Quanta Magazine

Illuminating science

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Plant Cells of Different Species Can Swap Organelles

More than a decade ago, plant geneticists noticed something peculiar when they looked at grafted plants. Where two plants grew together, the cells of each plant showed signs of having picked up substantial amounts of DNA from the other one. In itself, that wasn’t unprecedented, because horizontal transfers of genes are not uncommon in bacteria and even...

The NASA Engineer Who’s a Mathematician at Heart

Just before World War II, the American civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph persuaded President Roosevelt to end discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in defense-industry employment. Not long after, in 1941, Roosevelt issued executive order 8802, prompting several agencies, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics...

Mathematicians Resurrect Hilbert’s 13th Problem

Success is rare in math. Just ask Benson Farb. “The hard part about math is that you’re failing 90% of the time, and you have to be the kind of person who can fail 90% of the time,” Farb once said at a dinner party. When another guest, also a mathematician, expressed amazement that he succeeded 10% of the time, he quickly admitted, “No, no, no, I...

The Crooked Geometry of Round Trips

Have you ever wondered what life would be like if Earth weren’t shaped like a sphere? We take for granted the smooth ride through the solar system and the seamless sunsets afforded by the planet’s rotational symmetry. A round Earth also makes it easy to figure out the fastest way to get from point A to point B: Just travel along the circle that goes...

A Prodigy Who Cracked Open the Cosmos

In 1972, Frank Wilczek and his thesis adviser, David Gross, discovered the basic theory of the strong force — the final pillar of the Standard Model of particle physics. Their work revealed the strange alchemy at work inside the nucleus of an atom. It also turned out to underpin almost all subsequent research into the early universe. Wilczek and Gross...

The Curious Strength of a Sea Sponge’s Glass Skeleton

In 1841, the English biologist Richard Owen marveled at the intricate skeleton of a new sea sponge species found near the Philippines. It resembled “a delicate cornucopia,” he wrote, one woven from “stiff, glistening, elastic threads, resembling the finest hairs of spun glass.” The skeleton is indeed made of glass, which the animal, Euplectella aspergillum...

A Newfound Source of Cellular Order in the Chemistry of Life

Imagine packing all the people in the world into the Great Salt Lake in Utah — all of us jammed shoulder to shoulder, yet also charging past one another at insanely high speeds. That gives you some idea of how densely crowded the 5 billion proteins in a typical cell are, said Anthony Hyman, a British cell biologist and a director of the Max Planck Institute...

Galaxy-Size Bubbles Discovered Towering Over the Milky Way

When Peter Predehl, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, first laid eyes on the new map of the universe’s hottest objects, he immediately recognized the aftermath of a galactic catastrophe. A bright yellow cloud billowed tens of thousands of light-years upward from the Milky Way’s flat disk, with a fainter...

New Quantum Algorithms Finally Crack Nonlinear Equations

Sometimes, it’s easy for a computer to predict the future. Simple phenomena, such as how sap flows down a tree trunk, are straightforward and can be captured in a few lines of code using what mathematicians call linear differential equations. But in nonlinear systems, interactions can affect themselves: When air streams past a jet’s wings, the air flow...

How I Learned to Love and Fear the Riemann Hypothesis

I first heard of the Riemann hypothesis — arguably the most important and notorious unsolved problem in all of mathematics — from the late, great Eli Stein, a world-renowned mathematician at Princeton University. I was very fortunate that Professor Stein decided to reimagine the undergraduate analysis sequence during my sophomore year of college, in...

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