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Why are Nobel scientists so white, and so old?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

Somehow, Nobel Week always sneaks up like a Swedish cat burglar, stealing me from my bed very early in the morning to hear breaking news about the latest laureates. On one level, the annual ritual is a celebration of scientific discovery, and it’s wonderful to learn about the winners’ accomplishments. But the Nobels are burdened by arcane rules and biases that, for me, have removed some of the luster. As our Michael Greshko notes, when you look at the science laureates between 1901 and 2016, they are overwhelmingly older, white, male, and Western.

Last week’s batch of science winners did little to move that needle, perpetuating stereotypes about who can be a brilliant scientist. Some pundits even noted that the Physics Nobel was awarded in part for theoretical work on the mysterious cosmic substance known as dark matter—just a few years after the death of dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin. Since the awards can’t be given posthumously, Rubin is forever snubbed.

The awards have also permanently overlooked some very worthy science, and they continue to ignore the contributions of large collaborations. If anything, Nobel Week for me has become a reminder that science is a complex and messy human endeavor, and we should not shy away from looking at it critically even as we celebrate it.

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Exclusive poll: Vast majority concerned about climate change

More than 7 in 10 Americans are concerned about climate change, a National Geographic/Morning Consult poll finds, including 77 percent of young Americans. A similar proportion believe recent weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding are the result of climate change (64 percent).

Over two-thirds believe climate change is a major problem the government should address (69 percent), including an even greater number of young Americans (75 percent).

In the wake of global protests, over two-thirds support the efforts by young people to encourage politicians to do more to address climate change (68 percent). Here’s the methodology. Related: What can you do?

Today in a minute

5 billion people affected? That's the assessment of a new study into shortages of food and clean water in coming years. Hundreds of millions more could be vulnerable to increased risks of severe coastal storms, according to the first-ever model examining how nature and humans can survive together.

Lithium to the rescue. For three decades, geothermal plants have generated energy along Southern California's accidental lake, the Salton Sea. Now, they may be at the forefront of America’s effort to produce lithium, a key ingredient in batteries that power electric cars and store solar power for use after dark, the Los Angeles Times reports. Read about Bolivia's attempts to mine lithium from February's National Geographic.

Discovered: early quake detection. Using ancient Aztec records, scientists have found earthquakes from hundreds of years ago along a broad swath of Mexico, National Geographic reports. The data give scientists a fuller picture of the dangers along this volcanic belt, home to 52 million people—or 40 percent of Mexico’s population.

Greenland's problem = ours. Oceanographers are working in Greenland to determine how much the island’s dramatic ice melt will affect the rest of us. “When I started this research, I never would have guessed that warm subsurface waters could unravel an ice sheet,” David Holland, an oceanographer at NYU, tells National Geographic's Alejandra Borunda. “But it’s becoming clear that they can, and that they are.”

Going, going ... As Venezuela’s economy crumbles, an intrepid group of scientists tracks the nation's last glacier as it shrinks. Climate change researchers are astounded at the efforts of the Venezuelan group to track climate change, amid blackouts and shortages of food, medicine, and even paper. “Every week, someone asks me why I haven’t left,“ physicist and team member Alejandra Melfo tells the Associated Press.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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The Batagaika Crater in the Siberian town of Batagay, Russia, is known as the "hell crater" to locals. The crater is in fact a thermokarst depression, or permafrost “megaslump.” Read Katie Orlinsky's story on our Instagram page.

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This week in the night sky

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On Thursday, look for the moon to hit the cosmic Bull’s Eye. Gaze toward the low eastern sky in the late evening and check out the waning gibbous moon parked in the constellation Taurus, the bull. The silvery orb will appear next to the most brilliant star in the constellation, the orange hued Aldebaran. Sitting at 66 light-years away from Earth, this red giant star represents the eye of the mythical bull. As a sky-watching bonus look for a sprinkle of shooting stars as the Orionid meteor shower peaks on Monday night. Here’s how to watch. —Andrew Fazekas

Overheard at National Geographic

How did Egypt’s ancient harems work? A papyrus that surfaced in the early 19th century offered clues to the intrigue that in one particular case led to a female-led rebellion—and the purported ghost of Ramses III. "I think everyone loves a murder mystery," Egyptologist Susan Redford tells Peter Gwin on a summertime episode of our podcast, Overheard. Hear more from Gwin in the podcast’s second season, which began yesterday. If you don't already subscribe, download it now.

The big takeaway

It’s so hard. Why should we even try to save the Earth? This answer from novelist John Lanchester, author of the dystopic novel The Wall: “There is a moral obligation to be optimistic, because if we’re pessimistic we will despair, and if we despair ... we won’t act and we morally can’t let it happen.” When asked if the young should even have babies in a warming world, he replied it would be heartbreaking if they did not. “I think acting as if we have a future is very, very important. Apart from anything else, it does personalize it. Every stake we have in the future is a good thing, every bit of us that is committed to the future is a good thing. It’s that future that will make us act in the present."

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Tomorrow, ANIMALS Executive Editor Rachael Bale describes how Americans who bemoan poaching elsewhere should look inside their own borders as well. If you’re not a daily subscriber, sign up here.

One last glimpse

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A contentious curio. A 17-foot mosasaur floats above a living room in a home in Massachusetts. The private fossil trade remains a controversial practice to paleontologists.

This newsletter has been curated by David Beard. Have an idea or a link for us? We’d love to hear from you at justwondering@natgeo.com.