Oct 21, 2021

Axios Science

Welcome back to Axios Science. This week's newsletter is 1,390 words, about a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The science that isn't seen

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From conference presentations to scientific papers to databases, English is the lingua franca of science — but as a result, science published in languages other than English often goes unread.

Why it matters: Overlooking or excluding science that isn't communicated in English could hinder global responses to pandemics, the loss of biodiversity and climate change.

  • Many papers in languages other than English are providing important information for biodiversity conservation, but they're excluded in global assessments that shape policies, says Tatsuya Amano, who studies the impact of language barriers in conservation biology at the University of Queensland in Australia.
  • On the flip side, scientific knowledge in English may not be able to contribute to local decisions in places where the language isn't spoken, he says.
  • Language barriers also affect the careers of scientists who don't speak English. Scientific journals, especially elite ones, are largely published in English, and some evidence suggests reviewers may give papers lower quality ratings because of a linguistic bias, and not the science itself.

What's happening: A recent study found 85% of the world's population is now affected by climate change. But the other 15%, largely in the global south, is most likely still affected — the analysis just revealed big blind spots in the data. The authors say the research database they used could be improved by incorporating non-English evidence.

  • Climate change and biodiversity assessments draw from databases that overwhelmingly index scientific papers published in English.
  • But when Amano and 62 collaborators screened more than 419,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers in 16 languages, they found 12%–25% more areas of the world and 5%–32% more species would be covered if non-English language studies were included, they report in the journal PLOS Biology.
  • In another study, researchers found scientific evidence about climate change in Africa that was published in languages other than English was also being overlooked.

The impact: Beyond its effect on policymaking and scientific research, language often determines who gets to do science.

  • It can be expensive to teach English and time-intensive to learn it.
  • Language barriers alter who learns about a field and what receives attention in the media, Nussaïbah Raja-Schoob, a paleontologist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, tells Axios in an email.
  • "Paleontology already has a diversity problem, which is exacerbated by this," she says.

The big picture: "The world is really at the beginning of this. English has only been dominating for 30 years," says Scott Montgomery, a geoscientist and lecturer at the University of Washington who is the author of "Does Science Need a Global Language?"

  • His answer, in short: yes, because it is more efficient, but he says everyone needs to have equal access to that language and information in it.
  • Raja-Schoob and others instead advocate for a multilingual way of doing science that could help to address the inequities in who gets to do science and what science is recognized.

What to watch: English is currently entrenched as the language of science, but the researchers who conducted these studies say there are ways to help elevate the work of scientists who don't speak the language.

  • Those include translating science and collaborating with researchers who speak languages other than English.

The bottom line: "If people don’t read these other languages, they are losing that knowledge," says Michael Gordin, a historian of science at Princeton University.

Read the entire story.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
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Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios
  • The coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. is "rapidly improving as the Delta wave recedes, and vaccines for kids — which could become available within weeks — will help the situation improve even further," Axios' Sam Baker writes.
  • The FDA authorized giving people booster shots that are different from the COVID vaccine they initially received, per Axios' Shawna Chen.
  • A booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is nearly 96% effective against the coronavirus, according to a large study released Thursday, Axios' Oriana Gonzalez writes.
3. Moon rocks suggest more recent volcanoes

A researcher works on lunar soil brought back by China's Chang'e-5 probe at Songshan Lake Materials Lab on Sept. 3 in Dongguan, China. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Lunar rocks returned to Earth by China's Chang'e-5 mission suggest there were large volcanoes on the Moon at least 800 million years longer than previous samples indicated, recent studies report.

Why it matters: The findings from China's first lunar sample return mission provide new details that could shape scientists' understanding of the Moon's geological history and evolution.

Catch up quick: China's Chang'e-5 mission launched in November 2020 and returned about 3.8 pounds of lunar rock and soil to Earth a few weeks later.

  • The spacecraft gathered samples on the near side of the Moon in Oceanus Procellarum, a region where basalt rock formed from volcanic eruptions.

What they found: The basalt rocks are about 2 billion years old, according to one of three papers published Tuesday in the journal Nature and a paper published in Science earlier this month. At that age, the samples are the youngest Moon rocks to be collected and directly dated.

  • The finding suggests there were large volcanoes on the Moon more recently than previously thought — and that the lunar interior was still evolving 2 billion years ago.
  • The samples contain less water than basalt formed from magma that erupted on the Moon between 2.8 billion and 4 billion years ago, researchers report in a second paper. That suggests the Moon's "youngest volcanism was not driven by abundant water in its mantle source," they write.
  • The magma that produced the basalt also appears to have had lower amounts of elements like potassium that generate heat through radioactive decay than scientists thought might be needed to produce magma, researchers report in a third paper. There are several theories of what could have kept the Moon volcanically active, including gravitational forces from Earth, Freda Kreier reports for Science News.

The big picture: Collecting a rock or soil sample from another world and returning it to Earth is a major technical feat. China is only the third country to successfully return samples from the Moon.

Read the rest.

4. Worthy of your time

Modern domestic horses running in the steppes of Inner Mongolia, China, in July 2019. Photo: Ludovic Orlando/Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse, France

Scientists found modern domestic horses’ homeland in southwestern Russia (Jonathan Lambert — Science News)

Bumblebee’s declining population, other ills may put it on U.S. endangered list (Erin Blakemore — Washington Post)

Hunt begins for ancient Antarctic ice (Paul Voosen — Science)

M.I.T.’s choice of lecturer ignited criticism. So did its decision to cancel. (Michael Powell — NYT)

5. Something wondrous

Microscope image of a wood fragment from the Norse layers at L’Anse aux Meadows. Credit: Petra Doeve/Cultural Heritage Agency of The Netherlands

High-energy particles showered Earth in A.D. 993, leaving a clue that Vikings were in Newfoundland 1,000 years ago, researchers report this week.

Why it matters: The dating of wood artifacts at the Norse settlement L’Anse aux Meadows provides the earliest evidence yet of when people first crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas.

How it works: As trees photosynthesize, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, small amounts of which are radioactive carbon. When a tree is cut down, its rings are a record of that carbon in the atmosphere and can be used to determine the age of the wood, typically to within 100 years.

  • The age of artifacts at the Norse site determined by previous radiocarbon dating puts Vikings there sometime between A.D. 793 and A.D. 1066.
  • To determine a more exact date, archaeologist Margot Kuitems of the University of Groningen and Michael Dee, who studies radiocarbon dating at the same university, along with their colleagues, looked to rare cosmic ray events.
  • Massive radiation from these events causes a sudden increase in radioactive carbon in the atmosphere in a given year, which can be seen in the tree rings and serve as a reference point for dating the wood.

What they found: Kuitems found three wood artifacts in a storage facility that she was confident were made by Vikings because they had clearly been cut with metal tools that Indigenous people living in the area did not use at the time.

  • With a scalpel, she separated the tree rings in the artifacts, which came from three different trees.
  • The team then analyzed the samples and found an increase in radiocarbon in the 28th tree ring from the bark.
  • Those rings represented A.D. 993. Add 28 years, and the researchers determined the trees were cut in A.D. 1021 — 1,000 years ago.

What's next: The researchers are searching for more cosmic ray events that could be used to date other historical events. Last year, they used the mark of a storm in A.D. 775 to determine the age of a Uyghur fortress in Russia.

  • "We’re looking hard for them. But if they happened all the time that wouldn’t work," Dee says.