Quanta Magazine

Illuminating science

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The Scientist Leading the World’s Aurora Hunters

The shimmering sheets of spectral light we call auroras were once attributed to many preternatural acts or supernatural entities: a glowing bridge that led deceased warriors to their final resting place, or the whipping of the tail of a fire fox as it zipped across the snow. Today, we know that the northern and southern lights are a manifestation of...

How and Why Computers Roll Loaded Dice

Here’s a deceptively simple exercise: Come up with a random phone number. Seven digits in a sequence, chosen so that every digit is equally likely, and so that your choice of one digit doesn’t affect the next. Odds are, you can’t. (But don’t take my word for it: Studies dating back to the 1950s reveal how mathematically nonrandom we are, even if we...

Why Is Glass Rigid? Signs of Its Secret Structure Emerge.

Most materials derive their macroscopic properties from their microscopic structure. A steel rod is hard, for instance, because its atoms form a repeating crystalline pattern that remains static over time. Water parts around your foot when you dip it into a lake because fluids don’t have that structure; their molecules move around randomly. Then there’s...

How Your Heart Influences What You Perceive and Fear

We consider the brain the very center of who we are and what we do: ruler of our senses, master of our movements; generator of thought, keeper of memory. But the brain is also rooted in a body, and the connection between the two goes both ways. If certain internal receptors indicate hunger, for instance, we’re driven to eat; if they indicate cold, we...

The Hidden Magnetic Universe Begins to Come Into View

Anytime astronomers figure out a new way of looking for magnetic fields in ever more remote regions of the cosmos, inexplicably, they find them. These force fields — the same entities that emanate from fridge magnets — surround Earth, the sun and all galaxies. Twenty years ago, astronomers started to detect magnetism permeating entire galaxy clusters,...

A Number Theorist Who Solves the Hardest Easy Problems

When James Maynard was three, a health visitor came to his home in Chelmsford, just northeast of London, to check on his development. Such visits were routine for young children, and the assessor led him through a standard battery of tests. There was just one problem: Maynard thought they were stupid. So when she gave him a shape-sorting task, he...

The Tricky Math of Herd Immunity for COVID-19

While much about the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain, we know how it will likely end: when the spread of the virus starts to slow (and eventually ceases altogether) because enough people have developed immunity to it. At that point, whether it’s brought on by a vaccine or by people catching the disease, the population has developed “herd immunity.”...

Cosmic Rays May Explain Life’s Bias for Right-Handed DNA

If you could shrink small enough to descend the genetic helix of any animal, plant, fungus, bacterium or virus on Earth as though it were a spiral staircase, you would always find yourself turning right — never left. It’s a universal trait in want of an explanation. Chemists and biologists see no obvious reason why all known life prefers this structure....

New Geometric Perspective Cracks Old Problem About Rectangles

In mid-March, the mathematicians Joshua Greene and Andrew Lobb found themselves in the same situation: locked down and struggling to adjust while the COVID-19 pandemic grew outside their doors. They decided to cope by throwing themselves into their research. “I think the pandemic was really kind of galvanizing,” said Greene, a professor at Boston...

The Cartoon Picture of Magnets That Has Transformed Science

Sudden, radical transformations of substances known to humanity for eons, like water freezing and soup steaming over a fire, remained mysterious until well into the 20th century. Scientists observed that substances typically change gradually: Heat a collection of atoms a little, and it expands a little. But nudge a material past a critical point, and...

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