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How Quantum Physicists ‘Flipped Time’ (and How They Didn’t)

Physicists have coaxed particles of light into undergoing opposite transformations simultaneously, like a human turning into a werewolf as the werewolf turns into a human. In carefully engineered circuits, the photons act as if time were flowing in a quantum combination of forward and backward. “For the first time ever, we kind of have a time-traveling...

The Cause of Depression Is Probably Not What You Think

People often think they know what causes chronic depression. Surveys indicate that more than 80% of the public blames a “chemical imbalance” in the brain. That idea is widespread in pop psychology and cited in research papers and medical textbooks. Listening to Prozac, a book that describes the life-changing value of treating depression with medications...

The Computer Scientist Who Finds Life Lessons in Games

For Shang-Hua Teng, theoretical computer science has never been purely theoretical. Now 58, Teng is a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California and a two-time winner of the Gödel Prize, an annual award recognizing groundbreaking theoretical work. But he often strives to connect that abstract theory to everyday life in ways...

Mathematicians Find an Infinity of Possible Black Hole Shapes

The cosmos seems to have a preference for things that are round. Planets and stars tend to be spheres because gravity pulls clouds of gas and dust toward the center of mass. The same holds for black holes — or, to be more precise, the event horizons of black holes — which must, according to theory, be spherically shaped in a universe with three dimensions...

The Basic Algebra Behind Secret Codes and Space Communication

Space exploration requires tremendous precision. When you’re landing a rover on Mars 70 million miles away from the nearest service station, you need to maximize efficiency and prepare for the unexpected. This applies to everything from spacecraft design to data transmission: Those messages returning to Earth as a steady stream of 0s and 1s are bound...

Standard Model of Cosmology Survives a Telescope’s Surprising Finds

The cracks in cosmology were supposed to take a while to appear. But when the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) opened its lens last spring, extremely distant yet very bright galaxies immediately shone into the telescope’s field of view. “They were just so stupidly bright, and they just stood out,” said Rohan Naidu, an astronomer at the Massachusetts...

Mathematicians Roll Dice and Get Rock-Paper-Scissors

As Bill Gates tells the story, Warren Buffett once challenged him to a game of dice. Each would select one of four dice belonging to Buffett, and then they’d roll, with the higher number winning. These weren’t standard dice — they had a different assortment of numbers than the usual 1 through 6. Buffett offered to let Gates choose first, so he could...

Finally, a Fast Algorithm for Shortest Paths on Negative Graphs

In algorithms, as in life, negativity can be a drag. Consider the problem of finding the shortest path between two points on a graph — a network of nodes connected by links, or edges. Often, these edges aren’t interchangeable: A graph could represent a road map on which some roads are slower than others or have higher tolls. Computer scientists account...

Mobile Genes From the Mother Shape the Baby’s Microbiome

A mother gives her baby her all: love, hugs, kisses … and a sturdy army of bacteria. These simple cells, which journey from mother to baby at birth and in the months of intimate contact that follow, form the first seeds of the child’s microbiome — the evolving community of symbiotic microorganisms tied to the body’s healthy functioning. Researchers...

Probability and Number Theory Collide — in a Moment

Their ambitions were always high. When Will Sawin and Melanie Matchett Wood first started working together in the summer of 2020, they set out to rethink the key components of some of the most tantalizing conjectures in number theory. The subjects of their attention, class groups, are intimately related to basic questions about how arithmetic works...

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