In March 2014, I received the IDRC–Nature science journalism prize - a fellowship at Nature magazine in
The award involved working full-time at Nature, primarily focusing on covering science in the developing world - as well as covering daily news stories. Here is a selection of my work at Nature, news articles and features, which have involved fascinating travels to the developing world.
The tank looks oddly out of place here on the windy Pampas of western Argentina. Surrounded by yellow grass and spiky thorn bushes, the chest-high plastic cylinder could be some kind of storage container — were it not for the bird-spattered solar panels and antennas on top.
More tanks can be seen in the distance, illuminated by a crimson Sun dropping behind the far-off Andes. “Some locals think that the tanks influence the weather: they make it rain or snow, or make a dry season,” says Anselmo Francisco Jake, the farmer who owns this stretch of land. “But I know they don't. I know they catch cosmic rays.” ---> Keep reading
At the end of July, Argentina defaulted on its international debt payments for the second time in 13 years. So far, the aftermath has been relatively painless compared with the catastrophic recession that followed the December 2001 default. Yet many are worried about its long-term effects, given that Argentina is in a recession: its economy shrank by 0.8% during the first quarter of 2014. Nature talked to science minister Lino Barañao and several Argentinian researchers about what this could mean for science. We answer your questions here. ---> Keep reading
As commercial plans to exploit mineral resources on deep-ocean beds gather pace, marine researchers are increasingly concerned about the damage such projects might cause to the sensitive and little-understood ecosystems that thrive there. Now, scientists are taking to the sea as part of a three-year, €12-million (US$16-million) project designed to address these concerns and to develop a set of guidelines for industry. ---> Keep reading
Phew. Five experimental geckos that were feared to be lost in space have phoned home, restoring hopes that research into their zero-gravity sex lives can go on.
The four females and one male are on board a satellite as part of an experiment to investigate sexual activity and reproduction in microgravity carried out by Roscocosmos, Russia’s space agency. ---> Keep reading
Tosha, Sassy, Paula, Julius and their 106 friends will now be munching peppers and bananas without worries of being used to test new drugs. The chimpanzees, formerly used for biomedical research by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) facility New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) in Louisiana, have now arrived at Chimp Haven, a federally funded sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana. ---> Keep reading
Is a solution to one of the most important, beautiful and potentially lucrative problems in mathematics right around the corner?
Not long after Mukhtarbay Otelbaev of the Eurasian National University in Astana, Kazakhstan, last year proposed a solution to the fiendish Navier–Stokes equations1, which carry a US$1 million bounty, he acknowledged he had made a mistake. Now he says he is working to fix his proof, but some mathematicians do not think much of his chances. ---> Keep reading
A mystery crater spotted in the frozen Yamal peninsula in Siberia earlier this month was probably caused by methane released as permafrost thawed, researchers in Russia say.
Air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. ---> Keep reading
For the first time, researchers are preparing to drop a battery of sensors deep into a seismic fault to record the build-up and occurrence of a massive earthquake.
An international team will drill a 1.3-kilometre hole in the Alpine Fault in New Zealand, through which they will gather crucial data that could help to predict future quakes. The fault ruptures roughly every 330 years, triggering a quake of up to magnitude 8. The most recent earthquake was in 1717, so the next one is expected any time now. ---> Keep reading
With heads bowed, many hand-in-hand with their neighbours, hundreds of attendees at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, held a moment of silence on 20 July to honour the six HIV researchers and activists who died on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Tributes to the dead scientists, all of whom were on their way to the meeting, were led by 11 former, present and future presidents of the International AIDS Society (IAS), which runs the conference. ---> Keep reading
Scientists have uncovered two new cases of HIV patients in whom the virus has become undetectable.
The two patients, both Australian men, became apparently HIV-free after receiving stem cells to treat cancer. They are still on antiretroviral therapy (ART) “as a precaution”, but those drugs alone could not be responsible for bringing the virus to such low levels... ---> Keep reading
A leading HIV researcher and at least five other delegates to a major AIDS conference are among the 298 people who died on board the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed on 17 July.
The Boeing 777 airliner was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine, killing all of those on board. ---> Keep reading
The UK government has narrowed the list of teams competing for millions of pounds in quantum-technology funding down to the last eight. Pledged in December by UK chancellor George Osborne, the £270-million (US$462-million) funding pot is primarily meant to establish up to six research hubs focusing on different applications of the rapidly advancing field.
The teams still in the running — led by Imperial College London, University College London and the universities... ---> Keep reading
It is now a year since Vladimir Putin's government announced sweeping reforms of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stripping away its independence and placing it under the control of a new civil agency.
How are things going? Not well. Unfortunately, some of the gloomy predictions of critics at home and abroad that the changes would stifle research and weaken Russian science seem to be coming true. ---> Keep reading
Cuckoos are notorious for laying their eggs in other birds' nests. But their hosts are fighting back against this parasitic behaviour by evolving tell-tale signatures on their eggs, helping the host birds to spot an intruder. Using pattern-recognition software, researchers have now investigated the various strategies that host birds use to produce these signatures, also shedding light on how birds process visual information. ---> Keep reading
As it plunges into another two-week long ‘lunar night’, Jade Rabbit, China’s Moon rover, is living on borrowed time.
The rover, also known as Yutu, is the first manmade craft to soft-land on the Moon since the Soviet probe Luna 24 touched down there in 1976. Although mechanical failures crippled it during its first lunar night, the craft has lasted nearly twice as long as its initial life expectancy of three months. The fact that it is still working at all is a remarkable feat for the country’s space ambitions, lunar researchers say. ---> Keep reading
Dwarf spiders are one of several creatures that go to great lengths to ensure the fidelity of their mates. The males deposit a 'mating plug' inside the female to block out rival sperm and make sure that any offspring is theirs. Surprisingly, the effectiveness of these arachnid chastity belts depends not only on the plug’s size, but also on its age, according to research published this week in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.
The plug starts as a liquid secreted by a specialized gland, and then hardens to become an obstacle to any subsequent males seeking to mate with the female. ---> Keep reading
A tiny tree frog seems to be using city drains to amplify its serenades to attract females. In research published1 today in the Journal of Zoology, researchers found that the Mientien tree frog native to Taiwan congregates in roadside storm drains during the mating season.
Audio recordings revealed that the mating songs of the frogs inside the structures were louder and longer than those of their less-streetwise rivals, who gathered in patches of land next to the drains. ---> Keep reading
The Andromeda galaxy got its peculiar ring-like spiral arms in a collision with a dwarf galaxy around 900 million years ago, a computer simulation suggests. The insight may help astronomers to understand how spiral galaxies such as our own Milky Way form, because collisions with smaller galaxies are “a typical occurrence”, says Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a co-author of the study.
Andromeda, also known as Messier 31 (M31) is the Milky Way's closest large neighbour, just 780 kiloparsecs... ---> Keep reading
Populations of a male cricket on different Hawaiian islands have lost their ability to chirp as a result of separate, but simultaneous, evolutionary adaptations to their wings. The changes, which allow the insects to avoid attracting a parasitic fly, occurred independently over just 20 generations and are visible to the human eye, a study reveals.
The findings could help to shed light on the earliest stages of convergent evolution — when separate groups or populations independently evolve similar adaptations... ---> Keep reading
In 1970 Vitaly Efimov, a physicist now at the University of Washington in Seattle, found a surprising effect hidden in the equations of quantum physics.
He calculated that when two identical particles interact too weakly to form bonds, a third one can reinforce their interaction and keep the three particles together in a stable, if loosely bound, state1. This should apply to neutral atoms, whose mutual attraction (known as Van der Waals force) can be extremely feeble. ---> Keep reading
The placenta, long thought to be sterile, is home to a bacterial community similar to the one found in the mouth, researchers report today. The microbes are generally non-pathogenic, but according to the authors of the study, variations in their composition could be at the root of common but poorly understood pregnancy disorders such as preterm birth, which occurs in one out of every ten pregnancies.
In 2012, Kjersti Aagaard and her collaborators found that the most... ---> Keep reading
What should be the next grand innovation challenge in science? That is the question being put to the British public today to help in awarding the £10-million (US$17-million) Longitude Prize, designed to help overcome one of the world’s most pressing scientific problems.
As part of the prize, more than 100 leading scientists have identified six major scientific problems... ---> Keep reading
Lightning has been around since the dawn of time, but what triggers it is still an enigma. Now, researchers propose that the answer could lie in solar particles that penetrate the atmosphere and ionize the air, releasing free electrons and leading to a massive discharge.
Thunderclouds become electrically charged from the collisions of microscopic ice particles in their midst, and from air currents that push the negative and positive charges apart. ---> Keep reading
The hundreds of suckers on an octopus’s eight arms leech reflexively to almost anything they come into contact with — but never grasp the animal itself, even though an octopus does not always know what its arms are doing. Today, researchers reveal that the animal’s skin produces a chemical that stops the octopus’s suckers from grabbing hold of its own body parts, and getting tangled up.
“Octopus arms have a built-in mechanism that prevents the suckers from grabbing octopus skin,” says neuroscientist Guy Levy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem... ---> Keep reading
Sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine have prompted it to announce that it will cut its space-science ties with the United States.
Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin on 13 May told a news conference in Moscow that in 2020 the country will discontinue its long-running collaboration with the United States on the International Space Station (ISS). And in response to a ban imposed last month on the US export of high-tech equipment to Russia, the Kremlin is set to bar the United States from using Russian rocket engines for military satellite launches, he said. ---> Keep reading
'Houston, we have a problem', that classic astronaut distress signal, is one step closer to obscurity thanks to the efforts of researchers who have developed a type of plastic that comes with its own self-healing mechanism. The material can patch holes of up to 1 centimetre in diameter, and restore most of its original strength in the process.