Quanta Magazine

Illuminating science

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How Mathematical ‘Hocus-Pocus’ Saved Particle Physics

In the 1940s, trailblazing physicists stumbled upon the next layer of reality. Particles were out, and fields — expansive, undulating entities that fill space like an ocean — were in. One ripple in a field would be an electron, another a photon, and interactions between them seemed to explain all electromagnetic events. There was just one problem:...

A New Algorithm for Graph Crossings, Hiding in Plain Sight

This past October, as Jacob Holm and Eva Rotenberg were thumbing through a paper they’d posted a few months earlier, they realized they had been sitting on something big. For decades computer scientists had been trying to develop a fast algorithm for determining when it’s possible to add edges to a graph so that it remains “planar,” meaning none of...

‘Trained Immunity’ Offers Hope in Fight Against Coronavirus

Laboratories around the world are in a high-profile race to create vaccines that might help end the COVID-19 pandemic. More quietly, however, other scientists are investigating whether a vaccine that has already been in use for decades could also confer some level of protection. Recent analyses of global epidemiological data by several teams in the...

When Math Gets Impossibly Hard

We like to say that anything is possible. In Norton Juster’s novel The Phantom Tollbooth, the king refuses to tell Milo that his quest is impossible because “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” In reality, however, some things are impossible, and we can use mathematics to prove it. People use the term “impossible”...

Mathematicians Open a New Front on an Ancient Number Problem

As a high school student in the mid-1990s, Pace Nielsen encountered a mathematical question that he’s still struggling with to this day. But he doesn’t feel bad: The problem that captivated him, called the odd perfect number conjecture, has been around for more than 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics. Part of...

How Two Became One: Origins of a Mysterious Symbiosis Found

Symbiotic relationships between bacteria and multicellular organisms are everywhere in nature, but some are more intricately intertwined than others. Both cows and carpenter ants, for example, rely on bacterial partners in their digestive systems to help them get the most out of their food. Yet while the cows’ bacteria merely inhabit the animals’ stomach,...

A New Cosmic Tension: The Universe Might Be Too Thin

The cosmos is starting to look a bit weird. For a few years now, cosmologists have been troubled by a discrepancy in how fast the universe is expanding. They know how fast it should be going, based on ancient light from the early universe, but apparently the modern universe has picked up too much speed — a clue that scientists might have overlooked...

An Unexpected Twist Lights Up the Secrets of Turbulence

It’s time to feed the blob. Seething and voracious, it absorbs eight dinner-plate-size helpings every few seconds. The blob is a cloud of turbulence in a large water tank in the lab of the University of Chicago physicist William Irvine. Unlike every other instance of turbulence that has ever been observed on Earth, Irvine’s blob isn’t a messy patch...

Conducting the Mathematical Orchestra From the Middle

Emily Riehl sees similarities between the viola, which she grew up playing, and the mathematical field of higher category theory, in which she is currently a leading participant. She thinks of the two as the “glue” of their respective domains; just as the viola creates a richer orchestral sound, “there’s a sense in which category theory makes mathematics...

By Losing Genes, Life Often Evolved More Complexity

When Cristian Cañestro set out in the early 2000s to study how animals with brains and backbones evolved, he picked a sea squirt called Oikopleura as a useful subject. Like all sea squirts, it has a tiny brain and nerve cord, but unlike the others, Oikopleura doesn’t undergo a metamorphosis on its way to maturity. Cañestro thought that Oikopleura had...

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