One of the hallmarks of an expert is to make what they are doing look effortless. Whether it is tossing pizza, throwing a clay pot on a wheel, or executing the perfect forehand smash, the experts make it look easy. The part that we don’t see is the hundreds of hours of practice, and the hundreds of times it has gone wrong; the shreds of dough stuck to the light bulb.
I’ve seen proud posts on the internet from people who saw five planets with the naked eye this spring. Venus and Jupiter could hardly be missed in the west after sunset, though Mercury was more elusive as it never strays very far from the Sun and is smaller and fainter. Later in the evening Mars and then Saturn have been rising high in the east. That’s a “full house”, comprising all five of the planets recognised by the ancients. Being a geologist, I usually insist on claiming that a sixth planet is easily visible too…
By Simon Glendinning
Two months before his death in October 2004, Jacques Derrida gave an interview to the French newspaper Le Monde which turned out to be his last. Although he refused to treat it as an occasion in which to give what he called “a health bulletin,” he acknowledged that he was seriously ill, and the discussion is overshadowed by that fact: there is a strong sense of someone taking stock, someone taking the chance to give a final word.
By Geoffrey Hosking
After a decade of a chaotic but exhilarating democracy in the 1990s, Putin as president and prime minister has been restoring a strong state. At least, that is how we usually understand it. He has certainly restored an authoritarian state. On assuming office in 2000, he strengthened the ‘power vertical’ by ending the local election of provincial governors and sending in his own viceroys – mostly ex-military men – to supervise them. Citing the state’s need for ‘information security’, he closed down or took over media outlets which exposed inconvenient information or criticised his actions. Determined opponents were bankrupted, threatened, arrested, even murdered. He subdued the unruly Duma (parliament) by making it much more difficult for opposition parties to register or gain access to the media, and by encouraging violations of electoral procedure at the polls. Until recently, the Russian public seemed to accept this as part of the natural order.
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?
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.
By Thomas Dixon
The story of Doubting Thomas is a wonderful philosophical parable about seeing and believing, but what exactly is the intended moral? And what light does it shed on the relationship between science and religion?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Klaus Dodds
The last couple of weeks have been busy ones when it comes to news about the Falkland Islands. Or Islas Malvinas as Argentine and other readers might insist upon. For others, the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) is the preferred naming option – highlighting as it does their continued contested status.
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.
On 23 September 1840 the wonderfully eccentric Oxford geologist William Buckland (1784–1856) and the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz (1809–1873) left Glasgow by stagecoach on a tour of the Scottish Highlands