of medical specimens, both fascinating and ghoulish, was started by eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter. But drastically different ethics now underpin Hunter’s artefacts, how they were collected and their display — uncomfortable facts that the reimagined museum explicitly acknowledges, writes reviewer Nisha Gaind, Nature’s bureau chief for Europe. (Nature | 6 min read)

Quote of the day

Neuroscientist Ignacio Muñoz-Sanjuan founded Factor H, a charity in Colombia and Venezuela that strives to connect researchers with families who have exceptional rates of Huntington’s disease. Many people have gone without diagnosis or treatment since a long-running research project in the area was abandoned. (The New York Times | 11 min read)

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