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Graphene Superconductors May Be Less Exotic Than Physicists Hoped

Three years ago, physicists discovered that two stacked sheets of carbon with a tiny, 1.1-degree twist between them could exhibit a dazzling array of behaviors. Most famously, when cooled to low temperatures, the material conducts electricity with zero resistance. Researchers raced to figure out why twisted bilayer graphene (as it’s called) becomes...

The Mystery at the Heart of Physics That Only Math Can Solve

Over the past century, quantum field theory has proved to be the single most sweeping and successful physical theory ever invented. It is an umbrella term that encompasses many specific quantum field theories — the way “shape” covers specific examples like the square and the circle. The most prominent of these theories is known as the Standard Model,...

DNA Jumps Between Animal Species. No One Knows How Often.

To survive in the frigid ocean waters around the Arctic and Antarctica, marine life evolved many defenses against the lethal cold. One common adaptation is the ability to make antifreezing proteins (AFPs) that prevent ice crystals from growing in blood, tissues and cells. It’s a solution that has evolved repeatedly and independently, not just in fish...

What Makes Quantum Computing So Hard to Explain?

Quantum computers, you might have heard, are magical uber-machines that will soon cure cancer and global warming by trying all possible answers in different parallel universes. For 15 years, on my blog and elsewhere, I’ve railed against this cartoonish vision, trying to explain what I see as the subtler but ironically even more fascinating truth. I...

Astronomers Find Secret Planet-Making Ingredient: Magnetic Fields

We like to think of ourselves as unique. That conceit may even be true when it comes to our cosmic neighborhood: Despite the fact that planets between the sizes of Earth and Neptune appear to be the most common in the cosmos, no such intermediate-mass planets can be found in the solar system. The problem is, our best theories of planet formation — cast...

Mathematicians Identify Threshold at Which Shapes Give Way

In the 1950s, four decades before he won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to game theory and his story inspired the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” the mathematician John Nash proved one of the most remarkable results in all of geometry. Among other features, it implied that you could crumple a sphere down to a ball of any size without ever creasing...

RNA Brakes May Stabilize a Cellular Symbiosis

Seen through a microscope, the hairy, slipper-shaped aquatic microbe Paramecium bursaria often looks as if it is bursting at the seams with tiny green marbles. Yet the verdant spheres are a different organism altogether: Chlorella, an alga that occasionally takes refuge within the confines of the paramecium’s cushy cell membrane. Each species can survive...

A Burp or a Blast? Seismic Signals Reveal the Volcanic Eruption to Come

Last December, a gloopy ooze of lava began extruding out of the summit of La Soufrière, a volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The effusion was slow at first; no one was threatened. Then in late March and early April, the volcano began to emit seismic waves associated with swiftly rising magma. Noxious fumes vigorously vented from the peak....

How a Simple Arithmetic Puzzle Can Guide Discovery

In the April Insights puzzle, I tried to guide readers down a path that might be best described as “experimental mathematics.” The goal was to rediscover two constants by iterating simple arithmetic procedures. Readers found that the procedures ended in a repeating cycle — either in a single number (a “cycle” of one) or in a cycle of two or more numbers....

A Number Theorist Who Connects Math to Other Creative Pursuits

“There are many different pathways into mathematics,” said Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “There is the stereotype that interest in math displays itself early. That is definitely not true in general. It’s not the universal story — but it is my story.” That account was backed up by a biostatistician at the...

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