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Reviews & Previews
The study of human heredity got its start in insane asylums
Genetics in the MadhouseTheodore M. PorterPrinceton Univ., $35
England’s King George III descended into mental chaos, or what at the time was called madness, in 1789. Physicians could not say whether he would recover or if a replacement should assume the throne. That political crisis jumpstarted the study of human heredity.
Using archival records, science historian Theodore M...

Soapbox
Real numbers don’t cut it in the real world, this physicist argues
You would be forgiven for thinking that real numbers are, in fact, real — the word is right there in the name. But physicist Nicolas Gisin doesn’t think so.
He’s not questioning the mathematical concept of a real number. The term refers to a number that isn’t imaginary: It has no factor of i, the square root of negative one. Instead, Gisin, of the University of Geneva, debates the...

Reviews & Previews
‘Weird Math’ aims to connect numbers and equations to the real world
Weird MathDavid Darling and Agnijo BanerjeeBasic Books, $27
Weird Math sets out to “reveal the strange connections between math and everyday life.” The book fulfills that laudable goal, in part. At times, teenage math prodigy Agnijo Banerjee and his tutor, science writer David Darling, find ways to make complex math relatable, like linking chaos theory to weather forecasting and...

Science & the Public
Forget Pi Day. We should be celebrating Tau Day
As a physics reporter and lover of mathematics, I won’t be celebrating Pi Day this year. That’s because pi is wrong.
I don’t mean that the value is incorrect. Pi, known by the symbol π, is the number you get when you divide a circle’s circumference by its diameter: 3.14159… and so on without end. But, as some mathematicians have argued, the mathematical constant was poorly chosen, and...

Science Ticker
The largest known prime number has 23 millionplus digits
There’s a new largest known prime number in town, with a whopping 23,249,425 digits. The figure is calculated by multiplying 2 by itself 77,232,917 times and then subtracting 1. Announced on January 3, the number is almost a million digits longer than the last recordbreaking prime.
A prime number can’t be divided by anything other than 1 and itself. If you started counting at 1, you’d...

Reviews & Previews
New physics books don’t censor the math behind reality
Many books about science are meant to be pleasure reading. Such books attempt to convey the wonder and fascination and excitement of science, and ideally some of the substance as well. After all, good popular science writing is not only engaging and entertaining, but also informative. But even very informative popular books are not designed to be fully educational about the science in...

Context
Debates on whether science is broken don’t fit in tweets
In the Twitterverse, science can stir up some vigorous debates. And they’re not all about the standard issues of climate change, vaccines and evolution. Some dueling tweets involve the scientific enterprise itself.
For instance, one recent tweet proclaimed “Science isn’t ‘selfcorrecting.’ Science is broken,” linking to a commentary about the welldocumented problem that many scientific...

Film
Hidden Figures highlights three black women who were vital to the U.S. space program
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Hollywood space flicks typically feature one type of hero: astronauts who defy the odds to soar into space and back again. But now a group of behindthescenes heroes from the early days of the U.S. space program are getting their due. Black female mathematicians performed essential calculations to safely send astronauts to and from Earth’s surface — in defiance of flagrant...

Feature
Animals give clues to the origins of human number crunching
When Christian Agrillo runs numberrelated experiments in his lab, he wishes his undergraduate subjects good luck. For certain tests, that’s about all he says. Giving instructions to the people would be unfair to the fish.
Agrillo, of the University of Padua in Italy, is finishing up several years of pitting humans against fish in trials of their abilities to compare quantities. He can’t...

Feature
Units of measure are getting a fundamental upgrade
If scientists had sacred objects, this would be one of them: a single, closely guarded 137yearold cylinder of metal, housed in a vault outside of Paris. It is a prototype that precisely defines a kilogram of mass everywhere in the universe.
A kilogram of ground beef at the grocery store has the same mass as this one special hunk of metal, an alloy of platinum and iridium. A 60kilogram...