Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here
Neanderthals had a biological predisposition to a heightened sense of pain. A first-of-its kind genome study found that the ancient human relatives carried three mutations in a gene encoding the protein NaV1.7, which conveys painful sensations to the spinal cord and brain. They also showed that in a sample of British people, those who had inherited the Neanderthal version of NaV1.7 tend to experience more pain than others. “This is beautiful work”, says neuroscientist Cedric Boeckx, because it shows how aspects of Neanderthal physiology can be reconstructed by studying modern humans.
Scientists in France have given mixed reviews to the nation’s first long-term strategy for research — a multibillion-euro plan designed to help the country to stand out in an increasingly competitive global research landscape. The plan will add €26 billion (US$30 billion) to the public research budget over 10 years, but some say that isn’t enough for the country to regain its place as a scientific leader.
Quantum tunnelling — when an atom shimmies its way through a barrier in a way forbidden by classical physics — is not instantaneous. The finding addresses a long-standing mystery about the effect, which underlies everything from photosynthesis to nuclear fusion. Physicists cooled a gas of rubidium atoms and ushered them towards a 1.3-micrometre-thick barrier made of laser light. While the atoms were inside the barrier, their spins atoms slowly rotated under the influence of a magnetic field. The researchers calculated from the spins that, for the atoms with the lowest energy that could get them through the barrier, the crossing took 0.61 milliseconds.
Features & opinion
Smallpox is the latest example of a serious infectious disease whose history has been suddenly and substantially rewritten by discoveries gleaned from ancient DNA. Before the ancient-DNA revolution, researchers had to rely on examining skeletons — or, more rarely, mummies — for visible evidence of disease. Now, scientists are able to trace the mark of pathogens in remains to help them determine how infections influenced life, death and migration.
A massive haul of stone tools discovered in a cave in Mexico is evidence that people occupied the area more than 30,000 years ago. The finding suggests that humans arrived in North America at least 15,000 years earlier than had been thought — adding fuel to a debate that has raged among archeologists for ages. On this week’s Nature Podcast, we hear from the researchers who uncovered the latest evidence. Plus, get the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic in our weekly Coronapod segment.
Books & culture
A new book by psychologist Stuart Ritchie presents case studies of replication failures and scientific misconduct from across scientific disciplines. Reviewer Fiona Fidler praises Ritchie’s criticism of perverse incentives and inappropriate metrics that have been steering science down the wrong road. But “occasionally he rests too heavily on the idea that there were once golden days when science was a pure truth-seeking enterprise”, writes Fidler.
In her latest book, anthropologist Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, surveys the factors that influence vaccine hesitancy. Larson’s research helps us to understand that facts are only one piece of this puzzle, writes reviewer Joan Donovan. “Vaccine hesitancy is a problem of dignity as much as of the abundance of falsehoods,” says Donovan. “Individuals want to have their choices respected.”
Andrew Robinson’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes what we owe to fire, home working vs the driverless car, and survival of the unfittest.
Where I work
Cognitive neuroscientist Agnieszka Wykowska works with iCub robots to explore what sort of feelings or thoughts robots evoke in people. Despite her intimacy with the cold, hard truth of iCub’s nature, she’s not immune to anthropomorphizing it. “I must say that I do feel attached to the robot sometimes,” says Wykowska. “Very often, I think, ‘Oh, my robot is sad, annoyed or bored right now.’”