Quanta Magazine

2020 Aug 6 - 10:55pm
Every day, it seems, we’re buried in a new avalanche of numbers, data and graphs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every county, state and country is grappling with interpreting and finding the best response to this data, and on a personal level, so is each one of us. To make matters worse, it’s all too easy to conflate the different kinds of risks we face in everyday life. No doubt you’ve heard the argument: “We have to open. There’s risk in...
Tags: Biology, Puzzles
2020 Aug 5 - 9:20pm
Their mothers were Russian sturgeons — large carnivores with creamy bellies, short, rounded snouts, and green, dragonlike scales. Their fathers were American paddlefish — smooth-skinned filter feeders with sensitive, elongated snouts. “Sturddlefish,” as these hybrids have been nicknamed since researchers in Hungary recently announced their creation, go shockingly far beyond classic crossbreeds like mules and ligers, whose parent species sit...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Biology
2020 Aug 4 - 9:00pm
The standard story of the birth of the cosmos goes something like this: Nearly 14 billion years ago, a tremendous amount of energy materialized as if from nowhere. In a brief moment of rapid expansion, that burst of energy inflated the cosmos like a balloon. The expansion straightened out any large-scale curvature, leading to a geometry that we now describe as flat. Matter also thoroughly mixed together, so that now the cosmos appears largely (...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Physics
2020 Aug 3 - 10:30pm
A pair of mathematicians has solved the first chunk of one of the most famous conjectures about the additive properties of whole numbers. Proposed more than 60 years ago by the legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, the conjecture asks when an infinite list of whole numbers will be sure to contain patterns of at least three evenly spaced numbers, such as 26, 29 and 32. Erdős posed thousands of problems over the course of his career, but...
Tags: Mathematics
2020 Jul 31 - 9:50pm
Our June Insights puzzle featured a designer puppy named Dax who is a “Pomsky,” combining a Siberian husky’s handsome wolflike face with the size and fluffiness of a Pomeranian. When humans breed such combinations of two different purebred dog lines, they hope to produce offspring that have an admixture of the visual form, temperament and other characteristics — the phenotype— of both breeds.  Is there a way to quantify what this proportion is...
Tags: Puzzles
2020 Jul 30 - 9:40pm
From large trees in the Amazon jungle to houseplants to seaweed in the ocean, green is the color that reigns over the plant kingdom. Why green, and not blue or magenta or gray? The simple answer is that although plants absorb almost all the photons in the red and blue regions of the light spectrum, they absorb only about 90% of the green photons. If they absorbed more, they would look black to our eyes. Plants are green because the small amount...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Biology
2020 Jul 29 - 11:20pm
In the early 1800s, William Rowan Hamilton discovered a new kind of geometric space with nearly magical properties. It encoded motion and mathematics into a single, glinting geometric object. This phenomenon birthed a field called symplectic geometry. Over the last few decades it has grown from a small collection of insights into a dynamic area of research with deep connections to more areas of math and physics than Hamilton ever could have...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Mathematics
2020 Jul 23 - 10:10pm
Many physicists assume that gravitons exist, but few think that we will ever see them. These hypothetical elementary particles are a cornerstone of theories of quantum gravity, which seek to unify Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. But they are notoriously hard — perhaps impossible — to observe in nature. The world of gravitons only becomes apparent when you zoom in to the fabric of space-time at the smallest...
Tags: Physics
2020 Jul 22 - 9:20pm
“You don’t have to believe in God, but you have to believe in The Book,” the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős once said. The Book, which only exists in theory, contains the most elegant proofs of the most important theorems. Erdős’ mandate hints at the motives of mathematicians who continue to search for new proofs of already proved theorems. One favorite is the prime number theorem — a statement that describes the distribution of prime...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Mathematics
2020 Jul 21 - 9:35pm
Earth has been a snowball and a hothouse at different times in its past. So if the climate changed before humans, how can we be sure we’re responsible for the dramatic warming that’s happening today? In part it’s because we can clearly show the causal link between carbon dioxide emissions from human activity and the 1.28 degree Celsius (and rising) global temperature increase since preindustrial times. Carbon dioxide molecules absorb infrared...
Tags: Abstractions blog, Physics
2020 Jul 20 - 11:35pm
When John Priscu was growing up in Las Vegas, his father, a metallurgist in the aerospace industry, encouraged his son to spend time outdoors. The younger Priscu listened: He played soccer at the youth, collegiate and semi-pro levels. He studied the Colorado River while getting a master’s degree in biology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, rafting through the Grand Canyon more than a dozen times in the process. Now, as a self-professed “...
Tags: Biology, Q&A
2020 Jul 16 - 10:40pm
More than half a billion years ago, during the Ediacaran Period, a surreal world of life overran the ocean floor. Its bizarre, soft-bodied animals had physical forms that defy the imagination: quilted blobs and ribbed discs, segmented tubes and upturned bells, tapered spindles and slender cones. They were perhaps the planet’s first large multicellular organisms — but they soon went extinct without leaving behind any modern descendants; trace...
Tags: Biology

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