Do we really need room-temperature superconductors?

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An immaculate baby giraffe at Bright's Zoo in Tennessee.

Credit: Bright’s Zoo/TMX/Reuters

Spot-free baby giraffe (Giraffa calopardalis) is believed to be the only living giraffe born at a zoo in Tennessee that gives each animal a unique specimen. The zoo says the all-brown female’s rare color is caused by a genetic mutation and is otherwise “healthy and normal”. The last recorded birth of a spotted giraffe was in 1972 at Tokyo Zoo. Check out this month’s sharpest science shots. Natures photo team.

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Artificial intelligence systems can describe how compounds smell by analyzing their chemical structures. Neural networks can provide descriptions for hundreds of molecules, such as ‘grass’, including some that do not exist in nature. “There is something special about smell,” says neurobiologist Alexander Wiltsko. It is the only sensory input that goes directly from the sensory organ to the brain’s memory and emotional centers without passing through other areas of the brain—which is why scents can evoke specific, intense memories.

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The cash-strapped Cochrane, an institution known for its influential systematic reviews, is undergoing a painful restructuring. The group began as a grassroots, volunteer-powered organization of researchers and clinicians and became central to the emergence of evidence-based medicine. Now, the loss of UK government funding, and a move to make all its reviews free to read without a subscription, means its future is in flux. As well as addressing financial pressures, Cochrane’s restructuring aims to address criticism of how long its reviews take and the balance between efficiency and excessive centralisation.

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Features and opinion

From coal smoke in 17th-century London to pollutants hastily melting Greenland’s ice caps today, a new book by media and technology researcher Jay Owens explores “tiny particles doing terrible things.” Some of the most powerful stories in the book center on a dried-up lake bed, critics write and Nature Reporter Alexandra Witze. Owens’ exploration of how the thirst of urban dwellers turned a California lake into a dustbin “beautifully weaves together environmental justice, water rights, and public health to tell a story”.

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The surge caused by LK-99—the purple crystal that was supposed to change the world—died after studies showed the material was not a superconductor. But one question remains: Will a true room-temperature superconductor be revolutionary? The answer is that it – depends on the application and whether the fictional material has other important qualities. But in some scientific fields, particularly those that use strong magnetic fields, better superconductors are likely to have a big impact.

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Today’s thought

Marine biologist Shane Gero co-leads the Cetacean Translation Initiative, which aims to train machine-learning algorithms to reproduce — and perhaps even help us understand — the communication of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). (Read The New Yorker | 32 minutes)

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