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Killing me softly: rethinking lethal injection

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.

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When is a question a question?

Russell Stannard
Is there such a thing as a Higgs boson? To find out, one builds the Large Hadron Collider. That is how science normally progresses: one poses a question, and then carries out the appropriate experiment to find the answer.

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The European Union: debate or referendum?

Simon Usherwood
To the casual observer of British politics, we would appear to be heading towards a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). The Prime Minister has spoken for it, the clamour in the press and in the lobbies of Westminster continues to grow stronger and there is no good reason to speak against it, or so it would seem.

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What’s the future of seamount ecosystems?

Philip Mladenov
Seamounts are distinctive and dramatic features of ocean basins. They are typically extinct volcanoes that rise abruptly above the surrounding deep-ocean floor but do not reach the surface of the ocean. The Global Ocean contains some 100,000 or so seamounts that rise at least 1,000 metres above the ocean floor.

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The Trojan War: fact or fiction?

By Eric Cline
The Trojan War may be well known thanks to movies, books, and plays around the world, but did the war that spurred so much fascination even occur? The excerpt below from The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction helps answer some of the many questions about the infamous war Homer helped immortalize.

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What’s the secret of bacteria’s success?

By Sebastian Amyes
Bacteria have achieved many firsts; they were the first cellular life-forms on the planet, they are the primary biomass on the planet; they are the most prevalent cell type in and on the human body outnumbering our own cells; they are responsible for more human deaths than any other infectious agents; and, in some parts of the world, they are the premier cause of all deaths. How did these small, single-cell organisms, that are invisible to the naked eye become so successful?

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DSM-5 and psychiatric progress

By Tom Burns
National Mental Health week in May this year will see the launch of the eagerly anticipated DSM-5. This is the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which defines all psychiatric diagnoses and is often referred to as ‘the psychiatrists’ bible’. How can something so dry and dull sounding as a classificatory manual generate such fevered excitement? Indeed how did the DSM compete for space in a short book such as the VSI to Psychiatry?

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Global warfare redivivus

Charles Townshend
When the ‘global war on terror’ was launched by George W. Bush – closely followed by Tony Blair – after the 9/11 attacks, many people no doubt felt reassured by these leaders’ confidence that they knew the best way to retaliate. Some, though, found the global war concept alarming for several reasons. The notion of a ‘war’ seemed to indicate a wrong-headed belief that overt military action, rather than secret intelligence methods, was an effective response. More seriously, perhaps, this seemed to be a ‘war’ which couldn’t be won. Since it is all but inconceivable that terrorism per se can ever be eliminated by any method, the Bush-Blair crusade looked dangerously like a declaration of permanent war of an Orwellian kind.

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Earth Day 2013: dating creation

By Martin Redfern
Attempts to calculate the age of the Earth came originally out of theology. It is only comparatively recently that so-called creationists have interpreted the Bible literally and therefore believe that Creation took just seven 24-hour days. St Augustine had argued in his commentary on Genesis that God’s vision is outside time and therefore that each of the days of Creation referred to in the Bible could have lasted a lot longer than 24 hours. Even the much quoted estimate in the 17th century by Irish Archbishop Ussher that the Earth was created in 4004 BC was only intended as a minimum age and was based on carefully researched historical records, notably of the generations of patriarchs and prophets referred to in the Bible.

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A very short slideshow of our very short soapboxes

We had 13 wonderful Very Short Introductions authors taking part in our series of Very Short Soapboxes at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival last week. The change of venue, from the usual marquee at Christ Church to the warmth and comfort of Blackwell’s bookshop, was a blessing (who wants to stand in a tent with a snow blizzard outside? Although some would say our authors are that good). From Medical Law to The Napoleonic Wars, from The Gothic to The British Empire, there was a subject for everyone to enjoy. Here are a few highlights.

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In the path of an oncoming army: civilians in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

By Mike Rapport
Modern wars, someone once wrote, are fought by civilians as well as by armed forces. In fact, it is of course a truism to say that civilians are always affected by warfare in all periods of the past – as the families left behind, by the economic hardship, by the horrors of destruction, plunder, requisitioning, siege warfare, hunger and worse. The involvement of civilians in modern wars, however, became more intense because, with the advent of ‘total war’, belligerent states began to mobilise the entire population and material resources of the country. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were an early example of the ways in which a modern war could grind millions of people up in its brutal cogs, whether as conscripts in the firing lines of Europe’s mass armies and navies, or as civilians caught in the path of the oncoming battalions and trapped in the crossfire of the fighting itself. At the Oxford Literary Festival on 24 March, I will be speaking about the non-combatants who, in one way or another, found themselves entangled in the wars.

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Witchcraft: yesterday and today

By Malcom Gaskill
I’m looking at a photo of my six-year-old daughter wearing her witch costume – black taffeta and pointy hat – last Halloween. Our local vicar marked the occasion by lamenting in the parish magazine this ‘celebration of evil’. All Hallows’ Eve, the night when traditionally folk comforted souls of the dead, is not, in fact, evil, but did once have evil in its margins. Spirits on the loose might be bad as well as good, and for humans to manipulate them was witchcraft. The perception of evil, concentrated in the figure of the witch, was once powerfully real. Kate’s fancy dress character, however winsome, has a profound cultural connection to a terrifying dimension of the past and, as we’ll see, the present too.

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Five inconvenient truths about the Antarctic

By Klaus Dodds
When I wrote The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction, I wanted the book to be something of a provocation. The aim, in short, was to highlight things that often get neglected in the midst of stories and images of past and present explorers, melting ice caps, tourists and the penguin. The reality is rather more disturbing.

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Medical law and ethics: portrait of a partnership

In many textbook titles and university courses, ‘medical law’ and ‘ethics’ are spoken of in the same breath, as one might speak of Darby and Joan. It’s often assumed that there’s a solid, uncomplicated marriage, in which each partner knows his or her function; or at least an efficiently commercial partnership governed by a clearly drafted document. But, like most real relationships, it’s not so simple.

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