Quanta Magazine

Illuminating science

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Did Viruses Create the Nucleus? The Answer May Be Near.

Different as the cells from animals, plants, fungi and protozoa can be, they all share one prominent feature: a nucleus. They have other organelles, too, like the energy-producing mitochondria, but the presence of a nucleus — a well-defined porous pouch full of genetic material — is what inspired the biologist Édouard Chatton in 1925 to coin the term...

Contemplating the End of Physics

Is physics finished? The 21st century is often called the age of biology. Or artificial intelligence. Or any other emerging field. This relegates physics to the previous century — the golden days when the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics shook the world, and the discoveries of elementary particles led to a string of Nobel Prizes. Nowadays,...

The Search for Dark Matter Is Dramatically Expanding

Ever since astronomers reached a consensus in the 1980s that most of the mass in the universe is invisible — that “dark matter” must glue galaxies together and gravitationally sculpt the cosmos as a whole — experimentalists have hunted for the nonluminous particles. They first set out in pursuit of a heavy, sluggish form of dark matter called a weakly...

How to Solve Our Three John Conway-Inspired Puzzles

Our October Insights puzzle celebrated the work of the legendary mathematician John Horton Conway by inviting you to play with two math questions related to his work and to explore an open-ended game similar to his famous Game of Life. I was delighted with the enthusiastic response from readers. Here are the puzzles and their solutions: Puzzle 1:...

Scientists Uncover the Universal Geometry of Geology

On a mild autumn day in 2016, the Hungarian mathematician Gábor Domokos arrived on the geophysicist Douglas Jerolmack’s doorstep in Philadelphia. Domokos carried with him his suitcases, a bad cold and a burning secret. The two men walked across a gravel lot behind the house, where Jerolmack’s wife ran a taco cart. Their feet crunched over crushed limestone....

Some Math Problems Seem Impossible. That Can Be a Good Thing.

Construct a convex octagon with four right angles. It probably says a lot about me as a teacher that I assign problems like this. I watch as students try to arrange the right angles consecutively. When that doesn’t work, some try alternating the right angles. Failing again, they insert them randomly into the polygon. They scribble, erase and argue....

Searching Symbols for the Rules of Change

Bryna Kra searches for structures. “ finding order where you didn’t know it existed,” she said. But though her dad was a mathematician, at Stony Brook University in New York, Kra said it took her time to realize she wanted math to be her profession, too. “Even all through grad school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was never convinced...

Scientists Find Vital Genes Evolving in Genome’s Junkyard

Essential genes are often thought to be frozen in evolutionary time — evolving only very slowly if at all, because changing or dying would lead to the death of the organism. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution separate insects and mammals, but experiments show that the Hox genes guiding the development of the body plans in Drosophila fruit flies...

What Is a Particle?

Given that everything in the universe reduces to particles, a question presents itself: What are particles? The easy answer quickly shows itself to be unsatisfying. Namely, electrons, photons, quarks and other “fundamental” particles supposedly lack substructure or physical extent. “We basically think of a particle as a pointlike object,” said Mary...

Physicists Pin Down Nuclear Reaction From Moments After the Big Bang

In a secluded laboratory buried under a mountain in Italy, physicists have re-created a nuclear reaction that happened between two and three minutes after the Big Bang. Their measurement of the reaction rate, published today in Nature, nails down the most uncertain factor in a sequence of steps known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis that forged the universe’s...

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