Serendipitous encounters

If you meet an editor of the Nature journals they will likely assure you that to get published you just need good science. But, the truth is, there is some luck involved too, especially for interdisciplinary work. Sometimes editors accidentally come across gems of papers. Here are two such stories:

Bart Verberck: Mathematics and lizards

One of the most pleasant aspects of being a Nature Physics editor is the need to be in touch with the scientific community, which means a fair share of your time is spent away from your desk, at conferences and institutes.

On one such occasion, I found myself attending a conference called “Science of the Future” in Kazan, Russia.  The event was memorable for a number of reasons.  On the plane from Moscow to Kazan, for example, I happened to sit next to a French physicist checking his presentation for the conference, in which he referred to a (Physical Review B) paper I had co-authored back in the day when I was an active researcher.  And at the conference, as soon as I had expressed an interest in seeing the museum–room of Yevgeny Zavoisky — credited with the discovery of electron paramagnetic resonance, at the University of Kazan — hey presto, I was given a tour.

The scope of the conference was extremely broad; in one session of plenary talks one could hear from a historian (a first for me), a bioinformatician, a physicist and a mathematician.  The mathematician was Stanislav Smirnov, recipient of the 2010 Fields Medal.  His presentation touched on percolation and cellular automata, a subject I had been fascinated by for many years.

At the conference dinner, I approached Smirnov.  I wanted to know his opinion on Stephen Wolfram’s viewpoint that cellular automata are a sort of governing principle in nature, as expressed in his book A New Kind of Science.  After chatting a bit, Smirnov mentioned he was involved in a piece of work at the boundary between mathematics and biology.  He wondered whether, scope-wise, it would fit Nature

I would have loved to see the work submitted to Nature Physics, but, when I got an e-mail from Smirnov a few weeks later, asking for advice on where and how to submit, I did the honourable thing and put him in touch with Liesbeth Venema from Nature.  He submitted the paper — on how the pattern formation on the skin of a particular type of lizard is governed by, yes, a cellular automaton — to Nature, where it successfully went through peer review.  The paper’s publication in 2017 coincided with the centenary of “On Growth and Form” by D’Arcy Thompson and was on the cover of Nature.  Of course, I wrote a research highlight  about it in Nature Physics.

Liesbeth Venema: Pyramids and robots

Another main attraction of being a Nature manuscript editor has always been, for me, the chance to learn a new scientific topic every week. This never gets boring. Admittedly, it helps if lizards are involved. Or sharks, spiders and tree frogs – all have played their parts in Nature papers I handled over the years. 

Perhaps the most surprising paper arrived on my virtual desk right at the end of my tenure at Nature last year. I had flown out to a large robotics conference in Vancouver, already preparing for my new life as an editor embedded in artificial intelligence research. After discussing robots over lunch with a scientist, he casually mentioned a paper about pyramids he was thinking of sending to Nature.

Now, as most editors will understand, this is when alarm bells started ringing. We have over the years encountered many scientists who lost their way trying to tease out secrets of the ancient world. But not all of them used cosmic rays and nuclear emulsion films. It quickly turned out the work presented to me in Vancouver was unique in its ingenuity and collaborative effort: an international team including particle physicists, Egyptologists and engineers had set up various instruments in and around the Khufu Pyramid, which holds many mysteries including how it was built. The scientists had been patiently collecting muon particles travelling from space through the heavy layers of stone where they get weakly absorbed. This produced after several months an image of a substantial void, the first major inner structure found in the Great Pyramid since the 19th century. So yes, we sent the paper out for review and it was published last year, making 3600 news hits within a week.

Not all scientific work can boast discoveries involving pyramids or lizards. However, many years at Nature taught me that nearly every paper is, in its own way, a reason to celebrate human inventiveness and the collaborative spirit of the scientific endeavour. Almost certainly, artificial intelligence is nowhere without it.

Bart Verberck is now Regional Executive Editor for Nature Research in Berlin and Liesbeth Venema is the Chief Editor of Nature Machine Intelligence.

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