What it takes to win a Nobel Prize

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor

Who doesn’t love a black hole? These ultra-dense objects regularly star in movies, in popular idioms, and in a nonstop stream of headlines reminding us that Einstein was right. However, we’ve had a scientific description of black holes for just over a hundred years, when Karl Schwarzschild solved key equations in Albert’s newly minted theory of general relativity. It took scientists until the 1960s to then move black holes out of pure mathematics and show that they can, in fact, form across the cosmos.

These days, we have evidence of black holes eating stars, messing with the motion of nearby objects, belching out jets of high-energy particles, and crashing into each other with such force they send ripples through the fabric of spacetime. At the same time, our telescopes are getting so powerful, astronomers were able to capture the first-ever direct glimpse of a black hole’s gaping maw in 2019.

Now, three researchers are sharing the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work making black holes such scientific all-stars. One, Roger Penrose, was part of the team that offered the first evidence black holes exist in nature. The other two, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez (pictured above), conducted foundational work showing that a whopper of an invisible object (thought to be a supermassive black hole) lurks in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

The award makes Ghez only the fourth woman to ever win the physics Nobel, which is simultaneously wonderful and awful. Today, biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna (below left) and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier (below right), who developed a revolutionary tool to edit genes of animals, plants and microorganisms, became only the sixth and seventh women to win the chemistry Nobel since 1901. People “must be very open about the challenges that women face,” Doudna told us in a 2019 interview.

This morning, reacting to the prize, she told reporters: “It’s great for especially younger women to see this, and to see that women’s work can be recognized as much as men’s."

When we crunched the numbers a couple years back, we found that out of 881 individuals who won any of the Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 were women. Even with this year’s wins, the laureates chosen in recent decades have done little to advance that cause, or to improve equally stark problems with people of color winning the awards.

As I wrote this time last year, the Nobels are an opportunity to celebrate the wonder and value of science and discoverers. But that does not exempt the awards from scrutiny. And while widespread criticism has led the Nobel committees to make tweaks to the nomination process, fixing things means also addressing ongoing systemic bias in the sciences. Even now, as the world battles a raging pandemic and political turmoil, let’s make sure we don’t let efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the Nobels fall into a black hole.

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Today in a minute

Hurricane Delta: This busy season’s latest hurricane plowed into the northeast corner of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula this morning, and officials predict it will turn north and strengthen over open water as it approaches the U.S. Gulf Coast. Louisiana, with people still in shelters from Hurricane Laura, already has declared a state of emergency. Evacuations have begun in low-lying areas of the state, CNN reports. Here’s how powerful hurricanes are hastening the disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands.

Mask wearing rises: Nearly three in four Americans polled say they “always” wear a mask while heading out these days, according to a poll by National Geographic and Morning Consult. The figure is up from 60 percent in our similar self-reporting July poll, and increases were found among all age groups and backgrounds. The poll of 2,200 Americans was taken over the weekend, after President Trump announced he had COVID-19 and was hospitalized for treatment. More than 7.5 million Americans have contracted the virus since February, and more than 210,000 have died.

Herd immunity: For decades, hope has lingered that society could defeat a virus if enough of a population had been infected. But natural immunity alone is not enough to counter COVID-19. Public health estimates say that about 70-percent immunity would be needed, even as 90 percent of Americans remain susceptible to the virus. Instead, the coronavirus can more likely be stemmed using a highly effective (and thoughtfully distributed) vaccine, Nat Geo’s Nsikan Akpan writes.

Keeping the flu at bay: The Southern Hemisphere had a lower-than-expected number of flu cases this spring, possibility because coronavirus prevention measures—handwashing, mask wearing, and social distancing—have worked against flu transmission. March is when cases usually take off in the Southern Hemisphere, but “never in my 40-year career have we ever seen rates ... so low,” Greg Poland, an influenza expert at the Mayo Clinic, told Scientific American.

Instagram photo of the day

Misleadingly beautiful: What you’re looking at here is a situation that spiraled out of control. This is a large-scale algae boom, one that has taken over hundreds of miles of Lake Erie. It’s the result of excess phosphates and nitrates in the water that were introduced more than a century ago. “When the weather heats up, typically throughout July to September, these blooms ignite, only subsiding when temps cool down,” writes photographer Keith Ladzinski. “Once these substances enter the water it can take hundreds of thousands of years for them to break down.”

Related: How the Great Lakes are changing

The night skies

See Venus yourself: Early risers at dawn on Friday and Saturday should look toward the eastern horizon to catch Venus and the constellation Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. Both will appear like brilliant stars side-by-side. On Friday night, look for the nearly full moon approaching brilliant Mars. The difference between the moon’s silvery hue and the ruddiness of Mars will be even more noticeable with proximity. In the next few weeks, Mars will be making its closest approach to Earth, so it will be the brightest and biggest we’ll be able to see in years. — Andrew Fazekas

Related: What decades of Mars explorations have revealed

Overheard at Nat Geo

How the ‘right stuff’ for an astronaut has changed: For the first space flights, Americans and Russians needed individuals who could endure the ride. They needed to think clearly and react quickly under immense mental pressure, and they needed to be in peak physical shape. These days, as humans plan new trips to the moon and first trips to Mars, The Right Stuff that Tom Wolfe wrote about for astronauts has changed. Knowledge in a scientific discipline matters more than ever. Astronaut candidate Zena Cardman, who studies microorganisms in extreme environments, may be a possible crewmember for flights to the moon, writes Nat Geo’s Jay Bennett. (Pictured above, in the new Nat Geo TV series The Right Stuff, Jake McDorman, portraying NASA pioneer Alan Shepard, awaits medical and psychological evaluations for Project Mercury.)

Tune in: The Right Stuff begins streaming on Disney+ on Friday

The big takeaway

The little villain: One reason given for the severity of wildfires in the U.S. West is the mountain pine beetle. It alone has killed roughly 100,000 square miles of trees in western North America over the past 20 years. Climate change has instigated this spread by eliminating the cold spells that kill off the beetles and by leaving the trees stressed by drought (pictured above, California’s Sierra National Forest). But the beetles are not a determinant in many forests, such as in the high Rockies, writes Hillary Rossner for Nat Geo.

In a few words

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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.

The last glimpse

The sensitive dinosaur: It was about the size of a chicken. It lived 150 million years ago. And the tail of the Juravenator contained small bumps that scientists, working from fossilized skin, now believe are sensory organs. The sensory scales, used as it foraged for fish at night, may have been remarkably similar to those found on a modern crocodile, John Pickrell reports.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.

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