Tag: Science

Researchers share $22m Breakthrough prize as science gets rock star treatment

Glitzy ceremony honours work including that on mapping post-big bang primordial light, cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases

The most glitzy event on the scientific calendar took place on Sunday night when the Breakthrough Foundation gave away $22m (16.3m) in prizes to dozens of physicists, biologists and mathematicians at a ceremony in Silicon Valley.

The winners this year include five researchers who won $3m (2.2m) each for their work on cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases, two mathematicians, and a team of 27 physicists who mapped the primordial light that warmed the universe moments after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago.

Now in their sixth year, the Breakthrough prizes are backed by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley tech investor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki from the DNA testing company 23andMe, and Googles Sergey Brin. Launched by Milner in 2012, the awards aim to make rock stars of scientists and raise their profile in the public consciousness.

The annual ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California provides a rare opportunity for some of the worlds leading minds to rub shoulders with celebrities, who this year included Morgan Freeman as host, fellow actors Kerry Washington and Mila Kunis, and Miss USA 2017 Kra McCullough. When Joe Polchinski at the University of California in Santa Barbara shared the physics prize last year, he conceded his nieces and nephews would know more about the A-list attendees than he would.

Oxford University geneticist Kim Nasmyth won for his work on chromosomes but said he had not worked out what to do with the windfall. Its a wonderful bonus, but not something you expect, he said. Its a huge amount of money, I havent had time to think it through. On being recognised for what amounts to his lifes work, he added: You have to do science because you want to know, not because you want to get recognition. If you do what it takes to please other people, youll lose your moral compass. Nasmyth has won lucrative awards before and channelled some of his winnings into Gregor Mendels former monastery in Brno.

Another life sciences prizewinner, Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was honoured for three decades of painstaking research into the genetic programs that flip into action when plants find themselves plunged into shade. Her work revealed that plants can sense when a nearby competitor is about to steal their light, sparking a growth spurt in response. The plants detect threatening neighbours by sensing a surge in the particular wavelengths of red light that are given off by vegetation.

Chory now has ambitious plans to breed plants that can suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a bid to combat climate change. She believes that crops could be selected to absorb 20 times more of the greenhouse gas than they do today, and convert it into suberin, a waxy material found in roots and bark that breaks down incredibly slowly in soil. If we can do this on 5% of the landmass people are growing crops on, we can take out 50% of global human emissions, she said.

Three other life sciences prizes went to Kazutoshi Mori at Kyoto University and Peter Walter for their work on quality control mechanisms that keep cells healthy, and to Don Cleveland at the University of California, San Diego, for his research on motor neurone disease.

The $3m Breakthrough prize in mathematics was shared by two British-born mathematicians, Christopher Hacon at the University of Utah and James McKernan at the University of California in San Diego. The pair made major contributions to a field of mathematics known as birational algebraic geometry, which sets the rules for projecting abstract objects with more than 1,000 dimensions onto lower-dimensional surfaces. It gets very technical, very quickly, said McKernan.

Speaking before the ceremony, Hacon was feeling a little unnerved. Its really not a mathematician kind of thing, but Ill probably survive, he said. Ive got a tux ready, but Im not keen on wearing it. Asked what he might do with his share of the winnings, Hacon was nothing if not realistic. Ill start by paying taxes, he said. And I have six kids, so the rest will evaporate.

Chuck Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, led a Nasa mission known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) to map the faint afterglow of the big bangs radiation that now permeates the universe. The achievement, now more than a decade old, won the 27-strong science team the $3m Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics. When we made our first maps of the sky, I thought these are beautiful, Bennett told the Guardian. It is still absolutely amazing to me. We can look directly back in time.

Bennett believes that the prizes may help raise the profile of science at a time when it is sorely needed. The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself, he said. I dont think people realise how big a role science plays in their lives. In everything you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, theres something about what youre doing that involves scientific advances. I dont think people think about that at all.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/04/researchers-share-22m-breakthrough-prize-as-science-gets-rock-star-treatment

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The Lava Lamps That Help Keep The Internet Secure

At the headquarters of Cloudflare, in San Francisco, there’s a wall of lava lamps: the Entropy Wall. They’re used to generate random numbers and keep a good bit of the internet secure: here’s how.

For a technical overview of the Entropy Wall click here.

Video by YouTuber Tom Scott

Read more: http://twistedsifter.com/videos/the-lava-lamps-that-help-keep-the-internet-secure/

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Can you solve it? Secrets of Russian intelligence

Three puzzles that came in from the cold

Hi guzzlers,

Every day we read stories concerning the prowess of Russian hackers. But why are they so good? A clue may lie in the fact that Russia has long excelled in maths outreach, which has been instrumental in creating a supply of people with the right skills. More of this later. Meanwhile, here are three puzzles with Russian origins.

1. Find a solution to the equation

28x+ 30y + 31z = 365

where x, y, and z are positive whole numbers.

2. Place five stones on an 8×8 grid in such a way that every square consisting of 9 cells has only one stone in it.

3. A colony of chameleons on an island currently comprises 13 green, 15 blue and 17 red individuals. When two chameleons of different colours meet, they both change their colours to the third colour. Is it possible that all chameleons in the colony eventually have the same colour?

The first question was told to me recently by Nikolai Andreev, of the Steklov Mathematical Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It should take you a few seconds to solve.

The second question is taken from a fantastic after-school programme run by three Russian emigres in London. They call themselves We Solve Problems, and use two approaches used in Russia: maths circles, in which students can delve deeper into topics, and maths battles, which are like the maths equivalent of a debating society. Check out their website, where secondary school children can apply to attend weekly maths battles in London free of charge.

The third question is a stunner. It was first set in 1984 in the International Mathematics Tournament of the Towns, a wonderful maths competition founded in 1980 in Russia that now involves students in more that 100 cities and towns around the world (but mostly in Russia). The idea is to test ingenuity, rather than rote learning.

Ill be back at 5pm with the solutions and full explanations. Da? No spoilers BTL please, but do talk about great Russian mathematicians, or any experiences with Russian teaching methods.

Page-turning Japanese, I really think so.

If you have read this far, you have already solved another puzzle. What to put on your Christmas list! My latest book Puzzle Ninja: Pit Your Wits against the Japanese Masters, contains more than 200 of the most original, beautiful and interesting puzzles that have been crafted in Japan over the last few years.

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. Send me your email if you want me to alert you each time I post a new one. Im always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/06/can-you-solve-it-secrets-of-russian-intelligence

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Can you solve it? Are you smarter than a forester?

A puzzle about planting trees

Hello guzzlers,

Your mission today is to design an arrangement of trees on a desert island, like the one below.

An aerial view of five trees on an island.

When there is a single tree, no matter where you stand on the island you will always be able to see exactly one tree.

An island with a single tree. From each of the two black dots you can see a single tree.

With two trees, however, there are some places where you can see two trees, and there are some places where you can see only a single tree, since the other one is blocked from view.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/31/can-you-solve-it-are-you-smarter-than-a-forester

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The world has lost a great artist in mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani

She was the only woman to have won the Fields medal, maths equivalent of the Nobel prize

The mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani died two weeks ago. Shewas 40. I had never heard of her before reading about her death in the papers. Its a piercingly sad story: Iranian-born, and latterly a professor at Stanford University, Mirzakhani was the only woman to have won the Fields medal, the equivalent for a mathematician of the Nobel prize, and is survived, in newspaper-speak, by a husband and a daughter.

I always find the locution survived by too cruel to bear. So final the rupture, no room for error: shes gone, theyre left. And, in this case, how young the mother and the wife.

It is a sad story for other reasons, too, not least the intensity of Mirzakhanis expression in the photograph most of the papers used. There is a beauty that can onlybe described as that of the minds migration to the face, the transfiguring beauty of exceptional intelligence. So its a double loss: thepremature loss of a person and the premature loss of her genius.

I remember there being an unspoken qualitative distinction atschool between those who were good at maths and science the priests of numbers and symbols and the more poetical of us, whose medium, as Wordsworth had it, was the language of men talking to men. The assumption, at least on the part of us Wordsworthians, was that creativity was all on our side. I have since come to think the word creative has much to answer for. Among the freedoms it sometimes gave us was the freedom from structure, knowledge and the obligation to convince.

Mirzakhani, it is said, considered being a writer before turning to mathematics. It is unlikely she believed shed made a choice in favour of an inferior, or less artistic, discipline. And she expressed her immersion in mathematics in language every writer will recognise like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with luck you might find a way out.

The luck, of course, is no such thing. Its the mystery Keats called negative capability, the trust that the work will do itself if only we dareto plunge without irritability orinsistence into the dark, not sure we will find a way out at all. The bestwriting happens in this way, unintended, unknowing, grateful and surprised. Such abnegation of will is what we mean by creativity. So the mathematician and the artist are companioned in the same dark, and do obeisance to the same gods. The pity of Mirzakhanis death will be felt by poets as well as mathematicians.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/29/maryam-mirzakhani-great-artist-mathematician-fields-medal-howard-jacobson

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Can you solve it? Are you smarter than an architect?

A puzzle that tests 3D thinking

Hi guzzlers,

Todays puzzle was sent in by a reader who remembers it from his days as an architecture student.

Draw a 3-dimensional picture of a shape that goes through each of these holes, exactly touching all sides as it passes through.

A triangle with sides 1 unit. A square with sides 1 unit. A circle with diameter 1 unit.

Architects will surely find the answer obvious. The heads of the rest of us will look rather like the house in the picture above, since it requires you to visualise an object in three dimensions, which is a challenge if your brain isnt trained to do it.

If you want to email me your answer, or post it on Twitter with the hashtag #MondayPuzzle, Ill send the author of my favourite image a copy of my puzzle book Can You Solve My Problems?

Ill be back at 5pm UK time with the solution.


I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. Send me your email if you want me to alert you each time I post a new one. Im always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

My puzzle book Can You Solve My Problems? is just out in paperback.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/17/can-you-solve-it-are-you-smarter-than-an-architect

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Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman to win mathematics’ Fields medal, dies at 40

Stanford professor, who was awarded the prestigious prize in 2014, had suffered breast cancer

Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor who was the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields medal in mathematics, has died. She was 40.

Mirzakhani, who had breast cancer, died on Saturday, the university said. It did not indicate where she died.

In 2014, Mirzakhani was one of four winners of the Fields medal, which is presented every four years and is considered the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel prize. She was named for her work on complex geometry and dynamic systems.

Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry, the Stanford press announcement said.

Mastering these approaches allowed Mirzakhani to pursue her fascination for describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces spheres, doughnut shapes and even amoebas in as great detail as possible.

Her work had implications in fields ranging from cryptography to the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist, the university said.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran and studied there and at Harvard. She joined Stanford as a mathematics professor in 2008. Irans president, Hassan Rouhani, issued a statement praising Mirzakhani.

The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heart-rending, Rouhani said in a message that was reported by the Tehran Times.

Irans foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said her death pained all Iranians, the newspaper reported.

The news of young Iranian genius and math professor Maryam Mirzakhanis passing has brought a deep pang of sorrow to me and all Iranians who are proud of their eminent and distinguished scientists, Zarif posted in Farsi on his Instagram account.

I do offer my heartfelt condolences upon the passing of this lady scientist to all Iranians worldwide, her grieving family and the scientific community.

Mirzakhani originally dreamed of becoming a writer but then shifted to mathematics. When she was working, she would doodle on sheets of paper and scribble formulas on the edges of her drawings, leading her daughter to describe the work as painting, the Stanford statement said.

Mirzakhani once described her work as like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.

Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said Mirzakhani was a brilliant theorist who made enduring contributions and inspired thousands of women to pursue math and science.

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrk, and daughter, Anahita.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/15/maryam-mirzakhani-mathematician-dies-40

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Can you solve it? Are you smarter than a cat?

Feline clever? This moggy mystery will mess with your mind

Hi guzzlers,

Todays puzzle requires you to demonstrate superior intelligence to a contrary cat.

A straight corridor has 7 doors along one side. Behind one of the doors sits a cat. Your mission is to find the cat by opening the correct door. Each day you can open only one door. If the cat is there, you win. You are officially smarter than a cat. If the cat is not there, the door closes, and you must wait until the next day before you can open a door again.

If the cat was always to sit behind the same door, you would be able to find it in at most seven days, by opening each door in turn. But this mischievous moggy is restless. Every night it moves one door either to the left or to the right.

How many days do you now need to make sure you can catch the cat?

A cat sits behind one of these doors. Whats the best strategy to find it?

(First some clarifications. The 7 doors are in a line, so if the cat is behind the first or the last door, it has only one option for where it can move during the night. Otherwise, each night it decides randomly whether to move to the left or to the right.)

I purr with delight at this puzzle. At first it appears almost impossible that you will be able to get your hands on the furtive feline. But if you begin by trying the puzzle with a smaller number of doors, you will hopefully be able to work out the correct strategy.

Ill get you started. If there are only THREE doors, then it is possible to catch the cat in two days:

  • Day 1: open the middle door.
  • Day 2: open the middle door.

This strategy guarantees you will get the cat, since if it is not behind the middle door on Day 1, then it must be behind either of the end doors. And if it is behind either of the end doors on Day 1, then in both cases it will move to behind the middle door on Day 2. Caught!

If there are FOUR doors, it is possible to catch the cat in four days. But now its up to you to work out how.

The cat puzzle originally appeared in the New York Times now defunct Numberplay column as The Princess Problem, where a prince was knocking on doors and a flighty princess moving from room to room. This version has become a staple problem for maths teachers in Singapore. Toh Pee Choon, of Singapores National Institute of Education, told me that the princess context had great effect in stirring up interests in young girls.

I rephrased the puzzle with a cat to make it non gender specific, and also because people on the internet like looking at pictures of cats.


Ill be back at 5pm with the solution.

UPDATE: Read the solution here.

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. Send me your email if you want me to alert you each time I post a new one. Im always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.


My puzzle book Can You Solve My Problems is out in paperback this week. You can get it from the Guardian bookstore or other online retailers.

Thanks to Charlie Gilderdale from maths resource project NRICH for first alerting me to this puzzle.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/03/can-you-solve-it-are-you-smarter-than-a-cat

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Can you solve it? Pythagoras’s best puzzles

Three teasers from the vaults

Hi guzzlers,

The most famous theorem in maths is named after the Greek thinker Pythagoras. So is the most famous recreational mathematics publication in the Netherlands.

Pythagoras Magazine was founded in 1961, and to celebrate its half century it recently published a selection of its best brainteasers in English. Ive selected three of them here, in increasing order of difficulty.

1) Dollar bills. In a bag are 26 bills. If you take out 20 bills from the bag at random, you have at least one 1-dollar bill, two 2-dollar bills, and five 5-dollar bills. How much money was in the bag?

2) Yin and Yang. The Yin-Yang symbol is based on the figure below, bordered by three semi-circles. How can you divide this shape into two identical shapes?

Big yin

3) Huge pie. A huge pie is divided among 100 guests. The first guest gets 1% of the pie. The second guest gets 2% of the remaining part. The third guest gets 3% of the rest, etc. The last guest gets 100% of the last part. Who gets the biggest piece?

Ill be back later today with the solutions.


I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. Send me your email if you want me to alert you each time I post a new one. Im always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

Thanks to the editors of Pythagoras Magazine for todays puzzles. You can check out more of them in Half a Century of Pythagoras Magazine.


Football School, which I which I co-wrote with Ben Lyttleton, is a book for 7 to 13-year olds children that uses football to explain subjects like English, maths, physics, geography, philosophy and zoology. You (by which I mean any 7-13-year-olds you may know) can check out the Football School YouTube channel, in which Ben and I answer all questions about football and life. Submit your questions and subscribe!

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/19/can-you-solve-it-pythagorass-best-puzzles

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Can you solve it? The incredible sponge puzzle

This brainteaser will wring out your brain

Hi guzzlers.

For todays puzzle, let me introduce you to the Menger sponge, a fascinating object first described by the Austrian mathematician Karl Menger in 1926. Well get to the problem as soon as I explain what the object is.

The Menger sponge is a cube with smaller cubes extracted from it, and is constructed as follows: Step A: Take a cube. Step B: Divide it into 27 smaller subcubes, so it looks just like a Rubiks cube.



Step C: Remove the middle subcube in each side as well as the subcube at the centre of the cube, so if you looked through any hole you would see right through it. Step D: Repeat steps A to C for each of the remaining subcubes, that is, imagine that each subcube is made from 27 even smaller cubes and remove the middle one in each side and the central one.

We could carry on repeating steps A to C ad infinitum, on smaller and smaller subcubes, but here lets do it just once more:

Menger sponge. Illustration: Edmund Harriss/Visions of Numberland

Menger sponges are so loved within the maths community that building origami models of them out of business cards is a thing.

Menger sponge made as part of Matt Parker and Laura Taalmans MegaMenger project. Photograph: MegaMenger

There are lots* of reasons why Menger sponges are cool and one of them is illustrated by todays puzzle.

How to slice a cube in two.

On the left here is how you slice a cube in half such that the cross section is a hexagon.

When you slice a Menger sponge in two like this, what does the hexagonal slice look like?

This question is probably the most difficult one I have ever set in this column, as it requires phenomenal levels of spatial intuition. But I urge you to give it a go, even if just a basic sketch. Send me some images, or post them to me on social media. You may draw something along the right lines…

Please forgive me, though, for posing this toughie. The answer is jaw-droppingly amazing. In fact, I was told about the Menger slice by a respected geometer who told me it gave him probably his biggest wow moment in maths. Come back at 5pm BST and see for yourself.

NO SPOILERS PLEASE! Please talk about Karl Menger and origami instead.

Photograph: Bloomsbury

Both the Menger sponge and the Menger slice are included in my latest book, Visions of Numberland: A Colouring Journey Through the Mysteries of Maths. The book is a gallery of the most spectacular images that Edmund Harriss, my co-author, and I could find in maths. You can colour them in, or just contemplate them in black and white.

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. Send me your email if you want me to alert you each time I post a new one.

Im always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

* Here are a couple. 1) Each time you follow the iteration described in steps A to C you decrease the volume of the sponge, but increase its surface area. After an infinite number of iterations, you will have removed an infinite number of cubes. The sponge will then have zero volume and infinite surface area. 2) After an infinite number of iterations, the object is a fractal, that is, it contains parts that are identical to the whole thing.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/10/can-you-solve-it-the-incredible-sponge-puzzle

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