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New Black Hole Math Closes Cosmic Blind Spot

Last year, just for the heck of it, Scott Field and Gaurav Khanna tried something that wasn’t supposed to work. The fact that it actually worked quite well is already starting to make some ripples. Field and Khanna are researchers who try to figure out what black hole collisions should look like. These violent events don’t produce flashes of light,...

Scientists Catch Jumping Genes Rewiring Genomes

Roughly 500 million years ago, something that would forever change the course of eukaryotic development was brewing in the genome of some lucky organism: a gene called Pax6. The gene is thought to have orchestrated the formation of a primitive visual system, and in organisms today, it initiates a genetic cascade that recruits more than 2,000 genes to...

How Mathematicians Use Homology to Make Sense of Topology

At first, topology can seem like an unusually imprecise branch of mathematics. It’s the study of squishy play-dough shapes capable of bending, stretching and compressing without limit. But topologists do have some restrictions: They cannot create or destroy holes within shapes. (It’s an old joke that topologists can’t tell the difference between a coffee...

DNA’s Histone Spools Hint at How Complex Cells Evolved

Molecular biology has something in common with kite-flying competitions. At the latter, all eyes are on the colorful, elaborate, wildly kinetic constructions darting through the sky. Nobody looks at the humble reels or spools on which the kite strings are wound, even though the aerial performances depend on how skillfully those reels are handled. In...

How to Solve Equations That Are Stubborn as a Goat

If you’ve ever taken a math test, you’ve probably met a grazing goat. Usually it’s tied to a fence post or the side of some barn, left there by an absent-minded farmer to graze on whatever grass it can reach. When you meet a grazing goat, your job is to calculate the total area of the region it can graze on. It’s a math test, after all. Math teachers...

Quantum Double-Slit Experiment Offers Hope for Earth-Size Telescope

Imagine being able to see the surface of an Earth-like planet orbiting another star, or watching a star get shredded by a black hole. Such precise observations are currently impossible. But scientists are proposing ways to quantum mechanically link up optical telescopes around the world in order to view the cosmos at a mind-boggling level of detail....

How Gravity Is a Double Copy of Other Forces

As far as physicists have been able to determine, nature speaks two mutually unintelligible languages: one for gravity and one for everything else. Curves in the fabric of space-time tell planets and people which way to fall, while all the other forces spring from quantum particles. Albert Einstein first spoke of gravity in terms of bends in space-time...

Researchers Read the Sugary ‘Language’ on Cell Surfaces

When Pascal Gagneux envisions malaria parasites and other pathogens interacting with the surfaces of a host’s cells, he pictures a miniature rainforest with pathogenic particles flying overhead like colorful birds. The canopy consists of branching sugary molecules that adorn the surface of the cell. “If you’re a malaria parasite, you’re landing on a...

How to Rewrite the Laws of Physics in the Language of Impossibility

They say that in art, constraints lead to creativity. The same seems to be true of the universe. By placing limits on nature, the laws of physics squeeze out reality’s most fantastical creations. Limit light’s speed, and suddenly space can shrink, time can slow. Limit the ability to divide energy into infinitely small units, and the full weirdness of...

A Backdoor Lets the Immune System Monitor the Brain

A hundred years ago, the Japanese scientist Y. Shirai published a mysterious finding: When Shirai transplanted tumor tissue into a mouse’s body, the tissue was destroyed by its immune system. But when tumors were grafted in various places in the mouse’s brain, they grew. Tumors seemed to be able to safely hide in the brain, escaping the immune system’s...

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