Category Archives: Nature


Supernova erupts in nearby galaxy


UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright

Last night, light from a new supernova reached astronomers on Earth. Its origin: the nearby galaxy M82, some 3.5 megaparsecs away (11.4 million light years). It is one of the closest and brightest supernovae seen from Earth since a monster exploded in 1987 just 168,000 light years away. Astronomers say that the latest supernova is of the type 1a class, and may help reveal how such supernovae form. Moreover, because these supernovae are used as cosmic measuring sticks, understanding them better may help clarify the shape of the Universe.

The supernova was bright enough to be discovered with a modest telescope in an unlikely spot: cloudy north London. On 21 January, around 7 pm, Steve Fossey, an astronomer at University College London, was taking students through a routine lesson with a 35-centimetre telescope at the University of London Observatory. Images of M82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy, appeared on their screens. Fossey noticed something unusual: a star sitting on the edge of the galaxy disc. It did not match Fossey’s memory of the galaxy, nor images they looked up on the Internet. “It kind of looked odd,” he says.

Read the rest of this news story at Nature News: [html] [pdf]

Europe waters down transnational ‘research buddy’ plan

Europe’s latest research-funding programme includes, for the first time, money for ‘low-performing’ member states to set up research centres in their regions, in partnership with well-established institutions from other countries. But some observers were disappointed earlier this month when the European Union (EU) announced that the host countries will manage the centres — a rule that critics say could be challenging for fledgling institutions and perhaps perpetuate problems, such as nepotism, that have contributed to their poor performance in the first place.

“There are lots of really good scientists [in southern and eastern Europe] but it’s the management of institutions that is inefficient, old style, corrupt,” says Botond Roska, a neuroscientist at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland.

In the ‘teaming’ scheme, partners would submit business plans for new or upgraded research centres and a strategy for complementing local strengths. Those with the best plans would win initial funding of €200,000–500,000 (US$ 273,000–684,000) from Horizon 2020 — the EU’s €80-billion research-funding scheme for 2014–20 — and could compete for a further €15 million–20 million in a second round.

Read the rest of this news story at Nature News [html] [pdf]

See also my previous coverage of the teaming scheme for Nature News ["European ministers back research-buddy plan" 18 December 2012] and Science Magazine ["Europe Mulls Plans to Boost Research in Poorer Regions" 7 June 2012]

Cutbacks kick off kerfuffle over Spanish-German observatory

Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC) and Germany’s Max Planck Society agreed late last month to major budget cuts at the Hispano-German Astronomical Observatory at Calar Alto, Spain.

The new contract cuts the observatory’s 2014-2018 budget from 2010 forecasts (PDF, in Spanish) of more than €3.2 million per year to €1.6 million per year (PDF, in Spanish and English). Then the Max Planck Society, which has contributed nearly two-thirds of the observatory’s budget since 1979 in return for 50% of the facility’s observing time, will leave the joint venture. The decision to drop out is not new; it was part of a 2010 agreement and is part of a shift toward new observatories with different capabilities.

The observatory will start cutting staff this month, and beginning in 2014 it will operate only one of its three instruments, its 3.5-metre telescope. Its remaining 2.2-metre and 1.23-metre telescopes will be available to research teams with the funds to operate them.

“All the medium-size observatories are going through such exercises,” says astronomer Hans-Walter Rix, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, the German operating partner of the observatory. In their prime, 2- to 4-metre telescopes such as those at Palomar in California, La Silla in Chile and Kitt Peak in Arizona drew many researchers, but a proliferation of larger telescopes in locations with better observing conditions has changed astronomers’ priorities.

Read the rest of this blog post at Nature’s news blog: [html] [pdf]


Why the Tropics are an evolutionary hotbed

fossilantTropical climates are famously rich in biodiversity, perhaps because old lineages persist well in those regions instead of being simply replaced by new ones, or perhaps because the tropical environment promotes fast speciation. A new study of the ant family tree suggests that both these explanations may be right.

For the study, published this week in Evolution, the researchers traced the locations and rates of ant speciation since they emerged 139 million–158 million years ago1. The results suggest that a region known as the neotropics — which includes South America, Central America and part of North America — is both the source of the first ants and the liveliest incubator of their diversity.

Read the rest of this news story at Nature News [html] [pdf]