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Quanta Magazine Read and discuss the latest news and trends in mathematics, physics, computer science and life science research.
At Quanta Magazine, scientific accuracy is every bit as important as telling a good story. Since Quanta is a nonprofit foundation-funded publication, all of its resources go toward producing responsible, freely accessible journalism that is meticulously researched, reported, edited, copy-edited and fact-checked. And our editorial independence ensures the impartiality of our science coverage — our articles do not reflect or represent the views of the Simons Foundation. All editorial decisions, including which research or researchers to cover, are made by Quanta’s staff reporting to the editor in chief; editorial content is not reviewed by anyone outside of the news team prior to publication; Quanta has no involvement in any of the Simons Foundation’s grant-giving or research efforts; and researchers who receive funding from the foundation do not receive preferential treatment. The decision to cover a particular researcher or research result is made solely on editorial grounds in service of our readers.

Quanta Magazine is an editorially independent online publication launched by the Simons Foundation to enhance public understanding of science. Our reporters focus on developments in mathematics, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science and the basic life sciences. At Quanta, scientific accuracy is every bit as important as telling a good story. And having editorial independence ensures the impartiality of our science coverage — our articles do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of the Simons Foundation. Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/QuantaMagazine

Mission: Quanta Magazine's mission is to enhance public understanding of research developments in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

“There’s a huge number of organisms that have never been identified by scientists or cultivated in the laboratory, and t...
07/15/2020
Doudna’s Confidence in CRISPR’s Research Potential Burns Bright | Quanta Magazine

“There’s a huge number of organisms that have never been identified by scientists or cultivated in the laboratory, and they surely have interesting biology associated with their lifestyles,” said Jennifer Doudna, who helped develop CRISPR technology out of bacterial defenses. “I have no doubt that we’ll find things that will lend themselves to new technologies.” In this interview, Doudna discusses the promise of CRISPR and related inventions on biological research. https://www.quantamagazine.org/doudnas-confidence-in-crisprs-research-potential-burns-bright-20190227/

Jennifer Doudna, one of CRISPR’s primary innovators, stays optimistic about how the gene-editing tool will continue to empower basic biological understanding.

Random distributions of movement known as Lévy walks describe what appears to be the default movement of several animal ...
07/15/2020
Random Search Wired Into Animals May Help Them Hunt

Random distributions of movement known as Lévy walks describe what appears to be the default movement of several animal species during blind searches. “Lévy movements arise when [an] animal really has no clue,” said computational biologist Nick Humphries. To test if the phenomenon is innate, scientists genetically disconnected the brains of fruit fly larvae and observed how they moved. “Wow — we were blown away!” said researcher David Sims. https://www.quantamagazine.org/random-search-wired-into-animals-may-help-them-hunt-20200611/

The nervous systems of foraging and predatory animals may prompt them to move along a special kind of random path called a Lévy walk to find food efficiently

The old theory of a late heavy bombardment posits that a constant shellacking by meteorites kept the surface of the Eart...
07/15/2020
Fossil Discoveries Challenge Ideas About Earth’s Start | Quanta Magazine

The old theory of a late heavy bombardment posits that a constant shellacking by meteorites kept the surface of the Earth unstable well after the planet formed. Now, ancient microbial fossils and mineral evidence of early oceans are suggesting that our planet may have been able to sustain life much earlier than previously believed.

To hear the podcast episode, click the icon for your preferred listening app in the player.

A series of fossil finds suggests that life on Earth started earlier than anyone thought, calling into question a widely held theory of the solar system’s

Intuitionist mathematics demands that numbers must be constructible; real numbers, with digits extending out to infinity...
07/14/2020
Does Time Really Flow? New Clues Come From a Century-Old Approach to Math.

Intuitionist mathematics demands that numbers must be constructible; real numbers, with digits extending out to infinity, cannot exist as complete entities. Four new papers by the Swiss physicist Nicolas Gisin argue that this mathematical language may hold the key to one of the greatest mysteries in physics: time.

The laws of physics imply that the passage of time is an illusion. To avoid this conclusion, we might have to rethink the reality of infinitely precise numbers.

Aristotle saw time as unbounded. Ancient Maya considered keeping time on its course as a communal responsibility. Newton...
07/14/2020
Arrows of Time

Aristotle saw time as unbounded. Ancient Maya considered keeping time on its course as a communal responsibility. Newton described a “master clock” for the universe which Einstein later disproved. This timeline traces humanity’s evolving understanding of time.

The human mind has long grappled with the elusive nature of time: what it is, how to record it, how it regulates life, and whether it exists as a fundamental

07/14/2020
To Decode the Brain, Scientists Automate the Study of Behavior

Would a tiny shift in the angle of a fly’s wing mean anything to a human observer? Would it even be noticed? Probably not. But machine learning systems equipped with the right motion-tracking tools could. With help of technologies like these, animal behaviorists are beginning to observe creatures with unprecedented precision, and they are uncovering patterns of behavior that no unaided human eye could detect. https://www.quantamagazine.org/to-decode-the-brain-scientists-automate-the-study-of-behavior-20191210/

In 1931, a 25-year-old logician named Kurt Gödel crushed a mathematical dream by proving that no set of axioms can ever ...
07/14/2020
How Gödel’s Proof Works

In 1931, a 25-year-old logician named Kurt Gödel crushed a mathematical dream by proving that no set of axioms can ever prove its own consistency. This is how he did it:

His incompleteness theorems destroyed the search for a mathematical theory of everything. Nearly a century later, we’re still coming to grips with the

To recommend movies you’ll like, Netflix’s predictive engines have to work through highly complex data sets. But the mat...
07/13/2020
How Geometry, Data and Neighbors Predict Your Favorite Movies | Quanta Magazine

To recommend movies you’ll like, Netflix’s predictive engines have to work through highly complex data sets. But the math these engines use start with some simple ideas from geometric analysis. In his latest Quantized Academy column, master teacher Patrick Honner demonstrates how visualizing someone’s preferences spatially can help us identify “nearest neighbors” who have similar tastes.

A little high school geometry can help you understand the basic math behind movie recommendation engines.

Computer scientists often look to natural phenomena like the cosmic background radiation in order to obtain truly random...
07/13/2020
How and Why Computers Roll Loaded Dice

Computer scientists often look to natural phenomena like the cosmic background radiation in order to obtain truly random sequences — but randomness can only take you so far. Many real-world situations depend on weighted outcomes.

Researchers are one step closer to injecting probability into deterministic machines.

Determining how to safely reopen buildings and public spaces under social distancing is in part a sphere packing problem...
07/13/2020
The Math of Social Distancing Is a Lesson in Geometry

Determining how to safely reopen buildings and public spaces under social distancing is in part a sphere packing problem — a simple-sounding geometry question that has occupied some of history’s greatest mathematicians. https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-math-of-social-distancing-is-a-lesson-in-geometry-20200713/

How to safely reopen offices, schools and other public spaces while keeping people six feet apart comes down to a question mathematicians have been studying for

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Urmila Mahadev answered one of quantum computing’s fundamental questions: How can ...
07/13/2020
Graduate Student Solves Quantum Verification Problem | Quanta Magazine

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Urmila Mahadev answered one of quantum computing’s fundamental questions: How can a non-quantum user verify a quantum computer’s calculations? Mahadev has found that classical cryptography can be used to force a quantum computer to perform the verification itself and report the results honestly. The monumental work has established Mahadev as one of the rising stars of theoretical computer science.

Urmila Mahadev spent eight years in graduate school solving one of the most basic questions in quantum computation: How do you know whether a quantum computer

Researchers are hunting for proof of a hypothetical form of matter known as “ideal glass” — but not just for its useful ...
07/13/2020
Ideal Glass Would Explain Why Glass Exists at All | Quanta Magazine

Researchers are hunting for proof of a hypothetical form of matter known as “ideal glass” — but not just for its useful properties. Its existence would solve the mystery of why glass exists.

Glass is anything that’s rigid like a crystal, yet made of disordered molecules like a liquid. To understand why it exists, researchers are attempting to create

How will our universe end? In a new interview with Quanta, Katie Mack talks heat death, the big rip and vacuum decay. Sh...
07/13/2020
This Cosmologist Knows How It’s All Going to End

How will our universe end? In a new interview with Quanta, Katie Mack talks heat death, the big rip and vacuum decay. She explains that the universe seems unlikely to end in vacuum decay — in which an expanding bubble would destroy everything in its path — unless the Standard Model is somehow the whole story.

The astrophysicist and social media phenom Katie Mack is ready to tell you about the fate of the universe.

In 1976, the computer scientists Donald Knuth and Andrew Yao introduced an algorithm that could produce random samplings...
07/12/2020
How and Why Computers Roll Loaded Dice

In 1976, the computer scientists Donald Knuth and Andrew Yao introduced an algorithm that could produce random samplings of any array of weighted outcomes. Unfortunately, the application was too memory-intensive for practical use. Now researchers have devised a time- and memory-efficient method for generating random weighted outcomes. https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-and-why-computers-roll-loaded-dice-20200708/

Researchers are one step closer to injecting probability into deterministic machines.

From 2018: Research suggests that the slow churn of plate tectonics may be responsible for the complex life on our plane...
07/12/2020
Plate Tectonics May Be Essential for Life | Quanta Magazine

From 2018: Research suggests that the slow churn of plate tectonics may be responsible for the complex life on our planet today. By keeping our planet nutrient rich and relatively warm, the plates that make up Earth’s crust may have generated the conditions responsible for the Cambrian explosion. To solidify their theories, researchers are now trying to determine what exactly shattered our planet’s crust into plates — and when.

Life needs more than water alone. Recent discoveries suggest that plate tectonics has played a critical role in nourishing life on Earth. The findings carry

In 2018, citizen scientists on the Aurorasaurus platform identified an auroral phenomenon occurring at surprisingly low ...
07/12/2020
The Scientist Leading the World’s Aurora Hunters

In 2018, citizen scientists on the Aurorasaurus platform identified an auroral phenomenon occurring at surprisingly low latitudes over Alberta, Canada. They named it Steve. Scientists kept the name as a backronym (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement).

Liz MacDonald realized that if she wanted to create the world’s best aurora map, she needed a secret ingredient: Twitter.

Early this year, scientists published a definitive timeline of the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. I...
07/12/2020
A Rapid End Strikes the Dinosaur Extinction Debate

Early this year, scientists published a definitive timeline of the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In an interview, the collaboration’s leader describes the work’s inspiration and implications. https://www.quantamagazine.org/pincelli-hull-explains-how-an-asteroid-killed-the-dinosaurs-20200325/

The paleontologist Pincelli Hull has nailed down the timing and speed of the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs — details that carry ominous warnings for today.

From 2018: An old suspicion that strange, eight-dimensional numbers called octonions underlie nature’s laws is gaining n...
07/11/2020
The Octonion Math That Could Underpin Physics | Quanta Magazine

From 2018: An old suspicion that strange, eight-dimensional numbers called octonions underlie nature’s laws is gaining new life in the hands of physicist Cohl Furey. When she isn’t ski-bumming or training as a mixed martial artist, Furey has been finding intriguing connections between these numbers and the laws of particle physics.

New findings are fueling an old suspicion that fundamental particles and forces spring from strange eight-part numbers called “octonions.”

Randomness and quantum theory are invariably tied to one another. That connection may prove to be a boon for cybersecuri...
07/11/2020
How to Turn a Quantum Computer Into the Ultimate Randomness Generator | Quanta Magazine

Randomness and quantum theory are invariably tied to one another. That connection may prove to be a boon for cybersecurity. The fact that the nature of a quantum bit is unknowable until it is measured has researchers believing that they can use quantum computers to generate random number sequences at lengths far longer than a classical computer is reasonably capable of. These longer, purely random codes could be used to help encrypt our data more securely than ever before.

Pure, verifiable randomness is hard to come by. Two proposals show how to make quantum computers into randomness factories.

Systole, the moment when our heart contracts and pumps out blood, seems to impact our experience of fear. “Systole is th...
07/11/2020
How Your Heart Influences What You Perceive and Fear

Systole, the moment when our heart contracts and pumps out blood, seems to impact our experience of fear. “Systole is the point when you’re least sensitive to the world… when the inner world rules,” said neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel.

The heartbeat and other bodily processes play a surprising role in shaping perception and cognition.

The molecules inside glass appear disordered like those of a liquid, yet glass is rigid. Now, an artificial neural netwo...
07/11/2020
Why Is Glass Rigid? Signs of Its Secret Structure Emerge.

The molecules inside glass appear disordered like those of a liquid, yet glass is rigid. Now, an artificial neural network has found evidence that the molecules in glass have hidden structure after all. However, the “black box” nature of machine learning could make it hard to know what molecular structure the AI is picking up on.

At the molecular level, glass looks like a liquid. But an artificial neural network has picked up on hidden structure in its molecules that may explain why

Even in total darkness, the vision centers of the brain chatter with activity that seems like random noise. New work sho...
07/11/2020
‘Noise’ in the Brain Encodes Surprisingly Important Signals

Even in total darkness, the vision centers of the brain chatter with activity that seems like random noise. New work shows that it’s not: It’s highly detailed information about how the body is moving. The discovery reaffirms the principle that perceptions or the world are constructed from much more than sensory input alone.

Activity in the visual cortex and other sensory areas is dominated by signals about body movements, down to little tics and twitches. Scientists are now rethinking how they study and conceive of perception.

From 2017: Just as octopi appear to outsource information-processing tasks to their tentacles, perhaps spiders outsource...
07/10/2020

From 2017: Just as octopi appear to outsource information-processing tasks to their tentacles, perhaps spiders outsource information processing to objects outside of their bodies — their webs. As fascinating as this interplay is, many biologists question whether it adds up to a bigger cognitive system. https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-thoughts-of-a-spiderweb-20170523/

Imagine two random number generators producing a sequence of digits. Are the sequences completely independent? Or are th...
07/10/2020

Imagine two random number generators producing a sequence of digits. Are the sequences completely independent? Or are they related in some hidden way? By proving that quantum computers can answer this question, but classical computers cannot, researchers have firmly established that quantum computers exist on a computational plane above and beyond any conceivable future classical machine. https://www.quantamagazine.org/finally-a-problem-that-only-quantum-computers-will-ever-be-able-to-solve-20180621/

The paleontologist Pincelli Hull grew up without ever seeing the ocean. This year, seafloor data that she gathered helpe...
07/10/2020
A Rapid End Strikes the Dinosaur Extinction Debate

The paleontologist Pincelli Hull grew up without ever seeing the ocean. This year, seafloor data that she gathered helped scientists better understand the timeline of the Earth’s last mass extinction.

The paleontologist Pincelli Hull has nailed down the timing and speed of the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs — details that carry ominous warnings for today.

From Newton to Einstein to Hawking, explore the biggest ideas of physics in our interactive map:
07/09/2020
Frontier of Physics: Interactive Map | Quanta Magazine

From Newton to Einstein to Hawking, explore the biggest ideas of physics in our interactive map:

Explore the deepest mysteries at the frontier of fundamental physics, and the most promising ideas put forth to solve them.

In February, we interviewed the computer scientist Donald Knuth at his home on the Stanford campus. He told us how his p...
07/09/2020
The Computer Scientist Who Can’t Stop Telling Stories

In February, we interviewed the computer scientist Donald Knuth at his home on the Stanford campus. He told us how his passion for communication has directed his life’s work. “The best way to communicate from one human being to another is through story.” Knuth’s creations include a philosophy of literate programming, the typography program TeX and “The Art of Computer Programming,” which he began writing in 1962 and still hopes to complete.

For pioneering computer scientist Donald Knuth, good coding is synonymous with beautiful expression.

“Ideal glass,” a hypothetical phase of matter where molecules have the densest random packing possible, would solve the ...
07/09/2020
Ideal Glass Would Explain Why Glass Exists at All | Quanta Magazine

“Ideal glass,” a hypothetical phase of matter where molecules have the densest random packing possible, would solve the mystery of why glass exists. Reaching it could take the age of the universe.

Glass is anything that’s rigid like a crystal, yet made of disordered molecules like a liquid. To understand why it exists, researchers are attempting to create

NASA space weather scientist Liz MacDonald founded the citizen science platform Aurorasaurus to harness social media’s a...
07/09/2020
The Scientist Leading the World’s Aurora Hunters

NASA space weather scientist Liz MacDonald founded the citizen science platform Aurorasaurus to harness social media’s ability to crowdsource auroral observations. “The beauty is that these data are scientifically useful and that we can then help people be more successful at seeing the northern lights.”

Liz MacDonald realized that if she wanted to create the world’s best aurora map, she needed a secret ingredient: Twitter.

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Quanta Magazine’s goal is to enhance public understanding of science. Our reporters focus on developments in mathematics, theoretical physics, theoretical computer science and the basic life sciences. At Quanta, scientific accuracy is every bit as important as telling a good story. And having editorial independence ensures the impartiality of our science coverage, so while our publication was launched by the Simons Foundation, our articles do not necessarily reflect or represent the foundation’s views. https://www.quantamagazine.org/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/QuantaNews Twitter: https://twitter.com/QuantaMagazine Sign up for our weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/6FnWj

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