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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Alexander the Great VSI

How much do you know about Alexander the Great?

Alexander the Great died more than two-thousand years ago, yet his name lives on as a reminder of his innumerable conquests and incredible leadership. Born in 356 bc, Alexander was tutored in his early years by Aristotle before succeeding his father Philip as King of Macedonia and the mainland of Greece. How much do you know about one of history’s greatest leaders?

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Blue LED lighting and the Nobel Prize for Physics

When I wrote Materials: A Very Short Introduction (published later this month) I made a list of all the Nobel Prizes that had been awarded for work on materials. There are lots. The first was the 1905 Chemistry prize to Alfred von Baeyer for dyestuffs (think indigo and denim). Now we can add another, as the 2014 Physics prize has been awarded to the three Japanese scientists who discovered how to make blue light-emitting diodes.

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Are we alone in the Universe?

World Space Week has prompted myself and colleagues at the Open University to discuss the question: ‘Is there life beyond Earth?’ The bottom line is that we are now certain that there are many places in our Solar System and around other stars where simple microbial life could exist, of kinds that we know from various settings, both mundane and exotic, on Earth. What we don’t know is whether any life DOES exist in any of those places.

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Why do you love the VSIs?

The 400th Very Short Introduction, ‘Knowledge’, was published this week. In order to celebrate this remarkable series, we asked various colleagues at Oxford University Press to explain why they love the VSIs.

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What’s so great about being the VSI commissioning editor?

With the 400th Very Short Introduction on the topic of ‘Knowledge’ publishing this month, I’ve been thinking about how long this series has been around, and how long I have been a commissioning editor for the series, from before the 200th VSI published (number 163 – Human Rights in fact), through number 300 and 400, and how undoubtedly I’ll still be here for the 500th VSI!

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What commuters know about knowing

If your morning commute involves crowded public transportation, you definitely want to find yourself standing next to someone who is saying something like, “I know he’s stabbed people, but has he ever killed one?” . It’s of course best to enjoy moments like this in the wild, but I am not above patrolling Overheard in London for its little gems (“Shall I give you a ring when my penguins are available?”), or, on an especially desperate day, going all the way back to the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English, a treasury of oddly informative conversations.

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The vision of Confucius

To understand China, it is essential to understand Confucianism. There are many teachings of Confucianist tradition, but before we can truly understand them, it is important to look at the vision Confucius himself had. In this excerpt below from Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction, Daniel K. Gardner discusses the future the teacher behind the ideas imagined.

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The ubiquity of structure

Everything in the natural world has structure – from the very small, like the carbon 60 molecule, to the very large such as mountains and indeed the whole Universe. Structure is the connecting of parts to make a whole – and it occurs at many different levels. Atoms have structure. Structures of atoms make molecules, structures of molecules make tissue and materials, structures of materials make organs and equipment and so on up a hierarchy of different levels as shown in the figure. Within this hierarchy of structure, man-made objects vary from the very small, like a silicon chip to the very large like a jumbo jet.

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Viking reinventions

The Vikings are having a good year. In March a blockbuster exhibition opened in the new BP Gallery at the British Museum and tens of thousands have flocked to see the largest collection of Viking treasure ever to be displayed in the British Isles. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Viking longship known as Roskilde 6. This was excavated from the edge of the Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1997, during construction of an extension of the Ship Museum, being built to house the previous ships to be found.

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Biting, whipping, tickling

‘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.

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1914: The opening campaigns

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.

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Colostrum, performance, and sports doping

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).

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The vote for women bishops

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.

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Cameron’s reshuffle

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.

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Practical wisdom and why we need to value it

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).

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