Quanta Magazine

Illuminating science

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New Genomic Study of Placenta Finds Deep Links to Cancer

In 2008, while the medical resident Sam Behjati was doing his usual rounds in a hospital maternity ward, a colleague urgently pulled him into a patient’s room, where he saw a mother beaming with joy and swaddling a perfectly healthy newborn. Behjati’s jaw dropped. Only a few months earlier, doctors had given this mother the devastating news that a routine...

‘Last Hope’ Experiment Finds Evidence for Unknown Particles

Twenty years after an apparent anomaly in the behavior of elementary particles raised hopes of a major physics breakthrough, a new measurement has solidified them: Physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago announced today that muons — elementary particles similar to electrons — wobbled more than expected while whipping around...

Iceland’s Eruptions Reveal the Hot History of Mars

After 15 months of increasingly intense and disruptive earthquakes on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, the region finally let off some pressure. On March 19, lava roared out of the ground in the uninhabited valley of Geldingadalur, marking the first time in 800 years that this southwesterly strip of land has been rocked by an eruption. Volcanologists...

Mathematicians Settle Erdős Coloring Conjecture

In the fall of 1972, Vance Faber was a new professor at the University of Colorado. When two influential mathematicians, Paul Erdős and László Lovász, came for a visit, Faber decided to host a tea party. Erdős in particular had an international reputation as an eccentric and energetic researcher, and Faber’s colleagues were eager to meet him. “While...

A Computer Scientist Who Tackles Inequality Through Algorithms

When Rediet Abebe arrived at Harvard University as an undergraduate in 2009, she planned to study mathematics. But her experiences with the Cambridge public schools soon changed her plans. Abebe, 29, is from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city. When residents there didn’t have the resources they needed, she attributed it to community-level...

Cells Form Into ‘Xenobots’ on Their Own

Early last year, the biologist Michael Levin and his colleagues offered a glimpse of how versatile living matter can be. Levin and Douglas Blackiston, a member of his laboratory at the Allen Discovery Center of Tufts University, brought together nascent skin and muscle cells from a frog embryo and shaped the multicelled assemblies by hand. This sculpting...

Mathematicians Find a New Class of Digitally Delicate Primes

Take a look at the numbers 294,001, 505,447 and 584,141. Notice anything special about them? You may recognize that they’re all prime — evenly divisible only by themselves and 1 — but these particular primes are even more unusual. If you pick any single digit in any of those numbers and change it, the new number is composite, and hence no longer prime....

Long-Missing Midsize Black Hole Flashes Into View

At the heart of almost every large galaxy lies an object of immense proportions — a supermassive black hole. Up to billions of times more massive than our sun, these titans drive the evolution of the galaxies they inhabit. Yet astronomers can’t figure out how they got so big. Some appear to have formed as early as 600 million years after the Big Bang,...

Finding Zen in the Art of Puzzle Solving

The “eureka” or “aha” moment of insight is legendary in math and science, dating at least two millenniums back to the possibly apocryphal story of Archimedes rushing naked out of a bath, having hit upon the crucial idea for figuring out the composition of King Hiero’s crown. Many scientific discoveries have been credited to such moments, from Newton’s...

Scientists Pin Down When Earth’s Crust Cracked, Then Came to Life

In 2016, the geochemists Jonas Tusch and Carsten Münker hammered a thousand pounds of rock from the Australian Outback and airfreighted it home to Cologne, Germany. Five years of sawing, crushing, dissolving and analyzing later, they have coaxed from those rocks a secret hidden for eons: the era when plate tectonics began. Earth’s fractured carapace...

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