Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World


How and why are scientific theories accepted?

November 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This theory is one of many pivotal scientific discoveries that would drastically influence our understanding of the world around us.

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The case for chemistry

What is all around us, terrifies a lot of people, but adds enormously to the quality of life? Answer: chemistry. Almost everything that happens in the world, in transport, throughout agriculture and industry, to the flexing of a muscle and the framing of a thought involves chemical reactions in which one substance changes into another.

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Max Planck: Einstein’s supportive skeptic in 1915

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein completing his masterpiece of general relativity, an idea that would lead, one world war later, to his unprecedented worldwide celebrity. In the run-up to what he called “the most valuable discovery of my life,” he worked within a new sort of academic comfort.

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How did life on earth begin?

News broke in July 2015 that the Rosetta mission’s Philae lander had discovered 16 ‘carbon and nitrogen-rich’ organic compounds on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The news sparked renewed debates about whether the ‘prebiotic’ chemicals required for producing amino acids and nucleotides – the essential building blocks of all life forms – may have been delivered to Earth by cometary impacts.

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Cars – are they a species?

The Edwardian seer and futurologist, H. G. Wells, wondered whether aircrafts would ever be used commercially. He did the calculations and found that, yes, an airplane could be built and, yes, it would fly, but he proclaimed this would never be commercial.

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NASA discovers water on Mars again: take it with a pinch of salt

The discovery of water on Mars has been claimed so often that I’d forgive anyone for being skeptical about the latest announcement. Frozen water, ice, has been proven on Mars in many places, there are lots of ancient canyons hundreds of kilometres long that must have been carved by rivers, and much smaller gullies that are evidently much younger.

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The science of rare planetary alignments

The alignment of both the Sun and the Earth with another planet in the Solar System is a rare event, which we are seldom able to observe in a lifetime. The Sun-Venus-Earth alignment for example only takes place once every 105.5 or 121.5 years. Similarly, the next Sun-Earth-Mars alignment will only occur in 2084. But on 5 January 2014, we were lucky enough to witness one such rare event: the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Jupiter. Much to our surprise, we saw a new physical effect never observed before.

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How much do you know about fool’s gold? [quiz]

Many people have heard of Pyrite, most-commonly referred to as fool’s gold, but far less people know about pyrite’s cultural significance or its prevalence throughout history. From American mining lore to Greek philosophy and medieval poetry, pyrite appears throughout our past, and continues to influence our lives today.

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Max Planck’s debt

The great German physicist Max Planck once said, “However many specialties science may split into, it remains fundamentally an indivisible whole.” He declared that the divisions and subdivisions of scientific disciplines were “not based on the nature of things.”

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The undiscovered elements

How can an element be lost? Scientists, and the general public, have always thought of them as being found, or discovered. However, more elements have been “undiscovered” than discovered, more “lost” than found.

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Who was Richard Abegg?

One of the most interesting developments in the history of chemistry has been the way in which theories of valency have evolved over the years. We are rapidly approaching the centenary of G.N. Lewis’ 1916 article in which he proposed the simple idea that a covalent bond consists of a shared pair of electrons.

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William Lawrence Bragg and Crystallography

The history of modern Crystallography is intertwined with the great discoveries’ of William Lawrence Bragg (WLB), still renowned to be the youngest Nobel Prize in Physics. Bragg received news of his Nobel Prize on the 14th November 1915 in the midst of the carnage of the Great War. This was to be shared with his father William Henry Bragg (WHB), and WHB and WLB are to date the only father and son team to be jointly awarded the Nobel Prize.

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How are the smallest beasts of the stellar zoo born?

In the same way as a jungle harbours several species of birds and mammals, the stellar (or almost stellar) zoo also offers a variety of objects with different sizes, masses, temperatures, ages, and other physical properties. On the one hand, there are huge massive stars that easily overshadow one as the Sun. On the other, there are less graceful, but still very interesting inhabitants: small low-mass stars or objects that come out of the stellar classification. These last objects are called “brown dwarfs”.

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From Galileo to Rosetta

For some people, recent images of the Rosetta space program have been slightly disappointing. We expected to see the nucleus of the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet as a brilliantly shining body. Instead, images from Rosetta are as black as a lump of coal. Galileo Galilei would be among those not to share this sense of disappointment.

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Monthly Notices of Royal Astronomical Society journal

Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs?

In 1980, Walter Alvarez and his group at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered a thin layer of clay in the geologic record, which contained an anomalous amount of the rare element iridium. They proposed that the iridium-rich layer was evidence of a massive comet hitting the Earth 66 million years ago, at the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Alvarez group suggested that the global iridium-rich layer formed as fallout from an intense dust cloud raised by the impact event.

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Six things you didn’t know about light

Light occupies a central place in our understanding of the world both as a means by which we locate ourselves in nature and as a thing that inspires our imagination. Light is what enables us to see things, and thus to navigate our surroundings. It is also a primary means by which we learn about the world – light beams carry information about the constituents of the universe, from distant stars and galaxies to the cells in our bodies to individual atoms and molecules.

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