Comment of the week

Albert Einstein

Theoretical physicist

All of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.

In 2022, Earth set new records for warming
Temperatures continued to rise at an alarming pace in 2022, which became the fifth- or sixth-hottest year in modern history, U.S. and European science agencies reported last week. Earth’s average recorded surface temperatures were some 1.2°C warmer than preindustrial times. Nearly 30 countries set individual all-time heat records, and some 850 million people experienced the warmest temperatures of their lives last year. As in 2021, the warming was suppressed by a persistent, multiyear La Niña cooling pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean, the agencies said. But La Niña is expected to wane this year, setting the stage for even higher temperatures. Meanwhile, the world’s oceans, which capture 90% of the excess heat from global warming and are less prone to short-term temperature fluctuations, again had their hottest year on record in 2022—as they have nearly every year since the 1990s.


China reports COVID-19 deaths
China’s government said last week that nearly 60,000 people have died after contracting COVID-19 since it abandoned its zero-COVID policy on 7 December 2022—a major departure from previous assertions, deemed not credible by outsiders, that fewer than 10 people per day died since the policy ended. The new tally includes hospitalized patients for whom COVID-19 was either the direct cause of death or a contributing factor, a National Health Commission official said at a 14 January press briefing. The average age of the deceased was 80, and more than 90% had underlying conditions. The official added that 300,000 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized and that infections are now tapering off.


Hungary protests funding freeze
Hungary has vowed to fight an EU decision to suspend millions of euros for research and higher education as part of an ongoing dispute about control of the country’s universities. In December 2022, the European Union notified the Hungarian government that it would exclude 21 of the country’s three dozen universities from the Horizon Europe research funding system and from the Erasmus program, which funds international student exchanges. The European Union says the universities’ oversight system, introduced by the current government, fails to meet EU standards because it allows politicians to sit on the schools’ governing bodies. Since 2021, Hungary has received roughly €60 million from Horizon Europe to fund nearly 200 projects, and in 2020, more than 20,000 Hungarian nationals received roughly €40 million in Erasmus grants. A government spokesperson said last week that Hungary would sue to reinstate the funding if ongoing negotiations fail.


Japan aims to boost Ph.D. jobs
Alarmed by the country’s sagging industrial prowess and a dearth of jobs for Ph.D. holders, the Japanese government will offer tax breaks for corporations hiring recent doctoral graduates. Starting in April, companies will be able to claim a corporate tax credit worth 20% of salaries and other costs associated with hiring researchers who’ve earned a Ph.D. within the past 5 years. To qualify, companies also have to boost the share of R&D salaries going to staff with a doctoral degree by at least 3% annually. Ph.D. holders face bleak job prospects in Japan. Companies prefer hiring people with master’s degrees and training them in-house, and the number of research positions at Japan’s publicly supported universities is effectively capped.


Reef sharks face extinction
Sharks living near coral reefs are nearly twice as likely to be threatened with extinction as sharks in general, according to a new analysis. Many shark species are overfished for their fins and meat, which led the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in November 2022 to regulate the exports of about 10% of all 1199 species of sharks and rays. Fifty-nine percent of the 134 species of reef-dwelling sharks and rays are in danger of extinction, primarily from overfishing but also from climate change and habitat degradation, researchers report this week in Nature Communications. They call for better enforcement of fisheries regulations and an increase in marine protected areas.


Court nixes defamation verdict
An appeals court in Peru has nullified a lower court’s verdict against archaeologist Marcela Poirier, who was convicted of defamation after publicly accusing prominent archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters of sexual harassment. Castillo Butters had sued Poirier after she reported on Facebook that Castillo Butters’s employer, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, had found evidence of harassment. In May 2021, Poirier was given a $48,400 fine and a 20-month suspended jail sentence, which she appealed. The appeals court ordered a retrial after finding that the proceedings were “plagued with irregularities,” according to Poirier’s lawyer. Castillo Butters did not respond to requests for comment.


JWST glimpses its first exoplanet
NASA’s JWST orbiting observatory has made its first discovery of a previously unknown planet around another star and is searching for its atmosphere. The newly discovered world, dubbed LHS 475 b, is almost exactly Earth-size. Other scopes can parse the atmospheres of gas giants from starlight passing through, but the atmospheres of small rocky exoplanets present a much harder challenge; researchers hope JWST will help crack it. The discoverers of LHS 475 b told the American Astronomical Society last week they will need more observations to pinpoint whether it has an atmosphere, and if so, its composition.