The Cartoon Picture of Magnets That Has Transformed Science

The Ising model

The mathematical key to cracking “phase transitions” debuted exactly 100 years ago, and it has transformed the natural sciences. The Ising model, as it’s known, was initially proposed as a cartoon picture of magnets. It’s now so commonly used as a simple model of physical systems that physicists liken it to the fruit fly, biology’s model organism. A recently published textbook deemed the Ising model “the system that can be used to model virtually every interesting thermodynamic phenomenon.”

It has also penetrated far-flung disciplines well beyond physics, serving as a model of earthquakesproteinsbrains — and even racial segregation.

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Charlie Wood — Quanta Magazine

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The 10 Hardest Math Problems That Remain Unsolved

A weekend post. Who knows might be able to solve one of these.

1. The Collatz Conjecture

Earlier this month, news broke of progress on this 82-year-old question, thanks to prolific mathematician Terence Tao. And while the story of Tao’s breakthrough is good news, the problem isn’t fully solved.

A refresher on the Collatz Conjecture: It’s all about that function f(n), shown above, which takes even numbers and cuts them in half, while odd numbers get tripled and then added to 1. Take any natural number, apply f, then apply f again and again. You eventually land on 1, for every number we’ve ever checked. The Conjecture is that this is true for all natural numbers.

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Dave Linkletter — Popular Mechanics

The Puzzling Search for Perfect Randomness


Recently, randomness has even made the news: Apparently there’s hidden order in random surfaces, and we may be close to seeing a quantum computer generate ultimate randomness. This latter quest for perfect randomness is important because randomness brings unpredictability, and all non-quantum attempts to achieve it have the hidden flaw of being generated by algorithmic methods which can, theoretically, be deciphered. In this Insights column, we will explore how we can create randomness and defeat it in everyday activities, before soaring to philosophical heights in debating what randomness really is.

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Pradeep Mutalik — Quanta

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Evolution: as a religious professor of science education, we need to rethink how we teach it


As both a professor of science education, with research expertise in evolutionary biology, and a priest in the Church of England, I believe that we need to rethink the way we teach evolution. I’ve spent 30 years teaching evolution to school students, undergraduates and teachers in training. It is clear to me that the way the subject is typically taught in schools can force religious children to choose between their faith and evolution. This is as true for Christian students as it is for Muslims, Orthodox Jews and members of other religions.

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Michael Reiss — The Conversation

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The first images of a black hole are a moving reminder of our collective vulnerability


Generating an image of a black hole is a paradox.  A black hole is invisible by nature – it emits no matter that we can measure. So what we see in the image is actually its event horizon. The bright ring is not a physical ring – it’s light coming from matter orbiting the black hole, which is so extremely warped that light itself is bending. There are black holes at the centre of every galaxy – some which sing, some which whir along quietly – and now that we’ve created images of one, it’s possible that we can continue to image more black holes, and even other kinds of cosmic matter.

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Sanjana Varghese — New Statesman America

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What is life?


Remarkably, What Is Life? appeared at the height of World War Two. Schrödinger had fled his native Austria to escape the Nazis and, after a brief sojourn in Oxford, settled in Dublin at the invitation of the prime minister, Éamon de Valera, accompanied by both his wife and mistress. Ireland was a neutral country, so Schrödinger felt free to pursue his academic work, unlike many of his scientific colleagues who assisted the Allies’ war effort. Schrödinger was best known as one of the founders of quantum mechanics, the most successful scientific theory ever. It explained at a stroke the properties of atoms, molecules, subatomic particles, nuclear reactions and the stability of stars. In practical terms, quantum mechanics has given us the laser, the transistor and the superconductor. For de Valera, Schrödinger was quite a catch.

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Paul Davies — The Monthly

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How Do You Know a Nuclear Weapon Works If You Can’t Test It?

In the end, I keep coming back to the question of how you know a weapon works if you cannot test it. (Or, for that matter, how testing ever established reliability since it destroyed the object whose reliability it demonstrated.) Who am I to question the judgment of the physicists who have spent decades honing their expert knowledge of this arcane field? Still, I keep thinking of a conversation I had in 1995 with a senior weapons designer, now retired, who told me that an inexperienced designer with a code is like a drunk driver, wrongly convinced of their excellent judgment. And I cannot help but notice a 2012 Department of Energy report complaining that National Ignition Facility shots were not producing the energy levels predicted by simulation codes. Nor, in 2015, has the National Ignition Facility met its former director’s prediction of reaching ignition—getting more energy out than was put in—by late 2012.

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Hugh Gusterson — Institute for Advanced Studies

The new potato


Diversity holds the key.

Many countries continue to plant popular potato varieties that have remained essentially unchanged for decades. But new approaches, including genetic engineering, promise to add more options. Potato breeders are particularly excited about a radical new way of creating better varieties. This system, called hybrid diploid breeding, could cut the time required by more than half, make it easier to combine traits in one variety, and allow farmers to plant seeds instead of bulky chunks of tuber. “It will change the world tremendously,” says Paul Struik, an agronomist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

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Erik Stokstad — Science

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Why can’t we feel Earth’s spin?


A simple question.

Earth spins on its axis once in every 24-hour day. At Earth’s equator, the speed of Earth’s spin is about 1,000 miles per hour (1,600 km per hour). The day-night has carried you around in a grand circle under the stars every day of your life, and yet you don’t feel Earth spinning. Why not? It’s because you and everything else – including Earth’s oceans and atmosphere – are spinning along with the Earth at the same constant speed.

It’s only if Earth stopped spinning, suddenly, that we’d feel it. Then it would be a feeling similar to riding along in a fast car, and having someone slam on the brakes!

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How Have Plants Shaped Human Societies?


Britain prospected Peruvian bark trees and grew them in India, having first transplanted them to Kew, one of many botanical gardens that served as a center for medical and colonial botany. In fact, the success of British rule in India depended partly on the control of malaria through the establishment of local Cinchona plantations. In Jules Verne’s 1874 fantasy novel The Mysterious Island, the sulfate of quinine that miraculously saves the life of one of the main characters turns out to be a gift from the reclusive Captain Nemo. Yet far from being a pure gift, Cinchona, like so many other botanical discoveries, was both a cure for suffering and an instrument of power.

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Yota Bataski & Alex HumphreysScientific American

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