Quanta Magazine

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.

12/20/2019
ICYMI: The hallmark of intelligence is the ability to learn. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the Unive...
12/19/2019

ICYMI: The hallmark of intelligence is the ability to learn. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have recently discovered surprising constraints on our learning abilities. The brain may be highly flexible and adaptive overall, but at least over short time frames, it learns by inefficiently recycling tricks from its neural repertoire rather than rewiring from scratch.

https://buff.ly/2Gxz8ER

Why do snowflakes look the way they do? The scientific quest to understand their dazzling variety of forms dates back to...
12/19/2019
Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Snowflakes | Quanta Magazine

Why do snowflakes look the way they do? The scientific quest to understand their dazzling variety of forms dates back to Johannes Kepler in the 1600s. Now, after observing snow crystals for decades and growing them in the lab, the physicist Kenneth Libbrecht has devised a new model that represents a major step forward in understanding.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/toward-a-grand-unified-theory-of-snowflakes-20191219

Kenneth Libbrecht, the “pope” of snowflake physics, has a new theory to explain their dazzling variety of forms.

Our latest podcast: Nearly a decade ago, a pair of scientists wrote some equations on a blackboard: a mathematical model...
12/19/2019

Our latest podcast: Nearly a decade ago, a pair of scientists wrote some equations on a blackboard: a mathematical model of time processing that could explain how the brain creates and maintains a timeline of past events. Almost immediately, lab experiments seemed to verify one half of their framework. But empirical support for the other half remained elusive — until recently.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/tag/podcast

ICYMI: Computational complexity is a familiar concept in computer science, but by bringing it into the world of physics,...
12/19/2019

ICYMI: Computational complexity is a familiar concept in computer science, but by bringing it into the world of physics, Leonard Susskind may have solved the mystery of black holes’ ever-growing interiors. Susskind hypothesizes that a black hole grows essentially forever in volume because it grows in complexity — meaning information about its initial state becomes increasingly scrambled. If the ideas in Susskind’s recent work prove true, it could shape not only our understanding of how black holes grow, but our understanding of cosmological growth as a whole.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/why-black-hole-interiors-grow-forever-20181206/

From the archives: Your DNA is supposed to be your blueprint, your unique master code, identical in every one of your te...
12/19/2019
Our Body as Genetic Patchwork: Helpful or Hurtful? | Quanta Magazine

From the archives: Your DNA is supposed to be your blueprint, your unique master code, identical in every one of your tens of trillions of cells. It is why you are you, indivisible and whole, consistent from tip to toe. But that’s really just a biological fairy tale.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/our-body-as-genetic-patchwork-helpful-or-hurtful-20140821/

Our bodies are a genetic patchwork, possessing variation from cell to cell. Is that a good thing?

ICYMI: Amie Wilkinson is using dynamical systems to unlock the mathematics of change. The University of Chicago mathemat...
12/18/2019
Amie Wilkinson’s Only Constant Is Change | Quanta Magazine

ICYMI: Amie Wilkinson is using dynamical systems to unlock the mathematics of change. The University of Chicago mathematician recently spoke with us about what drew her to the study of dynamics, what it takes to make it as a mathematician, and her evolving role as a mentor.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/amie-wilkinsons-only-constant-is-change-20190613/

Amie Wilkinson searches for exotic examples of the mathematical structures that describe change.

Since the 1700s mathematicians have used the Euler equations to predict how fluids move. They’ve long suspected the equa...
12/18/2019
Famous Fluid Equations Spring a Leak

Since the 1700s mathematicians have used the Euler equations to predict how fluids move. They’ve long suspected the equations sometimes fail. Now a new proof establishes an exact scenario in which that happens. The new work simplifies fluid motion, but still stands as a major accomplishment. It’s the first time mathematicians have found a scenario in which the Euler fluid equations work initially, but then fail.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/mathematician-makes-euler-equations-blow-up-20191218/

Researchers have spent centuries looking for a scenario in which the Euler fluid equations fail. Now a mathematician has finally found one.

From the archives: “You take the most natural objects — trees, paths, surfaces — and you show they’re all related to eac...
12/18/2019
A Unified Theory of Randomness | Quanta Magazine

From the archives: “You take the most natural objects — trees, paths, surfaces — and you show they’re all related to each other and once you have these relationships, you can prove all sorts of new theorems you couldn’t prove before.” — Scott Sheffield, professor of mathematics at MIT
https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-unified-theory-of-randomness-20160802/

Researchers have uncovered deep connections among different types of random objects, illuminating hidden geometric structures.

ICYMI: As a world-renowned astrophysicist, a member of the House of Lords and a popular author and public speaker, Marti...
12/18/2019

ICYMI: As a world-renowned astrophysicist, a member of the House of Lords and a popular author and public speaker, Martin Rees straddles the lines between politics and science. Now, after working in astrophysics for 50 years and publishing over 500 papers — on subjects ranging from galaxy formation, dark matter and the multiverse — Rees has turned his attention toward the future of science and of human civilization. While Rees sees immense potential for further scientific progress, he also sees risks and warns against the irresponsible use of science and technology.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/martin-rees-on-the-future-of-science-and-humanity-20181205/

From the archives: Rosemary and Peter Grant were looking for a place to study evolution when they arrived on Daphne Majo...
12/17/2019
Watching Evolution Happen In Two Lifetimes | Quanta Magazine

From the archives: Rosemary and Peter Grant were looking for a place to study evolution when they arrived on Daphne Major, an island in the Galápagos archipelago. They didn't know they had also found their second home for the next 40 years. By studying the island’s finches, they were able to see the birds evolve in real time, even bearing witness to the generation of a new species. Now they’re using modern tools to track evolution in DNA.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/watching-evolution-happen-in-two-lifetimes-20160922/

The biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant have spent four decades on a tiny island in the Galápagos. Their discoveries reveal how new animal species can emerge in just a few generations.

Last month, four researchers reanalyzed supernova data and concluded that a fundamental feature of modern cosmology is w...
12/17/2019
No Dark Energy? No Chance, Cosmologists Contend | Quanta Magazine

Last month, four researchers reanalyzed supernova data and concluded that a fundamental feature of modern cosmology is wrong. Dark energy — the mysterious antigravitational force pushing the universe apart — isn’t real, they said. Instead, it’s a product of our galaxy’s motion through the cosmos. Now other cosmologists have fired back, charging that the reanalysis was fundamentally flawed. https://www.quantamagazine.org/no-dark-energy-no-chance-cosmologists-contend-20191217

A study challenged the evidence for the mysterious antigravitational force known as dark energy. Then cosmologists shot back.

From the archives: The story of the universe’s birth could be found in triangles and myriad other shapes in the sky.http...
12/17/2019

From the archives: The story of the universe’s birth could be found in triangles and myriad other shapes in the sky.
https://buff.ly/2BnQJxm

ICYMI: Electrophysiological recordings of a rat’s brain are displayed in real-time on a monitor at the University of Per...
12/17/2019

ICYMI: Electrophysiological recordings of a rat’s brain are displayed in real-time on a monitor at the University of Pernambuco in Brazil. This research has lended new support to the “critical brain” theory, which argued that the brain achieves its aptitude for flexible information-processing by balancing between states of stability and mayhem. The new findings shows that the states are not marked by activity level, but rather by how synchronously neurons fire.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/do-brains-operate-at-a-tipping-point-new-clues-and-complications-20190610/

From the archives: “Many biophysicists think something like what England is suggesting may well be at least part of life...
12/17/2019
First Support for a Physics Theory of Life | Quanta Magazine

From the archives: “Many biophysicists think something like what England is suggesting may well be at least part of life’s story. But whether England has identified the most crucial step in the origin of life depends to some extent on the question: What’s the essence of life?
https://www.quantamagazine.org/first-support-for-a-physics-theory-of-life-20170726/

Take chemistry, add energy, get life. The first tests of Jeremy England’s provocative origin-of-life hypothesis are in, and they appear to show how order can arise from nothing.

ICYMI: The classic distinction between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, as it has been taught for decades, is that euka...
12/16/2019
Bacterial Organelles Revise Ideas About ‘Which Came First?’ | Quanta Magazine

ICYMI: The classic distinction between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells, as it has been taught for decades, is that eukaryotes have complex internal organization and a plethora of membrane-bound organelles for specific functions — and prokaryotes do not. But as a growing list of discoveries proves, prokaryotes do have organelles, and studies of them are yielding fresh insights into the evolution of cellular complexity.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/bacterial-organelles-revise-ideas-about-which-came-first-20190612/

Contrary to popular belief, bacteria have organelles too. Scientists are now studying them for insights into how complex cells evolved.

During sleep, brain waves open the tap of an obscure “plumbing system” in the brain with a hydraulic assist from the blo...
12/16/2019
Sleeping Brain Waves Draw a Healthy Bath for Neurons | Quanta Magazine

During sleep, brain waves open the tap of an obscure “plumbing system” in the brain with a hydraulic assist from the blood. Theories suggest that this may be how harmful toxins are flushed from the neurons. The discovery deepens our understanding of the physiological dynamics of sleep and might someday lead to treatments for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/sleeping-brain-waves-draw-a-healthy-bath-for-neurons-20191216/

An organized tide of brain waves, blood and spinal fluid pulsing through a sleeping brain may flush away neural toxins that cause Alzheimer’s and other diseases

From the archives: Mathematicians have been studying how shapes "tile the plane" for thousands of years. While triangles...
12/16/2019
The (Math) Problem With Pentagons | Quanta Magazine

From the archives: Mathematicians have been studying how shapes "tile the plane" for thousands of years. While triangles, squares and hexagons have long been understood, pentagons occupy an area between the inevitable and the impossible. In our Quantized Academy column, master math teacher Patrick Honner breaks down why pentagons cause so much trouble.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-math-problem-with-pentagons-20171211/

Triangles fit effortlessly together, as do squares. When it comes to pentagons, what gives?

ICYMI: A story of cosmic creation is playing out right before our eyes. Researchers have captured images of newborn plan...
12/16/2019
A Close Look at Newborn Planets Reveals Hints of Infant Moons | Quanta Magazine

ICYMI: A story of cosmic creation is playing out right before our eyes. Researchers have captured images of newborn planets and moons forming within a distant, infant solar system. The discovery could provide clues about the early history of our own solar system.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-close-look-at-newborn-planets-reveals-hints-of-infant-moons-20190611/

Astronomers have discovered a complex planetary system still swirling into existence.

ICYMI: Stem cells in bone marrow were first identified after World War II, when researchers were trying to treat the sur...
12/16/2019

ICYMI: Stem cells in bone marrow were first identified after World War II, when researchers were trying to treat the survivors of radiation exposure. Later, the stem cell label was given to certain cells found in many other adult tissues, despite the extensive differences among them. Some scientists now argue that the concept of what a stem cell is needs to be reconsidered: Under the right circumstances, almost any cell might show “stemness.”
https://www.quantamagazine.org/what-defines-a-stem-cell-scientists-rethink-the-answer-20181204/

ICYMI: This 1670 edition of Diophantus’ Arithmetica includes Fermat's note about his infamous last theorum. Translated, ...
12/16/2019

ICYMI: This 1670 edition of Diophantus’ Arithmetica includes Fermat's note about his infamous last theorum. Translated, it reads: “It is impossible for a cube to be the sum of two cubes, a fourth power to be the sum of two fourth powers, or in general for any number that is a power greater than the second to be the sum of two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition that this margin is too narrow to contain.”

In our latest Quantized column, mathematician Michael Harris discusses why the quest to enhance the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem reflects a deep misunderstanding of the nature of mathematical proof and of the goals of number theory as a whole.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/why-the-proof-of-fermats-last-theorem-doesnt-need-to-be-enhanced-20190603/

ICYMI: The “critical brain” hypothesis holds that the brain teeters between states of stability and mayhem. A new experi...
12/16/2019
Do Brains Operate at a Tipping Point? New Clues and Complications | Quanta Magazine

ICYMI: The “critical brain” hypothesis holds that the brain teeters between states of stability and mayhem. A new experiment supports this idea, while suggesting the phenomenon works differently than expected. Proponents of the “critical brain” theory had argued that the brain achieves its aptitude for flexible information-processing by balancing between states of high and low neural activity. The new findings shows that the states are not marked by activity level, but rather by how synchronously neurons fire.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/do-brains-operate-at-a-tipping-point-new-clues-and-complications-20190610

New experimental results simultaneously advance and challenge the theory that the brain’s network of neurons balances on the knife-edge between two phases.

ICYMI: We know that quantum mechanics can accurately describe the microscopic world, but a new thought experiment is for...
12/16/2019

ICYMI: We know that quantum mechanics can accurately describe the microscopic world, but a new thought experiment is forcing physicists to reckon with the idea that the theory can’t be applied to everything. The new experiment — centered around measuring the results of a coin flip — can’t be adequately explained without dropping a seemingly commonsense assumption. The assumption that makes the most sense to drop — at least for some — is the idea that quantum mechanics is a universal theory that holds for larger, complex systems as well as microscopic ones.
https://www.quantamagazine.org/frauchiger-renner-paradox-clarifies-where-our-views-of-reality-go-wrong-20181203/

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