We’re celebrating a century of Science News

The first three months of covering the COVID-19 pandemic felt, by Tina Hesman Saey’s estimation, “closer to 300 years.” From February to April 2020, the Science News senior molecular biology writer had produced a flurry of stories on the new coronavirus that wove together findings from dozens of scientific papers and reports. Her hours were long and stress levels high. But the science wasn’t slowing down, so neither could she.

“We’re in a hyperdrive situation,” Saey said in May 2020, reflecting on her pandemic reporting. “It’s amazing how fast the science is moving.” In mere months, researchers had completely overhauled their understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infiltrates the body, and vaccines were already in the works. Readers were counting on Saey and her Science News colleagues to sift through the deluge of information pouring out of labs across the world. “The information that they get from us can really help them make life-or-death decisions,” Saey said.

Since then, Saey and other Science News reporters have cranked out hundreds of stories on SARS-CoV-2’s basic virology, new variants, vaccine rollouts and more. To boost public understanding of the new coronavirus, Science News has freely offered its COVID-19 stories to local and nonprofit news organizations since April 2020.
“What Science News provided was authoritative reporting and in-depth articles on what we’re all talking about and what we’re all worried about,” Cleveland Scene editor in chief Vince Grzegorek said after his publication started reprinting Science News coverage. Whether a story was about the importance of masking up or the riskiness of in-person shopping, Grzegorek said, “what people can read from Science News on our site is going to go a lot further than a 45-second spot on the local [news] station.”

Science News’ push to get reliable reporting in front of as many eyes as possible harks back to before the publication was even a magazine. A little over a century ago, Science News got its start as Science News Bulletin — the first syndicated news specializing in science.

“There certainly had been media coverage of science before,” says Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University, who studies science communication. But that coverage was more sporadic and often plagued with sensationalism and superstition.

Newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps, who believed that a functioning democracy required a science-savvy public, wanted to get more accurate, reliable science news in the public eye. To do that, Scripps teamed up with his zoologist friend William E. Ritter to form a new organization for science communication in 1921. Based in Washington, D.C., Science Service — now known as the Society for Science — was funded by Scripps and overseen by a board of 15 scientists and journalists. That board of trustees included famed astronomer George Ellery Hale and Edwin Gay, president of the New York Evening Post.
“Science Service was formed at a critical time for science and public understanding of science,” says Susan Swanberg, who studies the history of science journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson. In the early 20th century, the pace of scientific discovery was making it harder for nonexperts to keep up. At the same time, World War I, nicknamed “the chemists’ war” for the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, had heightened many people’s uncertainty about, and interest in, science.

Scripps and Ritter hoped their new organization would help bridge the gap between scientists and the public. When Science Service announced its debut in the journal Science in April 1921, the organization branded itself as “a sort of liaison officer between scientific circles and the outside world.” In this go-between role, Science Service hoped to foster popular support for science while helping people become more well-informed citizens. That same month, Science Service launched Science News Bulletin, a weekly — then daily — dispatch of stories to subscribing newspapers across the country. This marked the first sustained effort to provide engaging, accurate news about scientific research to a national U.S. audience.

By October 1921, the bulletin fed more than 30 subscribing newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 1.5 million readers. Libraries, schools and science enthusiasts started requesting copies of the bulletin to keep for themselves. In response, Science Service began bundling its dispatches into a stand-alone publication, dubbed Science News-Letter. Readers got the first issue 100 years ago this month, in March 1922. The publication became Science News in 1966.

Slosson, Scopes and syndication
Science Service’s first editor, Edwin Slosson, fancied himself a “renegade from natural science.” A chemist-turned-writer who had worked as a magazine editor and authored science books, he shared Scripps and Ritter’s belief that democracy hinged on scientific literacy — and that science didn’t need to be overhyped to capture readers’ imaginations.

“It is not necessary,” Slosson wrote in Science News-Letter, “to pervert scientific truths in the process of translation into the vernacular. The facts are sensational enough without any picturesque exaggeration.”

When Slosson took charge of Science Service in 1921, his challenge was not finding interesting science to write about. It was finding journalists to do the writing. Science journalism was a new field. And without an established pool of reporters to call on, Slosson reportedly spent his first month at Science Service begging friends to write articles for him, only to spend the next month, as he put it, “sending the articles back and telling them how rotten they were in such polite language as to induce them to send soon some better ones.”

But not all of Slosson’s early searches for science writers turned up disappointments. He did find Watson Davis — or rather, Watson Davis found him. The 25-year-old journalist and engineer was allegedly waiting on Science Service’s front steps to ask for a job when Slosson showed up for his first day at work.
“Davis had the instincts of a journalist and an engineer’s ability to organize,” historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette wrote in a 2006 article about Science Service. “He could ferret out news and glean the essence from dull research reports, and proved to be a skilled manager.” Those traits served Davis well as Slosson’s right-hand man, and later as the director of Science Service from 1933 to 1966.

Science News-Letter’s earliest stories set the stage for the magazine’s coverage over the next century. Readers learned about news on the biggest scientific happenings, such as the discovery that insulin could treat diabetes, as well as curious everyday insights, such as what foods help houseflies live longer — detailed in a story charmingly titled “How to feed flies in case you love them.”

For Science Service writers, the name of the game was transforming the dry language typical of scientific papers into compelling narratives. But having staked its reputation on scientific accuracy, Science Service was careful to avoid sensationalism. Writers couldn’t risk alienating their scientist sources. Biology editor Frank Thone, for instance, once wrote a story describing insects that were “just as fond of the bright lights, a hot time and fast living” as their human counterparts — after which Thone sent a rather sheepish note to the researcher asking for forgiveness for the jazzy language.

Sometimes, Science Service’s deference to the scientific community went so far that, by today’s standards, it broke the code of journalistic objectivity. Perhaps the most striking example was Science Service’s involvement in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, when high school science teacher John Scopes was put on trial for breaking a Tennessee law that forbade teaching evolution. Leading up to the trial, Science News-Letter printed a pledge of support for Scopes by the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In another article, Davis proclaimed that anyone could see Scopes was in the right “if men will but use their eyes and their brains.”
Science Service went far beyond editorializing in its coverage of the trial. The organization helped Scopes’ lawyers find expert witnesses to testify on his behalf. And when Davis and Thone traveled to Tennessee to cover the trial, they moved into the Victorian mansion that Scopes’ legal team was using as headquarters.

“All day long and far into the night, the rumble of scientific discussion and laughter issues forth from Defense Mansion,” Thone wrote, calling the place “the headquarters for the defenders of science, religion and freedom.”

From a 21st century perspective, the whole affair was completely inappropriate. But LaFollette doesn’t judge Science Service too harshly. “We must be careful in applying retrospectively contemporary standards,” says LaFollette, whose 2008 book Reframing Scopes explores Science Service’s role in the trial. The modern code of journalistic ethics was not as formal in the early 20th century as it is now, she says, and back then many journalists were more comfortable cozying up to their sources.

“Davis and Thone believed they were doing the right thing by assisting the Scopes defense,” LaFollette says. After all, in its 1921 debut announcement in the journal Science, Science Service had sworn it would “not indulge in propaganda, unless it be propaganda to urge the value of research and the usefulness of science.”
A decade after its birth, Science News Letter — which abandoned its hyphen in 1930 — had earned a reputation for top-quality, accurate coverage. Thomas Edison gave the magazine permission to print excerpts from conversations Edison had with Slosson in the twilight years of Edison’s life. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly commissioned Science Service to collect statistics on women working in government science jobs. And in 1936, the Science News Letter staff arranged a meeting between Albert Einstein and engineer Rudi Mandl, who was working as a dishwasher. Mandl convinced Einstein to publish a paper on a then-theoretical curiosity known as gravitational lensing. It turned out to be a very real phenomenon that today’s astronomers use like a cosmic magnifying glass to peer at the distant universe.

Throughout the 1920s, Science Service sold articles to over 100 newspapers, potentially reaching more than 7 million people. During the Great Depression, newspaper subscriptions to Science Service’s syndicated material took a hit, but individual subscriptions to Science News Letter rose steadily. The magazine kept its readers in the know about a range of fields, announcing the discovery of penicillin —which one reporter mused “may turn out to be a useful antiseptic” — and tracking the emerging field of quantum mechanics. The magazine deemed this new realm of physics both revolutionary and “disturbing.”

Science Service’s reporting was seminal in the emerging field of science writing, according to science and society researcher Dorothy Nelkin’s 1995 book Selling Science. “It laid the foundation for contemporary science journalism,” Nelkin wrote, “giving the profession both a purpose and a style.”

The war years
In 1936, Science Service helped throw one of the nerdiest dinner parties of all time.

By then, Science Service had grown to include several pioneers of science journalism, including acclaimed medical reporter Jane Stafford and psychology writer Marjorie Van de Water. “They were an extremely intelligent group of people,” LaFollette says. “If you couldn’t write quickly, think quickly, you didn’t last long in that newsroom.” But the staff wasn’t all serious all the time.
One particularly extravagant display of the team’s playful spirit was a celebration that Science Service helped organize in November 1936 honoring the centennial of the U.S. patent system. Politicians and scientists gathered in Washington, D.C., for an afternoon “research parade” hosted by Davis, where inventors showed off their various gadgets. At the banquet that followed, tables were decked out with patented hybrid flowers, and guests dined from a menu that listed the patent number for each food and drink. The entertainment featured a phonograph recording of the late Thomas Edison and a radio show broadcast from a plane flying overhead.

Science Service’s unbridled enthusiasm for the scientific enterprise was often its greatest asset. But staff members’ devotion to particular topics sometimes led to uncritical coverage. One prominent example was eugenics, a scientific and social movement in the United States and Europe in the 20th century that aimed to “improve” humankind by selectively breeding for desirable traits or breeding out undesirable ones. Such “undesirable” traits could be anything from mental and physical disabilities to supposed moral failings, such as promiscuity. Eugenics influenced U.S. immigration policies as well as laws that led to the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people in the United States.
“By the time Science Service was created … eugenics had become well-established, both in the sciences and as a sort of popular political, culture and social movement,” says Emily Rader, an independent historian based in Long Beach, Calif., who was commissioned last year by Science News to provide an outside analysis of the publication’s eugenics coverage. “Science News published a lot of articles about eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s,” Rader says. That was perhaps not surprising, given that Davis was a board member of the American Eugenics Society. “There were almost no articles that brought up criticism of eugenics,” Rader says, even though some biologists and social scientists at the time had pointed out its problems.

In November 1933, for instance, the magazine published a story about American eugenicists praising Hitler’s new Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases. That law allowed the forced sterilization of several groups of people, including those who were born blind or deaf, and those who suffered from epilepsy or alcoholism. The Science News Letter article quoted an editorial from Eugenical News that said: “It is difficult to see how the new German Sterilization Law could, as some have suggested … be made an ‘instrument of tyranny.’”

Science Service’s “frequent failure to report alternative viewpoints, its gushing coverage of sterilization statutes and approving report about Germany’s new eugenics law, all suggest that the science news agency had wandered into the realm of propaganda,” Swanberg, of the University of Arizona, wrote in a 2021 article in American Journalism about Science News Letter’s eugenics coverage. If not propaganda, Swanberg wrote, this reporting was at least “not very enterprising journalism.”

Science News Letter’s eugenics reporting tapered off in the 1940s. This was around the time eugenics largely fell out of favor in the United States due to eugenics-inspired atrocities committed in Nazi Germany during World War II. There was however a slight uptick in coverage in Science News Letter in the 1960s, alongside a resurgence in eugenic ideas. (See Science News’ statement on its past coverage.)

World War II brought other changes to Science Service. Science News Letter articles touted the ways that science and engineering could aid the U.S. military. “Overshadowing almost everything else these critical days is the application of almost all our energies and our science to rescuing the world from forces of darkness,” Davis said in a speech quoted in the magazine in 1941. In a show of support for U.S. troops, Science Service began offering a pocket-sized, monthly edition of Science News Letter to service members. “This international edition,” boasted one 1943 advertisement, “will contain only the scientific news of interest to the men and women overseas.”

In the lead-up to WWII, Science News had plenty of atomic physics coverage. For instance, when physicists succeeded in splitting the uranium atom in 1939, it made the cover of Science News Letter. In the aftermath, the magazine published a slew of stories on what elements tumbled out when uranium cracked like a particulate piñata, on the prospects for using atomic energy as a fuel source or a weapon, and so on.
But soon, government censorship and scientific self-censorship loomed over atomic physics. “It is very improbable that if significant advances are made in the release of atomic energy from uranium, details will be made public,” Science News Letter predicted in 1940. “It will become a military secret.” Lo and behold, by late 1942 the word uranium had all but vanished from the pages of Science News Letter. When one reader sent a letter to complain about the magazine’s recent dearth of physics coverage, Davis replied that although the magazine would “like to write more about uranium isotopes and atomic power … it is not possible to do this, because of the secrecy connected with our war effort.”

That all changed in August 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and a government report on the Manhattan Project — the Smyth Report — came out.

“It is one of the amazing documents of all time,” Helen Davis, editor of Chemistry magazine, wrote in a letter. She was filling in for her husband Watson Davis at Science Service while he traveled. “We got two copies. One we kept intact, the other we pulled the staples out of, so we could work on parts of it all at once.” Helen Davis, along with Science Service reporters Marjorie Van de Water and Jane Stafford, spent days cranking out stories on various aspects of the report. In a letter to her husband, Helen wrote, “It is beyond all imagining. It is THE document of the age, and makes all physics and chemistry B.A.B. (Before Atom Bomb, of course) completely obsolete.”

The Second World War may have ushered in a new era of science journalism as well. “Contemporary popular science is conventionally described as having been spurred on by World War II,” Cornell’s Lewenstein wrote in a 1994 article on the history of popular science in America. “Recognizing the role in winning the war of the atomic bomb, jet engines, radar, penicillin and a host of other scientific and technological achievements, the public ‘demanded’ more information about science and technology.”

Of course, many organizations were communicating to the public about science and technology, Lewenstein adds, including science museums and journalism organizations like Science Service. “Still, it is true that the United States had people and institutions ready to participate in new opportunities for public communication of science and technology after the war.” For starters, many newspapers at the time started doing more of their own science coverage.

In 1949, Ferry Colton, president of the National Association of Science Writers — founded in 1934 by a dozen reporters, including Science Service’s own Jane Stafford — hailed Science Service as a pioneer of science journalism. The scads of science writers now working for newspapers and magazines across the country were, Colton said, “the best possible testimony to the soundness of Mr. Scripps’ judgment in encouraging popular science writing.”

But that vindication was a double-edged sword. With more science writers on staff at other publications, there was less of a need for Science Service’s syndicated material. As a result, the organization ultimately phased out its syndication effort and instead focused on producing Science News Letter, which started going by Science News in 1966. “It is like being on a first name basis,” Watson Davis wrote in the editor’s note that explained the title change, “which we like.”

In shedding its original role as a nationally syndicated news source, Science Service “doesn’t lose its legitimacy,” LaFollette says. “It retains its authority as an accurate, reliable source of news about the scientific community.” But the organization now had other priorities besides getting science into the headlines — it was getting science on the airwaves and into the hands of kids across the country.
Off the page
Come one, come all, and join “expeditions to the frontiers of research!” Lend an ear as “eminent men of science tell of their own achievements!”

So opened one episode of Adventures in Science, a CBS radio program that Davis hosted for two decades.

Science Service got in on the ground floor of commercial broadcasting and was involved in radio for nearly 40 years. In the 1920s, the organization started producing weekly radio science news scripts, which were mailed to dozens of stations across the country and read on the air by local announcers. By the early 1930s, Science Service was producing the weekly news program that would soon add interviews and would come to be known in 1938 as Adventures in Science.
“They were attempting to use radio to do something similar to what they were doing in print,” LaFollette says. That is, get the public excited about science. But promoting science on the radio came with new challenges. Science Service often had to fight to protect its trademark scientific rigor from network executives who put more stock in making science shows entertaining than accurate. For a few months in 1938, CBS seized full control over Adventures in Science, replacing Davis with CBS announcers as hosts. That setup led to “watered-down dramatizations” of scientific discoveries and short, “almost flippant” interviews with scientists, LaFollette wrote in her 2008 book Science on the Air. The new version of the show was so unpopular it lasted only a single summer — after which CBS handed the reins back to Davis, who kept Adventures in Science on the air until 1958.

Print and radio were far from Davis’ only tools for promoting science. “He was a tremendously creative guy,” Lewenstein says. And one of Davis’ most successful out-of-the-box ideas was Things of Science.

The Things of Science program mailed experiment kits in small boxes to children, schools and science clubs around the world. Every kit contained some scientific goody, such as a fingerprinting kit, flexible magnet or silkworm cocoon — including some Things of Science products that definitely wouldn’t fly today, like asbestos-containing fabrics. Each bit of paraphernalia came with a little placard to display the item. “In a short time,” promised one 1957 flyer, “you will build up an extensive and unique little science museum of your own.”

MIT signal processing researcher George Moody recalled saving a quarter each week for four months to buy his subscription as a child in the 1960s. “I suspect that many of us who chose careers in the sciences found at least part of our inspiration in those blue boxes,” Moody wrote in a blog post about an online Things of Science catalog he created.
The Things of Science program launched in 1940 and ran for decades. Around the same time, Science Service undertook another major effort to encourage the next generation of scientists: The organization started hosting science competitions for science-minded kids around the country — and later the world. It all started in 1942 with the first annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search, now called the Regeneron Science Talent Search, for high schoolers. In 1950, Science Service kicked off a second annual competition that has grown into the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, which draws high school competitors from across the globe. And since 2010, middle schoolers have competed in the annual Broadcom MASTERS contest.

Amid all these other ventures, Science Service continued mailing out copies of Science News — which also played a role in inspiring young minds. The magazine was a natural fit for student readers, says Barbara Culliton, who covered life sciences for Science News from 1966 to 1971. “There’s a lot of explanation of the mechanisms of how things work,” she says. “That is a formula that speaks particularly to people who want to learn something.”

Joseph Bates of Newton, Mass., remembers reading issues of Science News when he was growing up in the 1960s. “They gave me the sense of science as a search for truth,” he says. “You really had a feeling of the liveliness of scientific inquiry.” Watching the drama of science unfold in real time helped Bates envision himself as a scientist. Bates became a computer scientist, and in 1992, Science News covered his research on how to build lifelike characters in virtual reality.

To help younger readers connect with the coverage, Science Service launched a second publication in 2003. The online magazine Science News for Kids — now Science News for Students — covers a similar range of topics as Science News, but is written at a middle school reading level.

“Kids shouldn’t have to work to understand our stories. They should read them because they love them, and because it explains their universe,” says Janet Raloff, who started writing for Science News in 1977 and has helmed Science News for Students since 2007. “They’re just sponges trying to understand all this cool stuff.”

Andrea Distelhurst, a high school biology teacher in Bradenton, Fla., has used both Science News for Students and Science News with her students. “We try to impress upon them that science keeps changing over time,” Distelhurst says. Science News gives the teenagers a front-row seat to those changes.
On the beat
In 2011, Science News editor in chief Tom Siegfried assigned Raloff a herculean task. Over the next year, he wanted her to scour every past issue of Science News and compile a list of the most important stories from each decade to commemorate the magazine’s 90th birthday.

Undaunted, Raloff started carrying bound volumes of old print magazines home from the office on weekends and vacations. “In a beach house, I was going through all these volumes, taking notes,” Raloff says. “My family thought I was crazy.” But Raloff rose to the challenge, reading more than 70,000 pages of Science News in a single year.

Her assessment? “We did very catholic coverage across all of the disciplines,” she says. But over time, different scientific fields took the spotlight.

In the 1960s, all eyes were on the space race. But earthly issues came to the fore in the following decades, as public concerns over the environment mounted. Science News covered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it was outlawing use of the harmful pesticide DDT and the signing of the global Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals. In the 1990s, growing agreement among scientists about human-caused climate change shifted environmentalists’ focus toward cutting carbon emissions. Amid a surge in molecular biology research, Science News explained how scientists become masters of manipulating DNA — creating synthetic genes and accomplishing other feats of genetic engineering in the 1970s, and then deciphering the human genetic instruction manual, or genome, at the turn of the century.

Whatever the hot topic at any given time, Science News didn’t let other fields slip through the cracks, says Julie Miller, who covered life sciences for the magazine from 1976 to 1986 and returned as editor in chief from 1995 to 2007. “You have so many people enthusiastic about their own fields that there’s always some coverage across the board,” she says. Miller recalls an old journalism professor visiting her at Science News headquarters and noting, “It’s like you’ve got a little university here with just one person in each department.”

Joel Greenberg, editor in chief from 1981 to 1988, had a similar feeling about Science News staff. “The writers and editors were just so invested,” he says. “They just lived their beats.”

Perhaps no one embodied his beat more fully than Jonathan Eberhart, who covered space science and exploration for Science News from 1960 to 1991, including the Apollo 11 moon landing. Eberhart was such a dedicated reporter that he moved to Pasadena, Calif., for several months during the Viking mission to Mars so he could report new findings directly out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“He was so curious and so smart and had such great questions that they loved him and almost accepted him as a member of their team,” says Kendrick Frazier, who was the Science News editor in chief at the time. “That contributed to the quality of his articles.” Those articles won Eberhart the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Westinghouse Corporation’s joint science writing award in 1976.

Science News staff did on-the-ground reporting for other major scientific events, too. Thone, for instance, witnessed the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in July 1946. And Raloff visited the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant after its historic meltdown in 1979.

Science News reporters also got many of their story ideas from scientific meetings. “The meetings we went to were where cutting-edge papers were presented,” Greenberg says, “so we’d get in on the ground floor on all of these new developments.”

Miller still vividly remembers one such meeting. It was a gathering of medical researchers in 1981 — just after the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, had appeared in the United Sates. “The scientists there were running around, all upset about this cluster of diseases that were occurring in gay men, and they put together a symposium on the spot,” Miller says. “I came back and said we had to write about this.” As the AIDS outbreak became an epidemic, Science News followed the quest to develop tests and treatments.

There were “so many parallels to what’s going on now with the coronavirus,” Greenberg recalls, “including a guy we quoted a lot back then in the search for a cure for AIDS. A guy named Anthony Fauci.”

Some meetings offered Science News writers a brighter glimpse of the future. Ivars Peterson, who covered math, technology and other physical sciences from 1981 to 2007, recalls one particular gathering of physicists in the 1990s. “I saw this amazing thing called a Web browser,” he says. “I was blown away.” Other meetings granted Peterson access to more offbeat scientific curiosities — like a meeting of engineers who had given the Statue of Liberty a makeover in the 1980s, which ended with a private tour of the renovated statue.

That mix of big, flashy findings and more obscure advances won Science News the 1987 George Polk Award for excellence in science reporting. In his nomination letter, New York Times science writer Malcolm Browne wrote, “I can’t imagine any significant development in science, however arcane the discipline, escaping the speedy notice of Science News.”
All about the science
Science News staffers — past or present — often describe their readers as science buffs.

“We reported on increments that were much smaller than any newspaper or other publications,” Greenberg says. Naturally, that attracted readers who were “interested in every nook and cranny of science.” Some were scientists keeping up with the latest in other fields. Others were plain-old science enthusiasts.

“There is an eclectic mix in there,” says Raloff, who has received reader letters and phone calls from farmers, motorcycle mechanics and artists alike. But Science News readers have always been united by one common feature, she says: “People who just loved science and wanted to get their fix of what’s new this week.”

Science News staffers have typically been science buffs themselves. And that has influenced the kinds of stories that the magazine tells. Historically, Science News has focused more on regaling readers with new discoveries, Lewenstein says, than, say, investigating the motivations of those who fund certain research projects.

John Travis agrees. He covered biology for Science News from 1995 to 2004 and is now the managing news editor at Science, an academic journal that also covers news in science. “At Science, we cover policy, we cover the community, we cover the failures and weaknesses of scientists,” he says. Science News has given those topics less attention.

Over the years, Science News has pondered some thorny ethical questions surrounding new science. When the first heart transplant was performed in 1967, for example, Science News covered surgeons’ concerns about whether it was moral to save one person’s life using a treatment that relied on someone else’s death. In 1975, the magazine covered a meeting about how genetic engineering could be regulated to prevent scientists from spawning unnaturally dangerous bacteria in the lab.

But, historically, such stories have not been the main focus for Science News. “For better or for worse,” Travis says, “they focus on the curiosity and wonder of science more than the downsides of it or of the scientific community.”

There was good reason for Science News’ “very pro-science” attitude, Peterson says. “Science is a very useful way of looking at the world.” But that didn’t necessarily mean the magazine hailed every reported result as a breakthrough, he adds. “We were always very careful to put in what the scientists like to put in,” Peterson says, “which is the ‘maybe’s’ and the ‘with a high probability,’ to avoid overstating things.”

Travis remembers applying that skepticism when he covered the announcement that two research groups had completely mapped the human genome in 2000. “I was so annoyed at the press conference,” Travis says now. The epic mapping project wasn’t actually finished. Neither group confirmed that its genetic sequence was free of gaps or errors — and in the opener for his story, Travis pulled no punches: “Biology’s hottest race has been declared an amicable tie,” he wrote, “even though one competitor has a clear lead and neither has actually reached the finish line or knows exactly what the prize contains.”

That sober perspective would probably have made Davis proud. While director of Science Service, Davis drafted a list of “Stories That Should Be Handled with Care,” from reports about the healing powers of hypnotism to long-range weather forecasts to “sweeping claims of any sort.”

Science News hasn’t always perfectly applied that critical eye, as Raloff discovered in her 90-year review of the magazine’s coverage. “There’s a series of those things,” she says, “where you just look at them and you go, ‘Oh my god. How could we ever have covered that, just straight-faced without challenging it?’” Raloff was particularly shocked by a Cold War–era article about a proposal to excavate a new Panama Canal with nuclear explosives. “We covered it like … ‘Isn’t that a clever idea?’” she says. “No! It’s a horrible idea! You’ve just gone through World War II. How could you think that’s a good idea?”

The problem with those kinds of stories, Raloff says, was often that writers reported on bold claims without including comments from other researchers in the field. Seeking comments from outside experts to provide perspective and criticism has now been standard practice at Science News for decades. “It’s kept us from having egg on our face, I think, in some of our contemporary coverage,” Raloff says.

Kevin Parker of Greenbelt, Md., who has been reading Science News since 1969, appreciates that approach. While other publications have “a tendency to do kind of the print version of clickbait,” he says, Science News stories usually “manage to keep an even temper.”

The magazine has always put a premium on factual correctness in stories. “There was a lot of care taken to make sure things were accurate,” Peterson says. “It would screw up once in a while, but that was rare.” One 1985 article, for instance, reported the discovery of a lost city in Peru that was not, in fact, lost at all, but had previously appeared on maps and in guidebooks. Science News published a follow-up story acknowledging and correcting the error, just as an editor’s note appears on corrected stories today.

“Reporting without sensationalizing and getting things right,” Frazier says. That has always been and continues to be the Science News brand. “It’s a quality, reliable, respectable science news source.”

Going digital and beyond
A popular science magazine may have been a niche product when Science News-Letter got its start, but half a century later, Science News was far from the only game in town. The 1970s and 1980s brought a flurry of new science magazines. Many of those publications ultimately folded because they couldn’t sell enough ads, but Science News survived on the support of its subscribers.

“It seemed to have a really devoted following,” says Richard Monastersky, who covered earth sciences for Science News from 1986 to 2000. “The people who got us really loved us.” Hollywood icon and Science News subscriber Marlon Brando, for instance, sometimes called Science News reporters to discuss stories that piqued his interest.

Greenberg recalls meeting Science News readers from California after he had left the magazine in 1988 to become a science editor at the Los Angeles Times. “I’d get on a plane, and there’d be somebody from JPL or Caltech, and they’d say, ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m a science editor at the LA Times,’ and they’d … go back to reading or something. And then I’d say, ‘But I used to be the editor at Science News,’ and they would drop everything,” Greenberg says. “It was like I was a matinee idol or something. They’d just want to talk and talk … they couldn’t care less about any newspaper stuff, but they really were devoted to Science News.”

Such dedicated readers were the key to helping Science News thrive in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, Science News faced a whole new wave of competition online.

Science News launched its website in 1996, the same year that Scientific American and the New York Times went online. Each week, the Science News website posted short summaries of every story in the magazine and the full text of at least three articles. Raloff’s food science column “Food for Thought” and Peterson’s “MathLand” were among Science News’ first online-only content. But Science News’ print magazine was still the mainstay of the operation; the website was just a bonus.

Not every staff member was sold on the staying power of the internet. In her final editor’s note of 1996, Miller expressed her skepticism. “Will the Web evolve into the New Media, as Wall Street analysts proclaim, replacing television, newspapers, and other sources of information and entertainment?” she wrote. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“How could we have been so naive!” Miller says now. “We were about to get run over by this train, and we were thinking, ‘Maybe it will come, maybe it won’t.’”

Of course, as it did for everyone, the internet changed everything for Science News. “For the kinds of people who read Science News,” Lewenstein says, “suddenly, you don’t really need Science News.” Online readers had all kinds of publications to read for free, and scientists could speak directly to the public on their own websites.

When Siegfried became editor in chief of the magazine in 2007, his mission was to help Science News stay relevant in the digital age. “It was a recognition that online news was becoming a dominant force,” Siegfried says. “The online publication was a way to increase the timeliness, to reach out to more people and to … create general awareness of the magazine and try to boost circulation that way, too.”

To that end, Science News started posting news online every day and collecting the most important stories into a biweekly magazine. Going to print every two weeks, rather than weekly, allowed the newsroom to focus on more rapid online coverage and to produce a heftier magazine for each print issue, Siegfried says. “That was a big change in how things were done.”

By operating as a daily news outlet, Science News could jump on new discoveries faster. In 2012, Science News broke the discovery of the Higgs boson a day before scientists made their official announcement, thanks to then-editor Kate Travis, who uncovered an announcement video accidentally posted early on CERN’s website. In 2019, Science News published a story about the first image of a black hole mere minutes after it was unveiled. That article drew over 1.5 million unique page views in a single day — a nice achievement for a publication believed to be the first to use the term “black hole” in print, in 1964.
Despite Science News’ growing online audience, print circulation was dwindling. “We were like all magazines or newspapers, in that we had survived on advertising and subscribers,” says Maya Ajmera, who became president and chief executive officer of the Society for Science and publisher of Science News in 2014. “That model completely changed.”

Ajmera sought new funding from private donors and foundations, and launched the Science News in High Schools program to boost print readership. (Science News in High Schools provides educators at more than 5,000 schools print copies and online access to the magazine, along with other classroom materials.) Those changes have helped make Science News more financially sustainable, Ajmera says, with more than 21 million visitors to its main website in 2021. “I’m excited by the next century of Science News.”

The century ahead
Today, Science News is aggressively covering some of the biggest stories of our time, including rapid new developments in the COVID-19 pandemic and the global crisis of climate change. Reporters have their eyes on game-changing technologies across all fields, from gene-editing tools that could cure diseases to quantum computers that promise to perform feats of calculation impossible for normal computers. But, true to form, the magazine also serves up the lighter side of science, explaining why wombats have cubed poop and what gravitational waves from a wormhole might look like.

“I’d also love to see more stories that are dealing with the human condition,” Ajmera says. She points to reporting by social sciences writer Sujata Gupta, who has covered research on police reform and how the pandemic has worsened some socioeconomic inequalities. “How do we produce more stories that can really touch everyone’s lives?” Ajmera asks. “I think we can do more.”

Editor in chief Nancy Shute thinks so too. When Shute came to Science News in 2018, she says, “I thought it would be really important to expand our social sciences coverage to help people see how science could help them understand what’s happening to them and what’s happening to the world right now.” Part of that was bringing on Gupta to cover social sciences. But stories in other fields can elucidate people’s personal connections to science, too. Shute is especially proud of a series that Tina Hesman Saey took on before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Genetic testing goes mainstream” explored the uses and limitations of direct-to-consumer DNA testing for medical information and tracing ancestry.

“It was a great example of explanatory science journalism that people could really engage with, because it directly impacted their lives,” Shute says. “That’s a great example of the superb work that Science News can do.” In fact, the series won a 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Communications Award.

Shute also hopes to captivate more readers with new types of storytelling. For a century, the written word has been Science News’ bread and butter. But that form has its limitations. “Online journalism is a visual medium,” Shute says, “and it’s really important that we invest more in that.” She would like to produce more data visualizations akin to one that Science News developed last year to illustrate every cosmic collision known to have kicked up gravitational waves.

“It was so creative,” Shute says. “Being able to do things like that, and give people another way to explore the science that’s scientifically accurate but also incredibly fun and can deliver surprises, is just a joy.”

That’s really what science journalism is all about, says Laura Helmuth, who interned at Science News in 1999 and is now editor in chief of Scientific American. “The fundamental goal [is] making the most important research accessible and engaging and entertaining and fun to read,” she says, which has been the purpose of Science News from the start. “I think that sticking with that principle has really been the reason it’s survived and thrived.”

In May 1921, just one month after Science Service was born, Ritter wrote a letter to his old pal Scripps. In it, Ritter expressed his optimism that Science Service’s journalism would meet an eager audience. “Unquestionably there are aspects of science that appeal strongly to popular interest,” he wrote. “There is much that is curiosity-satisfying, much that is practically useful, much that is dramatic.”

Indeed, the last 100 years have revolutionized scientists’ understanding of everything from the architecture of the atom to the size of the universe. Through it all, Science News has tried to shine light on as many corners of science as possible. It is, as Shute says, “everything you need to know about science, including things you didn’t know you wanted to know.”

When the Magellanic Clouds cozy up to each other, stars are born

Like two great songwriters working side by side and inspiring each other to create their best work, the Magellanic Clouds spawn new stars every time the two galaxies meet.

Visible to the naked eye but best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are by far the most luminous of the many galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. New observations reveal that on multiple occasions the two bright galaxies have minted a rash of stars simultaneously, researchers report March 25 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

Astronomer Pol Massana at the University of Surrey in England and his colleagues examined the Small Magellanic Cloud. Five peaks in the galaxy’s star formation rate — at 3 billion, 2 billion, 1.1 billion and 450 million years ago and at present — match similarly timed peaks in the Large Magellanic Cloud. That’s a sign that one galaxy triggers star formation in the other whenever the two dance close together.
“This is the most detailed star formation history that we’ve ever had of the [Magellanic] Clouds,” says Paul Zivick, an astronomer at Texas A&M University in College Station who was not involved in the new work. “It’s painting a very compelling picture that these two have had a very intense set of interactions over the last two to three gigayears.”

Even as the two galaxies orbit the Milky Way at 160,000 and 200,000 light-years from Earth, they also orbit each other (SN: 1/9/20). Their orbit is elliptical, which means they periodically pass near each other. Just as tides from the moon’s gravity stir the seas, tides from one galaxy’s gravity slosh around the other’s gas, inducing star birth, says study coauthor Gurtina Besla, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

During the last encounter, which happened 100 million to 200 million years ago, the smaller galaxy probably smashed right through the larger, Besla says, which sparked the current outbreak of star birth. The last star formation peak in the Large Magellanic Cloud occurred only in its northern section, so she says that’s probably where the collision took place.

Based on the star formation peaks, the period between Magellanic encounters has decreased from a billion to half a billion years. Besla attributes this to a process known as dynamical friction. As the Small Magellanic Cloud orbits its mate, it passes through the larger galaxy’s dark halo, attracting a wake of dark matter behind itself. The gravitational pull of this dark matter wake slows the smaller galaxy, shrinking its orbit and reducing how much time it takes to revolve around the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The future for the two galaxies may not be so starry, however. They recently came the closest they’ve ever been to the Milky Way, and its tides, Besla says, have probably yanked the pair apart. If so, the Magellanic Clouds, now separated by 75,000 light-years, may never approach each other again, putting an end to their most productive episodes of star making, just as musicians sometimes flounder after leaving bandmates to embark on solo careers.

Where you grew up may shape your navigational skills

People who grow up outside of cities are better at finding their way around than urbanites, a large study on navigation suggests. The results, described online March 30 in Nature, hint that learning to handle environmental complexity as a child strengthens mental muscles for spatial skills.

Nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries around the world played a video game called Sea Hero Quest, designed by neuroscientists and game developers as a fun way to glean data about people’s brains. Players piloted a boat in search of various targets.

On average, people who said they had grown up outside of cities, where they would have presumably encountered lots of meandering paths, were better at finding the targets than people who were raised in cities.
What’s more, the difference between city dwellers and outsiders was most prominent in countries where cities tend to have simple, gridlike layouts, such as Chicago with its streets laid out at 90-degree angles. The simpler the cities, the bigger the advantage for people from more rural areas, cognitive scientist Antoine Coutrot of CNRS who is based in Lyon, France, and his colleagues report.

Still, from these video game data, scientists can’t definitively say that the childhood environment is behind the differences in navigation. But it’s plausible. “As a kid, if you are exposed to a complex environment, you learn to find your way, and you develop the right cognitive processes to do so,” Coutrot says.

Other bits of demography have been linked to navigational performance, including age, gender, education and even a superior sense of smell (SN: 10/16/18). Figuring out these details will give doctors a more precise baseline of a person’s navigational abilities. That, in turn, might help reveal when these skills slip, as they do in early Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.

What we learned about COVID-19 safety from a NYC anime convention

As Kristin Meyer set up her merchandise booth at the Anime NYC convention last November, she was sure she’d be exposed to the coronavirus at some point during the three-day event. “Getting that many people together in one spot, the chance that absolutely no one had COVID was zero,” she says.

Meyer was one of hundreds of artists who paid for a space to sell their art in the convention’s Artist Alley. Many signed up, despite getting a cold or the flu, bronchitis or pneumonia at previous fan conventions. “I used to get everything,” says Daifei, another artist, who asked to be referred to by their online handle. “Just from being around people.”

Anime NYC, first held in 2017, has become a beloved meeting place for fans of Japanese cartoons known as anime and comics called manga. Fans wearing elaborate anime-inspired costumes enter contests and pose for group photos. Actors who voice popular characters speak on panels and meet attendees for autographs. Media companies offer exclusive previews of their upcoming releases.

In the Artist Alley, attendees buy anime-inspired prints, charms, buttons and other custom-made merchandise. At an event like Anime NYC, artists can make as much as $15,000 in a weekend, says Daniela Muino, an artist who traveled from Texas with her partner to the 2021 convention. “People physically seeing your art in front of them” is great for sales, Muino says.
The greatest draw of Anime NYC for many attendees is connecting with other fans. A hobby typically considered niche takes over one of the country’s largest convention centers — the Javits Center — and drives a three-day party in and around the venue. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the 2021 event drew a record 53,000 attendees from around the United States and 30 other countries.

People were clearly drawn to get together. “Self-isolating rules are vital [in a pandemic],” says Robin Wollast, a psychology researcher at Stanford University. But “they also undermine deep-rooted needs for social bonding.” In-person events can be crucial for mental health, he says, despite the health risks they pose.

Attendees aware of those risks were not surprised when news broke in early December that the convention may have been a superspreader event; one of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 due to the highly contagious omicron variant had been traced back to Anime NYC. The shock came later, in February, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in fact, omicron had not spread widely at the convention.

Anime NYC may offer some lessons for making large events safer now and in the post-pandemic future.

What went right?
Peter McGinn, who works in health insurance, felt confident flying to New York City from his Minneapolis home for the convention. The 31-year-old knew the virus spreads easily through the air. But he was fully vaccinated and boosted, as were many of his 30 or so friends coming in from more than 10 states. The group used Anime NYC as a long weekend party; they shared accommodations and socialized at the city’s restaurants, bars and karaoke venues.

“I felt pretty comfortable based off of everything I did to protect myself, and what the people I was with did to protect themselves and everybody around us,” says McGinn, referring to his friends’ vaccination status and their masking in the venue, except when eating or drinking.

Once back in Minneapolis, McGinn didn’t feel great, but he attributed his symptoms to “normal con fatigue.” Plenty of attendees of these and similar events expect to get sick. At the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, for example, attendees ruefully refer to “AGU flu,” which spreads among conference-goers every year.

When one of McGinn’s convention friends tested positive for COVID-19, McGinn took a PCR test, which came back positive. A week into his 10-day quarantine, the Minnesota Department of Health called to tell McGinn that he was the first known person in his state to be infected with the omicron variant. Once the health department learned he had been to the crowded convention in New York City, McGinn spent hours helping both Minnesota’s state agency and the CDC with contact tracing.
Once word got out that McGinn had omicron and that several of his convention-going friends had also tested positive, news reports suggested he may have been patient zero for a potential superspreader event at the anime convention.

This news was reminiscent of the February 2020 biotech conference in Boston that had become one of the first superspreader events in the United States. Infections at that conference may have been linked to more than 300,000 cases, researchers reported in Science in December 2020.

In January, McGinn said he hoped the investigation into Anime NYC would push back against the perception that this convention had been a superspreader. “It’s overwhelmingly likely that where I caught COVID was outside of the event at dinner or karaoke,” he says. While at the convention center, he and his friends constantly wore masks.

McGinn felt vindicated when the results of the investigation were published as a pair of reports in the Feb. 18 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. One study focused on McGinn and his friend group, and the other presented a big-picture view of COVID-19 at the convention. The researchers searched state and local health databases for test results from about 34,500 out of the 53,000 convention attendees whose contact information was available from the event organizers. They identified 119 cases among 4,560 people who got tested. Of those 119 cases, 16 were in McGinn’s friend group — and the only cases confirmed as omicron were among those 16.

The CDC characterizes a superspreader event as one infectious person giving the corona­virus to many others at a rate higher than average transmission. This didn’t occur at Anime NYC, the investigation found, because the rate of positive tests among convention attendees was close to the overall rate in New York City two weeks after the convention: about 3 percent.

“It’s nice to confirm that the event wasn’t a spreader event,” McGinn said after receiving news of the reports. “It makes me more comfortable in the future going to these types of events as long as mask and vax requirements are in place.”
Layers of protection
The CDC reports attribute this convention’s success to layers of safety measures put in place, including masks, vaccine checks and good ventilation.

“Everyone was always wearing their masks … when speaking to me or walking past my table,” Meyer says. She notes, however, that some costumed attendees took their masks off for photo shoots. And the Artist Alley was also located near the food court, where attendees took off their masks to eat.

Muino was impressed by the safety behaviors she saw at the convention in comparison with her home state of Texas. Still, the spacing of tables in Artist Alley “felt way too close together” for social distancing, she recalls. During busy periods, the area became incredibly crowded.

“There’s only so much control you can exert over a population that large,” Muino says. “People are going to take their masks off for pictures. They’re going to take them off to talk to friends.”
Attendees needed to show proof that they’d received at least one vaccine dose, following the city’s regulations at the time. Among 3,845 attendees whose test results and vaccination status were both available from local health departments, 3.4 percent were partially vaccinated, 84.5 percent were fully vaccinated and 12.1 percent had received a booster dose. Studies have shown that partial vaccination offers significantly less protection against COVID-19 than full vaccination.

However, Anime NYC organizers had too few staff checking proof of vaccination outside the venue, leading to long lines and crowding outside. Some attendees waited outside up to four hours on the first day of the convention.

The Javits Center itself took COVID-19 seriously, partly due to its roles during the pandemic as a field hospital and then a mass vaccination site. Newly installed hospital-grade air filters throughout the building may have helped prevent transmission.

“All the employees at the Javits Center had to go through training,” says Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, senior director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, part of the worldwide cleaning industry association that certifies organizations, including the Javits Center, on preparedness for biological threats. This training included cleaning protocols and how to manage traffic through the building.

This venue also worked with event organizers, including the company that runs Anime NYC, to ensure they followed safety protocols. The Javits Center’s attitude was, “if you come into our house, you follow our rules,” Macgregor-Skinner says.
The CDC investigation results do not mention, however, that Anime NYC was also very lucky with its timing. When this event took place, omicron hadn’t yet gotten a foothold in Manhattan. The city’s first wastewater samples containing omicron were collected on November 21, the final day of the event.

If the same event had happened two weeks later — when omicron was raging through the city — organizers would have needed more safety measures, such as a stricter vaccination requirement and rapid testing, to achieve the same low transmission, says Ayman El-Mohandes, an epidemiologist and dean of the school of public health at the City University of New York.

Heroes wear face masks
A successful COVID-19–safe event requires layers of protections that align with the community that the event is serving, says Mark Billik, founder of BeCore, a marketing agency that pivoted to organizing COVID-19–safe events during the pandemic. Billik recommends that his clients tailor their COVID-19 protocols for their events and he offered suggestions for future fan conventions (see Page 25).

Advance communication may be particularly successful when it’s tailored to a community and drives “enthusiasm about creating a safe environment,” El-Mohandes says. For instance, the next Anime NYC could provide masks with the faces of famous anime characters or post signs that show these characters encouraging distancing and frequent handwashing.

Using anime characters to promote safe behaviors is an example of classical conditioning, says Wollast, the Stanford psychology researcher. In classical conditioning, people learn to associate a particular stimulus (like wearing a face mask) with an unrelated stimulus (a favorite character) to drive a particular behavior. “My heroes are wearing face masks so I should wear one too,” Wollast says.
Safety beyond COVID-19
Along with avoiding COVID-19, Anime NYC attendees who spoke to Science News noted that they also avoided other respiratory illnesses. “Less people have been sick that I’ve heard of this year, than any other convention that I’ve ever been to,” Daifei says.

Maybe a cold or flu doesn’t have to be a necessary evil of attending conventions or similar events.

COVID-19 safety measures probably contributed to an unusually low number of flu cases in the 2020–21 season, according to the CDC. Leaders in the events industry are considering safety measures that build on lessons from COVID-19 — such as new technologies to improve ventilation and cleaning protocols — to reduce future outbreaks of flu and other infectious diseases, according to the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.

Some Anime NYC attendees hope to see continued handwashing, mask use and policies that encourage people to stay home when not feeling well, long after this pandemic recedes. All these practices are “very applicable to non-COVID respiratory infections,” El-Mohandes says. Such safety practices may also make large events more inclusive for immunocompromised people, many of whom already had to avoid crowds for their potential to spread infection before the pandemic.

“I feel like this is something that we can actually keep doing,” says Nicole Tan, an artist who shared a booth with Daifei at Anime NYC. The pandemic inspired a widespread realization that “we could have prevented a lot of illness if we just put our minds to it.”

These flowers lure pollinators to their deaths. There’s a new twist on how

Fake — and fatal — invitations to romance could be the newest bit of trickery uncovered among some jack-in-the-pulpit wildflowers.

The fatal part isn’t the surprise. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema) are the only plants known to kill their own insect pollinators as a matter of routine, says evolutionary ecologist Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University in Japan. The new twist, if confirmed, would be using sexual deception to woo pollinators into the death traps.

Until now, biologists have found only three plant families with any species that pretend to offer sex to insects, Suetsugu says online March 28 in Plants, People, Planet. But unlike deceit in jack-in-the-pulpits, those other attractions aren’t fatal, just phony.

The orchid family has turned out multiple cheats, some so seductive that a male insect leaves wasted sperm as well as pollen on a flower. Yet he doesn’t get even a sip of nectar (SN: 3/5/08; SN: 3/27/08). Similar scams have turned up among daisies: A few dark bumps that a human in bad light might mistake for an insect can drive male flies to frenzies on the yellow, orange or red Gorteria petals. Enthusiasm wanes with repeated disappointment though (SN: 1/29/14). And among irises, a species dangles velvety purple petals where deluded insects wallow.
Two jack-in-the-pulpit species in Japan have now raised suspicions that their family, the arums, should be added to the list of sexual cheats. To visually oriented humans, the 180 or so Arisaema species look like just a merry reminder of evolution’s endless weirdness. Some kind of flappy canopy, sometimes striped, bends over a little cupped “pulpit” with a pinkie-tip stub or mushroom bulge of plant flesh peeping over the rim. Below the rim, swaths of flowers open in succession — male blooms overtaken by flowers with female parts — as the plant grows from slim young jack to big mama.

These oddball flowers depend mostly on pollinators that deserve a much bigger fan base: fungus gnats. These gnats, small as punctuation marks and hard to identify, are true flies. But don’t hold that against them. They don’t stalk picnic spreads or buzz-thump against windows. Pollinating gnats “are very frail,” Suetsugu says, and their wings make no noise a human can hear.

Nor can a human always smell what draws fungus gnats. It’s clear, though, that the varied canopied pulpits can have a strong happy hour lure for those cruising pollinators looking to meet the right gnat. This will go terribly wrong.

A tiny escape hatch deep in the trap stays open during the male phase of flowering, but that two-millimeter hole vanishes during the big mama stage. A gnat can’t overcome the slippery, flaking wax of the plant’s inner wall to climb out. So any gnat tricked twice is doomed.

Biologists had assumed that jack-in-the-pulpits seeking fungus gnats were perfuming the air with mushroomy, nice-place-to-have-kids scents. Many kinds seem to do so, but homey smells don’t explain an odd observation by Suetsugu and his colleagues. Of the important pollinator species for two Japanese jack-in-the-pulpits (A. angustatum and A. peninsulae), almost all the specks found in the traps were males.
An odor lure targeting males might mimic a come-hither scent of female gnats, the researchers propose. That’s outright fraud. Even if the hopeful males find a mate in the waxy green dungeon, they and their offspring would starve. They’re stuck in a plant with no fungus to eat. Whatever that ruinous scent is, a human nose can barely detect it, Suetsugu reports.

The notion that biologists have so far overlooked a scent important to other animals seems “more than possible” to Kelsey J.R.P. Byers of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. Byers’ work overturned a common assumption that monkeyflowers (Mimulus) had no scent even though hawkmoths, flying at night and known to track odors, visit the flowers.

“We’re such visual creatures,” says Byers, who studies floral scents. We can laugh at how insects mistake some off-color blob of plant tissue for a fabulous female, but we’re missing the odors. Fungus gnats, however, even look like the citizens of a smellier world, with giant guy-style antennae “like an ostrich plume on a hat.”

At least now, modern analytical lab techniques and equipment are opening up the vast sensory world of communication wafting around us. To see if even familiar plants like jack-in-the-pulpits are up to something odd, scientists need to identify the lure itself. Then maybe we’ll understand the irresistible valentine scent of a female fungus gnat.

‘Goldilocks’ stars may pose challenges for any nearby habitable planets

If you’re an aspiring life-form, you might want to steer clear of planets around orange dwarf stars.

Some astronomers have called these orange suns “Goldilocks stars” (SN: 11/18/09). They are dimmer and age more slowly than yellow sunlike stars, thus offering an orbiting planet a more stable climate. But they are brighter and age faster than red dwarfs, which often spew large flares. However, new observations show that orange dwarfs emit lots of ultraviolet light long after birth, potentially endangering planetary atmospheres, researchers report in a paper submitted March 29 at arXiv.org.

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomer Tyler Richey-Yowell and her colleagues examined 39 orange dwarfs. Most are moving together through the Milky Way in two separate groups, either 40 million or 650 million years old.
To Richey-Yowell’s surprise, she and her team found that the ultraviolet flux didn’t drop off from the younger orange stars to the older ones — unlike the case for yellow and red stars. “I was like, `What the heck is going on?’” says Richey-Yowell, of Arizona State University in Tempe.

In a stroke of luck, another team of researchers supplied part of the answer. As yellow sunlike stars age, they spin more slowly, causing them to be less active and emit less UV radiation. But for orange dwarfs, this steady spin-down stalls when the stars are roughly a billion years old, astronomer Jason Lee Curtis at Columbia University and colleagues reported in 2019.

“[Orange] stars are just much more active for a longer time than we thought they were,” Richey-Yowell says. That means these possibly not-so-Goldilocks stars probably maintain high levels of UV light for more than a billion years.

And that puts any potential life-forms inhabiting orbiting planets on notice. Far-ultraviolet light — whose photons, or particles of light, have much more energy than the UV photons that give you vitamin D — tears molecules in a planet’s atmosphere apart. That leaves behind individual atoms and electrically charged atoms and groups of atoms known as ions. Then the star’s wind — its outflow of particles — can carry the ions away, stripping the planet of its air.

But not all hope is lost for aspiring life-forms that have an orange dwarf sun. Prolonged exposure to far-ultraviolet light can stress planets but doesn’t necessarily doom them to be barren, says Ed Guinan, an astronomer at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who was not involved in the new work. “As long as the planet has a strong magnetic field, you’re more or less OK,” he says.

Though far-ultraviolet light splits water and other molecules in a planet’s atmosphere, the star’s wind can’t remove the resulting ions if a magnetic field as strong as Earth’s protects them. “That’s why the Earth survived” as a life-bearing world, Guinan says. In contrast, Venus might never have had a magnetic field, and Mars lost its magnetic field early on and most of its air soon after.

“If the planet doesn’t have a magnetic field or has a weak one,” Guinan says, “the game is over.”

What’s needed, Richey-Yowell says, is a study of older orange dwarfs to see exactly when their UV output declines. That will be a challenge, though. The easiest way to find stars of known age is to study a cluster of stars, but most star clusters get ripped apart well before their billionth birthday (SN: 7/24/20). As a result, star clusters somewhat older than this age are rare, which means the nearest examples are distant and harder to observe.

Why taking medications during pregnancy is so confusing

Obstetrician Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman was treating patients in New York City when the COVID-19 pandemic swept in. Hospitals began filling up. Some of her pregnant patients were among the sick.

It was a terrifying time. Little was known about the virus called SARS-CoV-2 to begin with, much less how it might affect a pregnancy, so doctors had to make tough calls. Gyamfi-Bannerman remembers doctors getting waivers to administer the antiviral drug remdesivir to pregnant COVID-19 patients, for instance, even though the drug hadn’t been tested during pregnancy.

“Our goal is to help the mom,” she says. “If we had something that might save her life — or she might die — we were 100 percent using all of those medications.”

These life-or-death decisions were very familiar to obstetricians even before the pandemic. Pregnant women have long been excluded from most drug testing to avoid risk to the fetus. As a result, there’s little data on whether many medications are safe to take while pregnant. This means tough choices for the roughly 80 percent of women who will take at least one medication during pregnancy. Some have serious conditions that can be dangerous for both mother and fetus if left untreated, like high blood pressure or diabetes.

“Pregnant women are essentially like everybody else,” Gyamfi-Bannerman says. They have the same underlying conditions, requiring the same drugs. In a 2013 study, the top 20 prescriptions taken during the first trimester included antibiotics, asthma and allergy drugs, metformin for diabetes, and antidepressants. Yet even for common drugs, the only advice available if you’re pregnant is “talk to your doctor.” With no data, doctors don’t have the answers either.

What’s frustrating to many doctors and researchers is that this lack of information is by design. Even the later stages of most clinical trials, which test a new drug’s safety and efficacy in people, specifically exclude pregnant people to avoid risk to the fetus. But in the wake of a pandemic that disproportionately harmed the pregnant population, researchers are questioning more than ever whether this is the best approach.

Typically, researchers have to justify excluding certain groups, such as older adults, from clinical trials in which they might benefit. “You never have to justify why you’re excluding pregnant people,” says Gyamfi-Bannerman, who now heads the obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science department at the University of California, San Diego. “You can just go ahead and exclude them.

“The exclusion of pregnant people in clinical trials is a huge, historic problem,” she says, “and it really came to light with COVID.”

Pregnant in a crisis
Teresa Mathews was 43 years old when she found out she was pregnant in June 2020, just as the pandemic was tearing across the United States. “I was really worried,” she says. In addition to her age as a risk factor, Mathews has sickle cell trait, meaning she carries one defective gene copy that makes her prone to anemia and shortness of breath. COVID-19 also causes shortness of breath, so Mathews feared her unborn child could starve for oxygen if she caught the virus.

What’s more, the baby would be her first. “I don’t want to say it melodramatically, but it was my last chance of having a baby, right? So I didn’t really want to take chances.” She went into full lockdown for the rest of her pregnancy.

For good reason. A study during the pandemic’s first year in England found that pregnant women who got the virus were about twice as likely to have a stillbirth or early birth. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2020 that pregnant women are about three times as likely as other women to land in intensive care with COVID-19, and 70 percent more likely to die from the infection (SN Online: 2/7/22).
So when the race for a vaccine began, many doctors and officials hoped that vaccines would be tested in pregnant women and shown to be safe. There were promising signs: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration encouraged vaccine developers to include pregnant women in their trials. A large body of previous research suggested that risks would be low for vaccines like those for COVID-19, which do not contain live viruses.

But ultimately the three vaccines that the FDA cleared for use in the United States, from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, excluded pregnant people from their initial clinical trials. After its vaccine was authorized for emergency use in December 2020, Pfizer began enrolling pregnant women for a clinical trial but called it off when federal officials recommended that all pregnant women get vaccinated. The company cited challenges with enrolling enough women for the trial, as well as ethical considerations in giving a placebo to pregnant individuals once the vaccine was recommended.

When pregnant people were excluded from vaccine trials, doctors knew it would be difficult to convince pregnant patients to take a vaccine that hadn’t been tested during pregnancy.

Mathews says she would have been willing to get vaccinated while pregnant if there had been data to support the decision. But the choice was made for her. Her daughter, Eulalia, was born healthy in February 2021, shortly before the vaccines became available to all adults in Mathews’ hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. At that point, there was still no clear guidance on whether to get vaccinated while pregnant or nursing.
Officials at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., were worried about that lack of direction. Diana Bianchi, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, called for more COVID-19 vaccine research in the pregnant population in a February 2021 commentary in JAMA. She wrote, “Pregnant people and their clinicians must make real-time decisions based on little or no scientific evidence.”

Meanwhile, social media and pregnancy websites filled the void with conspiracy theories and scary stories about vaccines causing infertility or miscarriages. Alarmed, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned last October that “the spread of misinformation and mistrust in doctors and science is contributing to staggeringly low vaccination rates among pregnant people.”

Indeed, the CDC had issued an urgent health advisory the month before warning that only 31 percent of pregnant people were fully vaccinated, compared with about 56 percent of the general population. (CDC and many experts favor “pregnant people” as a general term. Science News is following the language used by sources, and refers to pregnant women when a study population was designated as such.)

“Every week, I look at the number of pregnant people who have died due to COVID. Right now, the most recent statistic is 257 deaths,” Bianchi said in January. “I look at that and I say, that was a preventable statistic.”

After the vaccines received emergency use authorization, the CDC analyzed the outcomes for nearly 2,500 vaccinated pregnant people and found no safety concerns related to pregnancy. The agency recommended vaccination for anyone who is pregnant, lactating or considering becoming pregnant. But that recommendation arrived more than six months after the first vaccine became available.
Since then, the vaccines have also proved to be highly effective in pregnancy. More than 98 percent of COVID-19 critical care admissions in a group of more than 130,000 pregnant women in Scotland were unvaccinated, researchers reported in January in Nature Medicine. And all of the infants who died had unvaccinated moms.

“The story of COVID is yet another cautionary tale,” says Anne Lyerly, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist. “It highlighted what we’re up against.” Researchers have an ethical duty, she says, not only to protect fetuses from the potential risks of research, but also to ensure that “the drugs that go on the market are safe and effective for all the people who will take them.”

Good intentions
Increasingly, scientists are questioning what Gyamfi-Bannerman calls a “knee-jerk” tendency to exclude pregnant individuals from clinical trials. In 2009, Lyerly and colleagues formed the Second Wave Initiative to promote ethical ways to include pregnant women in research. As their ideas have spread, more researchers — mostly women — have held conferences and spearheaded research. Collectively, they’re pushing back on the prevailing culture “that pregnant people need to be protected from research instead of protected through research,” Bianchi says.

“We got here with good intentions,” says Brookie Best, a clinical pharmacologist at UC San Diego who studies medication use among pregnant people. “There were some terrible, terrible tragedies of pregnant people taking a drug and having bad outcomes.”

The most famous of these was thalidomide. Starting in the late 1950s, the drug was prescribed for morning sickness, but it had never been tested in pregnant people. By the early 1960s, it became clear that it caused birth defects including missing or malformed limbs (SN: 7/14/62, p. 22). Afterward, drug companies were reluctant to take on the risk, or legal liability, of potential birth defects. While the FDA enacted new safety rules in response to the thalidomide disaster, the agency did not require testing during pregnancy before drugs went to market.

In 1977, the FDA recommended the exclusion of all women of childbearing age from the first two phases of clinical trials. When the U.S. Congress passed a bill in 1993 requiring that women and minorities be included in clinical research, the requirement did not extend to pregnant women.
Some scientists still see plenty of good reasons not to include pregnant women in clinical trials. For example, reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan has seen unexpected health effects crop up long after substances were deemed safe. With that in mind, Swan, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, says that observational studies that follow women and their children after a drug has been approved remain the best approach. These studies are “expensive, and very slow,” she admits, but safer.

For decades, that level of precaution has extended to essentially all medications. As a result, the reproductive effects of a medicine aren’t usually discovered until long after a drug enters the market. Even then, such research is not required for most new drugs, so doctors and researchers must take the initiative. Typically, this happens through pregnancy registries, which enroll pregnant volunteers who are taking a particular drug and follow them throughout pregnancy or beyond.

But voluntary registries leave huge data gaps. A 2011 review of 172 drugs approved by the FDA in the preceding decade found that the risk of harm to fetal development was “undetermined” for 98 percent of them, and for 73 percent there was no safety data during pregnancy at all.

That doesn’t mean all those drugs are dangerous. Relatively few drugs cause major birth defects, and many of those fall into known classes. For example, ACE inhibitors used to control blood pressure have been linked to a range of issues, including kidney and cardiovascular problems in infants, when taken during pregnancy. But the potential for more subtle, long-term effects has been trickier to tease out.

For instance, several studies in the 2010s reported links between mothers taking antidepressants during pregnancy and their kids having developmental problems like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Some moms became afraid to treat their own depression. But in 2017, studies of siblings found no difference in these conditions among children who had been exposed to antidepressants in the womb and those who had not (SN: 5/13/17, p. 9). More likely, the problem was the depression the mom was experiencing, the studies suggested, not the drugs.

No legal requirement
How the contents of a pregnant woman’s medicine cabinet might affect her child depends on a host of factors, including how the drug works and whether it crosses the placenta. The main way to gauge whether a drug may harm a fetus is through animal studies called developmental and reproductive toxicology, or DART, studies. But drug companies often don’t begin these studies until they’ve already gotten clinical trials rolling.

This creates a catch-22, because clinical trials can’t include pregnant people until DART studies suggest it’s safe to do so. That’s why Lyerly and others pushing for change say that pharmaceutical companies should start doing these studies earlier, before clinical trials begin.

In 2018, the FDA issued draft guidance to help the pharmaceutical industry decide how and when to include pregnant people in clinical trials (SN Online: 5/30/18). That guidance is an encouraging first step, Lyerly says, but it didn’t change any of the stringent rules for when pregnant people could be included in research.

Plus, it’s all completely voluntary, says Leyla Sahin, acting deputy director for safety in FDA’s Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health. “We advise industry…. We tell them we recommend that you include pregnant women in your clinical trials,” Sahin says. “But there’s no requirement.”

In fact, the FDA doesn’t even have the legal authority to create a requirement. In that sense, Sahin says, “we’re where pediatrics was 20 years ago.” Until Congress passed the Pediatric Research Equity Act of 2003, children were routinely excluded from clinical trials just as pregnant women are now. The pediatric law required drug companies to gather data on the safety and effectiveness of medications in children and to provide FDA an appropriate plan for pediatric studies.

Congress could pass a similar law for pregnancy. And in 2020, a government task force recommended exactly that to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees FDA. But “it’s almost like it’s gone into this black hole,” Sahin says. “We haven’t heard from HHS. We haven’t heard from Congress.”
Stocking the medicine cabinet
Until clinical trials during pregnancy become more routine, pregnant people face an untenable choice — take a drug without knowing its safety, or leave their medical conditions untreated.

Case in point: A group of 91 doctors and scientists published a consensus statement in September 2021 in Nature Reviews Endocrinology warning that acetaminophen, the most commonly used drug during pregnancy, may harm fetal development. Research suggests the drug disrupts hormones, with effects ranging from undescended testicles in male infants to an increased risk of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder in boys and girls.

But as is often the case with drugs and pregnancy, there’s not exactly a consensus among doctors about what pregnant people should do. In response to the new paper, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement saying the evidence wasn’t strong enough to suggest doctors should change their standard practice, which is to recommend acetaminophen be taken as needed and in moderation.

Acetaminophen is an active ingredient in more than 600 medications, including Tylenol, and is estimated to be used by up to 65 percent of pregnant people in the United States. It has long been the preferred pain medication and fever reducer during pregnancy because the FDA recommends against the anti-inflammatory drugs known as NSAIDs — such as ibuprofen and aspirin — in the second half of pregnancy. Those drugs have been linked to rare fetal kidney problems and low amniotic fluid levels.

While at the University of Copenhagen, clinical pharmacologist David Kristensen began studying acetaminophen’s effects on fetal development after noticing that the drug is structurally similar to chemicals that disrupt hormones. In 2011, he and colleagues published animal and human studies linking acetaminophen use during pregnancy with concerning effects in infants, including undescended testicles.

“My ears perked up when I heard that,” says Swan, the Mount Sinai reproductive epidemiologist and coauthor of the 2021 acetaminophen review. She had seen similar effects with maternal exposure to phthalates, chemicals used in plastics that are known to alter the activity of hormones needed to regulate fetal development.

She and colleagues surveyed 25 years of acetaminophen studies. The group found that five out of 11 relevant studies linked prenatal acetaminophen use to urogenital and reproductive tract abnormalities in children, and 26 out of 29 epidemiological studies linked fetal exposure to acetaminophen with neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. The strength of these links varied, but were “generally modest,” the authors wrote.

“We’re looking at subtle effects here,” Swan says, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important.” With such widespread use, “there’s a good chance that a fair number of offspring are affected.”

Although Swan is wary of testing new drugs in pregnant women, she would like to see better research on medications during pregnancy. “There’s a whole range of options short of doing human study,” she says.

To start with, Swan says, scientists need better data on what medications pregnant women are taking, and how much. That means more studies should ask women to keep daily logs of every pill they take. Researchers can also do more studies of drugs’ reproductive effects in animals, she notes, and even transplant human tissues such as brain, liver or gonads into animals to learn how they respond to drugs.

Not the same vulnerability
The cultural shift around pregnancy research may be gaining momentum.

Government-funded research is one key area for change. In 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act established an interagency task force on research specific to pregnant and lactating women. It included officials from NIH, CDC and FDA, as well as medical societies and industry. One of the task force’s recommendations was acted upon in 2018: removing pregnant women as a “vulnerable” group in a federal regulation called the Common Rule, which governs federally funded research. Pregnant women had been listed along with children, prisoners and people with intellectual disabilities as vulnerable and thus requiring special protections if included in research.

Unlike the other groups in that list, pregnant people “don’t have a diminished capacity to provide informed consent,” says Lyerly, the bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. That rule change alone could help “change the culture of research.”

Meanwhile, researchers are forging ahead with studies on many drugs used during pregnancy. HIV drugs are among the most studied, says Best of UC San Diego, in part because the virus can pass from pregnant women to their fetuses. “So right off the bat, everybody knew that we needed to treat these [pregnant] patients with medication,” she says. Yet data on HIV drugs during pregnancy lagged as much as 12 years after FDA approval.
Many pregnant women appear to be willing to participate in research. More than 18,000 pregnant people had enrolled in the COVID-19 vaccine pregnancy registry as of March, and every year many volunteer for other pregnancy registries.

Gyamfi-Bannerman says that in her experience, plenty of pregnant patients are willing to volunteer, even for experimental drugs, if there’s potential to benefit from the drug and they will be monitored closely. At Columbia University, she helped lead a clinical trials network called the Maternal Fetal Medicine Units Network that specifically studies complications during pregnancy. “It’s a very safe and protective environment,” she says.

As for next steps, a few policy changes could make a big difference, Best says, like “getting those preclinical studies done earlier and allowing people who accidentally get pregnant while participating in a clinical trial to make the choice of whether or not to stay.” Right now, “if you get pregnant, you’re out. Boom, that’s it,” she says. “But they were already exposed to the risk, and now they’re not getting the benefit. And so we don’t think that’s actually ethical.”

Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women to treat morning sickness, without ever having been tested in pregnant women. “We took the wrong lesson from thalidomide,” Lyerly says. “The first lesson of thalidomide is that we should do research, not that we shouldn’t.”

Glowing spider fossils may exist thanks to tiny algae’s goo 

The secret ingredient for fossil preservation at a famous French site wouldn’t be found in a Julia Child cookbook. It was a sticky goo made by microalgae, researchers suggest.

An analysis of roughly 22-million-year-old spider fossils from a fossil-rich rock formation in Aix-en-Provence, France, reveals that the arachnids’ bodies were coated with a tarry black substance. That substance, a kind of biopolymer, was probably secreted by tiny algae called diatoms that lived in the lake or lagoon waters at the ancient site, scientists report April 21 in Communications Earth & Environment.

The biopolymer didn’t just coat the spiders’ bodies — it pickled them. By chemically reacting with the spiders’ carbon-rich exoskeletons, the goo helped preserve the bodies from decomposition, allowing them to more easily become fossils, the team hypothesizes.
A clue that this coating might play a role in fossilization came when the researchers, on a whim, placed a spider fossil under a fluorescence microscope. To their surprise, the substance glowed a bright yellow-orange. “It was amazing!” says geologist Alison Olcott of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The fluorescent imaging painted a bright, colorful palette onto what was otherwise a fairly faint spider fossil, Olcott says. In the original, she could barely tell the spider apart from the background rock. But under fluorescence, she says, the spider fossil glowed in one color, the background in another and the biopolymer in a third.

That discovery — along with an abrupt halt in early 2020 to any additional fossil-collecting plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic — swiftly shifted the focus of the team’s work. “Had it been normal times, this would have been a side note in a taxonomy study” classifying ancient spiders, Olcott says. Instead, “I really had to explore what I had,” she adds. “It was me and these images.”

The researchers next sought to identify the chemical makeup of the mysterious substance. The orange-yellow glow, the team found, comes from abundant carbon and sulfur in the coating. “That got me thinking about sulfurization,” Olcott says.
Sulfurization is the reaction of organic carbon with sulfur, which forms sturdy chemical bonds with the carbon, making it more resistant to degradation and breakdown — similar to how tire manufacturers harden rubber to make it more durable. The process requires a ready supply of sulfur available for bonding.

In modern times, such a supply comes from the sulfur-rich gooey secretions of diatoms, microalgae found floating in many waters around the world. When these secretions meet carbon-laden marine particles headed for the bottom of the ocean, this sulfurization process helps lock the carbon in place and possibly keep it buried in the seafloor.

Similarly, sulfurization might help to preserve delicate carbon-rich fossils, helping them to withstand the test of millions of years of geologic time, Olcott says. Scientists have often noted diatoms in the fossil-bearing rock formations of Aix-en-Provence, as well as at many similar fossil-rich sites, she adds. “Everyone’s seeing diatoms everywhere. Thinking about that and the chemistry, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. All the pieces are here to make this chemistry happen.’”

The arachnids’ preservation might have gone like this: A dead spider, floating in the water column, became covered in the diatoms’ sticky goo. The goo chemically reacted with the spider’s chitin exoskeleton, more or less pickling it and keeping the exoskeleton largely intact and ready for fossilization.

That scenario “makes sense based on what we know about organic sulfur cycling in modern environments so far,” says Morgan Raven, an organic geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Scientists still have a lot to learn about the conditions that allow materials like chitin to sulfurize, Raven says. “But this study highlights why that matters.”

For example, if sulfurization selectively helps preserve some types of organic matter — such as soft-bodied fossils — that “could be a crucial filter on our fossil record, influencing what we do and don’t know about plant and animal evolution,” she adds.

This process of diatom-assisted sulfurization may have been at work in other fossil-rich sites during the Cenozoic Era, Olcott says. That span of time began 66 million years ago, after an asteroid ended the Age of Dinosaurs, and continues to the present day. Before that era, diatoms were not widespread. That didn’t happen until silica-bearing grasses sprouted around the world during the Cenozoic, offering a ready source of silica for the tiny creatures to build their delicate bodies (SN: 5/1/19).

It’s unknown if other biopolymer-producing algae might have helped fossilize soft-bodied creatures from even earlier, such as during the flourishing of Cambrian Period life-forms beginning around 541 million years ago, Olcott says (SN: 4/24/19). “But it would be really interesting to expand this further out.”

Scientists made a Möbius strip out of a tiny carbon nanobelt

From cylindrical nanotubes to the hollow spheres known as buckyballs, carbon is famous for forming tiny, complex nanostructures (SN: 8/15/19). Now, scientists have added a new geometry to the list: a twisted strip called a Möbius carbon nanobelt.

Möbius strips are twisted bands that are famous in mathematics for their weird properties. A rubber band, for example, has an inside and an outside. But if you cut the rubber band crosswise, twist one end and glue it back together, you get a Möbius strip, which has only one face (SN: 7/24/07).

In 2017, researchers created carbon nanobelts, thin loops of carbon that are like tiny slices of a carbon nanotube. That feat suggested it might be possible to create a nanobelt with a twist, a Möbius carbon nanobelt. To make the itsy-bitsy twisty carbon, some of the same researchers stitched together individual smaller molecules using a series of 14 chemical reactions, chemist Yasutomo Segawa of the Institute for Molecular Science in Okazaki, Japan, and colleagues report May 19 in Nature Synthesis.

While carbon nanotubes can be used to make new types of computer chips and added to textiles to create fabric with unusual properties, scientists don’t yet know of any practical applications for the twisty nanobelts (SN: 8/28/19; SN: 2/8/19). But, Segawa says, the work improves scientists’ ability to make tiny carbon structures, especially complicated ones.