‘Laughter is men’s way of biting,’ Baudelaire proclaimed. The sociologist Norbert Elias offered a rejoinder: ‘He who laughs cannot bite.’ So does laughter embody or diffuse aggression? One theory, offered by the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, is that the laugh may be an aborted cry of concern, a way of announcing to a group that there has been a false alarm.
To mark the outbreak of the First World War, this week’s Very Short Introductions blog post is an extract from The First World War: A Very Short Introduction, by Michael Howard. The extract below describes the public reaction to the outbreak of war, the government propaganda in the opening months, and the reasons behind each nation going to war.
By Martin Luck
A recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s On Your Farm programme spoke to a dairy farmer who supplies colostrum to athletes as a food supplement. Colostrum is the first milk secreted by a mother. Cow colostrum is quite different from normal cow’s milk: it has about four times as much protein, twice as much fat and half as much lactose (sugar).
By Linda Woodhead
There are two kinds of churches. The ‘church type’, as the great sociologist Ernst Troeltsch called it, has fuzzy boundaries and embraces the whole of society. The ‘sect type’ has hard boundaries and tries to keep its distance. Until recently, the Church of England has been the former – a church ‘by law established’ for the whole nation. Since the 1980s, however, the Church has veered towards sectarianism. It’s within this context that we have to understand the significance of the recent vote for women bishops.
By Simon Usherwood
Tuesday’s Cabinet reshuffle by David Cameron has been trailed for some time now, but until the last moment it was not expected to be of the scale it has assumed. As a result, it sets up the government to present a rather different complexion in the run-up to the general election.
By David Blockley
Aristotle saw five ways of arriving at the truth – he called them art (ars, techne), science (episteme), intuition (nous), wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom – sometimes translated as prudence (phronesis). Ars or techne (from which we get the words art and technical, technique and technology) was concerned with production but not action. Art had a productive state, truly reasoned, with an end (i.e. a product) other than itself (e.g. a building).
By Aidan O’Donnell
How hard is it to execute someone humanely? Much harder than you might think. In the US, lethal injection is the commonest method. It is considered humane because it is painless, and the obvious violence and brutality inherent in alternative methods (electrocution, hanging, firing squad) is absent. But when convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was put to death by lethal injection in the evening of 29th April 2014 by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, just about everything went wrong.
By Charles Sheppard
Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystem in the sea. In some ways they are very robust marine ecosystems, but in other ways, perhaps because of their huge numbers of species, they are very delicate and susceptible to being damaged or killed. On the one hand, healthy reefs are glorious riots of life, and marine scientists have spent several decades unravelling the complicated ways in which they work. On the other hand, at least one third of the world’s reefs have already died – gone for ever in terms of human lifetimes at least – even when the cause of their demise is lifted.
By Klaus Dodds
If a week is a long time in politics then goodness knows what seven years represents in geopolitical terms. The publication of the second edition of the VSI to Geopolitics was a welcome opportunity to update and reflect on what has changed since its initial publication in 2007.
By Simon Glendinning
In 1994 Jacques Derrida participated in a seminar in Capri under the title “Religion”. Derrida himself thought “religion” might be a good word, perhaps the best word for thinking about our time, our “today”. It belongs, Derrida suggested, to the “absolute anachrony” of our time. Religion? Isn’t it that old thing that we moderns had thought had gone away, the thing that really does not belong in our time? And yet, so it seems, it is still alive and well.
By David Bender
The food pyramid shows fruits and vegetables as the second most important group of foods in terms of the amount to be eaten each day: 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruit. This, and the associated public health message to consume at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, is based on many years of nutritional research.
By Ian Thompson
It comes as a surprise to many people that landscapes can be designed. The assumption is that landscapes just happen; they emerge, by accident almost, from the countless activities and uses that occur on the land. But this ignores innumerable instances where people have intervened in landscape with aesthetic intent, where the landscape isn’t just happenstance, but the outcome of considered planning and design. Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux coined a name for this activity in 1857 when they described themselves as ‘landscape architects’ on their winning competition entry for New York’s Central Park; but ‘landscape architecture’ had been going on for centuries under different designations, including master-gardening’, ‘place-making’, and ‘landscape gardening’. To avoid anachronism, I’m going to call the entire field ‘landscape design’. The ‘top ten’ designers that follow are those I think have been the most influential. These people have shaped your everyday world.
By Tony Hope
Science and morality are often seen as poles apart. Doesn’t science deal with facts, and morality with, well, opinions? Isn’t science about empirical evidence, and morality about philosophy? In my view this is wrong. Science and morality are neighbours. Both are rational enterprises. Both require a combination of conceptual analysis, and empirical evidence. Many, perhaps most moral disagreements hinge on disagreements over evidence and facts, rather than disagreements over moral principle.
African religions cover a diverse landscape of ethnic groups, languages, cultures, and worldviews. Here, Jacob K. Olupona, author of African Religions: A Very Short Introduction shares an interesting list of 15 facts on African religions.
By William Allan
One of the most striking aspects of classical literature is its highly developed sense of genre. Of course, a literary work’s genre remains an important factor today: we too distinguish broad categories of poetry, prose, and drama, but also sub-genres (especially within the novel, now the most popular literary form) such as crime, romantic or historical fiction. And we do the same in other creative media, such as film, with thrillers, horrors, westerns, and so on. But classical authors were arguably even more aware than writers of genre fiction are today what forms and conventions applied to the genre they were writing in.
David J. Hand
Nowadays it appears impossible to open a newspaper or switch on the television without hearing about “big data”. Big data, it sometimes seems, will provide answers to all the world’s problems. Management consulting company McKinsey, for example, promises “a tremendous wave of innovation, productivity, and growth … all driven by big data”.