The 5 most popular scientific papers of October 2019

How supreme is "supreme"?

8 November 2019

Bec Crew

Google

Google's Sycamore quantum processor featured in October's most talked-about paper.

From quantum computer wars to cosmic webs pulling vast galaxy clusters together, the most talked-about scientific papers of October felt particularly monumental.

As described below, last month’s top papers also included a controversial interpretation of the origins of modern humans, and a new, more precise gene-editing technology.

The quirkier moments in science can also capture the public’s attention, as exemplified by a popular paper published last month investigating the phenomenon behind that old saying, “Get off my lawn!”

Here is an Altmetrics ranking of October’s most popular papers in the natural sciences, published by the 82 high-quality journals tracked by the Nature Index.

1. “Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor”

Nature

This high-profile paper accumulated an enormous Altmetrics score in a matter of days, as news outlets and social media users lapped up the grandiosity and the controversy.

In late October, Google announced that it had achieved quantum supremacy – a term describing a long-awaited milestone in quantum computing. In this Nature paper, Google describes how its quantum computer, Sycamore, was able to perform a calculation that would be practically impossible for a classical machine.

Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who reviewed Google’s paper before publication, likened the achievement to the Wright brothers’ first plane flight in 1903.

But IBM, a direct competitor to Google with its own quantum computer in the works, questioned whether Sycamore really did reign supreme. Dario Gil, head of the IBM research lab in New York, disputed Google’s claim that its quantum calculation could not be performed by a traditional computer.

“This is not about final and absolute dominance over classical computers,” he toldThe New York Times.

The paper was covered by more than 250 news outlets and thousands of social media accounts, reaching more than 14 million users on Twitter.

2. “Search-and-replace genome editing without double-strand breaks or donor DNA”

Nature

A new gene-editing tool, similar to CRISPR-Cas9, was described in this paper, which says that the new technique, called prime editing, could potentially correct up to 89% of known genetic defects.

Prime editing, developed by a team at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, could also sidestep some of the main drawbacks of CRISPR, the researchers claim, as it can perform edits with more accuracy and fewer off-target effects.

Nothing’s perfect, however: the team admits that the technique could produce new or unforeseen off-target events.

The Nature paper was covered by more than 100 news outlets and 2,600 Twitter users, with the United States and Japan being the most interested online audiences.

3. “Human origins in a southern African palaeo-wetland and first migrations”

Nature

Published in the final week of October and already with a higher Altmetrics score than all but one of the top papers in September, this study claims to have narrowed down the origin of the earliest humans to northern Botswana.

The international team that carried out the research, led by Vanessa Hayes from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and University of Sydney in Australia, describes what the first 100,000 years of Homo sapiens history could have looked like.

The paper has not escaped controversy, with Ed Yong reporting for The Atlantic, “other researchers I contacted were either skeptical or outright mad.”

4. “Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking”

Science Advances

With a title like that, this paper is hard to ignore. Scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences coined the "kids these days" effect to describe the tendency of people to believe that current young generations are worse than previous generations.

The team designed five different experiments to investigate the phenomenon and found that two distinct cognitive processes were at play: memory bias and the tendency of people to notice the limitations of others in areas that they excel in.

"Humanity has been lodging the same complaints against 'kids these days' for at least 2,600 years ," one of the authors, John Protzko, told Phys.org, having traced the oldest confirmed record of such a sentiment to 624 BCE.

The paper was a hit on Twitter, with the US making up 20% of the online attention.

5. “Gas filaments of the cosmic web located around active galaxies in a protocluster”

Science

This paper describes the results of a study using multiple telescopes to observe filaments of gas that connect clusters of galaxies in a massive web-like formation.

“Although this picture is well established by cosmological simulations, it has been difficult to demonstrate observationally,” a Science commentary explains.

The study, conducted by astronomers from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research in Japan and Durham University in the UK, was covered by more than 200 online news outlets and reached more than 1.5 million users on Twitter.

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