ICYMI: As conventional dark matter searches continue to come up short, new bizarre-sounding ideas are getting their chance:
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ICYMI: As conventional dark matter searches continue to come up short, new bizarre-sounding ideas are getting their chance:
The Collatz conjecture is perhaps the simplest unsolved problem in mathematics. Now, we have the first major advance on the problem in decades:
From the archives: The physicist Asimina Arvanitaki is thinking up ways to search gravitational wave data for evidence of dark matter particles orbiting black holes.
ICYMI: Scientists are studying bizarre organelles in bacteria — which traditional definitions of the cells say shouldn’t exist — to uncover fundamental principles guiding the evolution of cellular complexity.
From the archives: How interbreeding among early hominins harmed humans but may have slowed the Neanderthals’ decline.
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.
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.
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 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.
From the archives: A definitive explanation for why plants evolved spines remains elusive, and human biases compound the problem.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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
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, 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.
From the archives: Scientists have developed new ways to forecast who will bounce back from disease by studying not just the way the immune system fights infections, but how the body repairs itself.
ICYMI: As astronomers watch on, an infant solar system takes shape, providing us with clues about our own solar system’s distant past. An infrared image of this infant solar system, PDS 70b (left), appears more like what astronomers would expect if the planet had a circumplanetary disk (center) than the predictions for a planet alone (right).
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.
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.
ICYMI: A controversial theory suggests that perception, motor control, memory and other brain functions all depend on comparisons between ongoing actual experiences and the brain’s modeled expectations.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
Contrary to popular belief, bacteria have organelles too. Scientists are now studying them for insights into how complex cells evolved.
From the archives: Solving a difficult math problem is a little like a tough uphill hike, says Sylvia Serfaty. Except you can't always see the path or how far you are from the top. The NYU professor spoke with Quanta about truth and frustration in mathematics.
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.
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
ICYMI: Stephen Hawking viewed his proposal for how the universe could have arisen from nothing as his most important idea. That idea is now under attack.
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.
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 planets and moons forming within a distant, infant solar system. The discovery could provide clues about the early history of our own solar system.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
The simplicity of the Collatz conjecture makes it highly alluring, but real progress on the problem is rare. Now, Terence Tao of UCLA has made the most significant advance in decades. The new proof doesn't resolve the problem completely, but it does prove the conjecture is “almost” true for “almost” all numbers.
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