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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 jump-started the study of human heredity.

    Using archival records, science historian Theodore M...

    07/01/2018 - 08:00 Genetics, History of Science, Mental Health, Numbers
  • 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...

    05/08/2018 - 10:00 Numbers, Physics
  • 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...

    04/16/2018 - 07:00 Numbers, Computing, Science & Society
  • 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...

    03/14/2018 - 11:30 Numbers
  • Science Ticker

    The largest known prime number has 23 million-plus 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 record-breaking prime.

    A prime number can’t be divided by anything other than 1 and itself. If you started counting at 1, you’d...

    01/05/2018 - 07:00 Numbers
  • 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...

    10/16/2017 - 15:00 Physics, Numbers
  • 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 ‘self-correcting.’ Science is broken,” linking to a commentary about the well-documented problem that many scientific...

    09/08/2017 - 07:00 Science & Society, Numbers
  • Film

    Hidden Figures highlights three black women who were vital to the U.S. space program

    View trailer

    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 behind-the-scenes 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...

    12/23/2016 - 06:00 Numbers, History of Science, Computing
  • Feature

    Animals give clues to the origins of human number crunching

    When Christian Agrillo runs number-related 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...

    11/29/2016 - 14:00 Animals, Evolution, Neuroscience, Numbers
  • Feature

    Units of measure are getting a fundamental upgrade

    If scientists had sacred objects, this would be one of them: a single, closely guarded 137-year-old 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 60-kilogram...

    11/02/2016 - 12:00 Physics, Numbers