Quanta Magazine

2020 Feb 24 - 10:45pm
Decisions, decisions. All of us are constantly faced with conscious and unconscious choices. Not just about what to wear, what to eat or how to spend a weekend, but about which hand to use when picking up a pencil, or whether to shift our weight in a chair. To make even trivial decisions, our brains sift through a pile of “what ifs” and weigh the hypotheticals. Even for choices that seem automatic — jumping out of the way of a speeding car, for...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Biology
2020 Feb 20 - 10:30pm
Last summer, the gravitational wave observatory known as LIGO caught its second-ever glimpse of two neutron stars merging. The collision of these incredibly dense objects — the hulking cores of long-ago supernova explosions — sent shudders through space-time powerful enough to be detected here on Earth. But unlike the first merger, which conformed to expectations, this latest event has forced astrophysicists to rethink some basic assumptions...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Physics
2020 Feb 19 - 9:30pm
On January 8, three mathematicians posted a proof of a nearly 60-year-old problem in combinatorics called Ringel’s conjecture. Roughly speaking, it predicts that graphs — Tinkertoy-like constructions of dots and lines — can be perfectly built out of identical smaller parts. Mathematicians are excited that the new proof finds it’s true. “A big reason for happiness is that this solves a very old conjecture that people couldn’t solve with other...
Tags: Mathematics
2020 Feb 18 - 11:00pm
Jupiter’s moon Io — the solar system’s most volcanic world — has inspired a new way to find distant exoplanets. As the moon orbits Jupiter, it tugs on the planet’s magnetic field, generating bright auroras in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Even if we couldn’t see Io itself, the enormous auroras, pulsing to the beat of a hidden orbiting body, would tell us that something was out there. Scientists have long suspected that a similar process might be at work...
Tags: Physics
2020 Feb 14 - 12:30am
Explore our surprisingly simple, absurdly ambitious and necessarily incomplete guide to the boundless mathematical universe.
Tags: Mathematics, Multimedia
2020 Feb 12 - 10:30pm
In 1971, microbiologists examining yeast cells discovered strange, rogue fragments of RNA that turned out to be viruses. These “narnaviruses” (a portmanteau of “naked RNA viruses”) had several odd properties. They were tiny — essentially a single gene encoding an enzyme that helped the virus make copies of itself. Moreover, unlike other single-stranded RNA viruses like Ebola and influenza, they had no “capsid” shell enclosing their genetic...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Biology
2020 Feb 12 - 12:15am
After a heart attack, patients are increasingly often offered the option of stem cell therapy, in which stem cells from their bone marrow are injected into the heart to help it heal. Skeptics, however, point out that solid evidence of the therapy’s benefits is lacking: It’s worked modestly in some animal studies, but its effectiveness is uncertain, and scientists have only been able to guess at how it helps if it does. Last November, a team of...
Tags: Biology
2020 Feb 11 - 12:30am
One sunny day last summer, Mathias Kolle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took a couple of eminent colleagues out sailing. They talked about their research. They had some drinks. Then Kolle noticed something was off: A rowboat tied to his boat had come loose and was drifting toward the horizon. As he tacked across the water to retrieve the wayward vessel, he realized his mistake. In securing the rowboat, he must have...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Mathematics
2020 Feb 6 - 11:45pm
When you consider the origin of life, the origin of the universe, or any other origin story, one question inevitably rears its ugly head: What caused the beginning? This apparent paradox has vexed humanity for millennia. It’s responsible for philosophical terms like “the prime or unmoved mover” or “the uncaused cause,” and for the postulation of innumerable gods and deities in religious circles. It’s also responsible for catchphrases that...
Tags: Puzzles
2020 Feb 6 - 12:50am
Two weeks before Christmas in 1978, the cargo ship MS München encountered a fierce storm in the North Atlantic. Although the captain couldn’t evade it, the forecasted waves and winds should have posed no threat to the 261-meter-long ship. At midnight, just three hours earlier, an operator had radioed out to a cruise ship, “Have a good trip and see you soon.” Now came a distress call from the München — then silence. The West German vessel and its...
Tags: Physics
2020 Feb 4 - 10:30pm
Picture a calm river. Now picture a torrent of white water. What is the difference between the two? To mathematicians and physicists it’s this: The smooth river flows in one direction, while the torrent flows in many different directions at once. Physical systems with this kind of haphazard motion are called turbulent. The fact that their motion unfolds in so many different ways at once makes them difficult to study mathematically. Generations...
Tags: Mathematics
2020 Feb 4 - 12:50am
When I first met the immunology researcher James P. Allison in 2014, he was just becoming an icon. Columbia University had brought him to its campus to present him with the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for the new type of cancer therapy he had developed. Instead of trying to burn, poison or surgically remove malignant cells from the body, his treatment mobilized a patient’s immune system to destroy them. During his talk at the award ceremony,...
Tags: Biology, Q&A