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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Story of Us

What if COVID-19 had emerged in 1719?

We’re often told that the situation created by the attack of the new coronavirus is “unique” and “unprecedented.” And yet, at the same time, scientists assure us that the emergence of new viruses is “natural”—that viruses are always mutating or picking up and losing bits of DNA. But if lethal new viruses have emerged again and again during human history, why has dealing with this one been such a struggle?

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Beer: A Global Journey through the Past and Present

Ten refreshing books to read for National Beer Day [reading list]

Beer is one of the world’s oldest produced alcoholic beverages and since its invention some 13,000 years ago, people across the globe have been brewing, consuming, and even worshiping this amber nectar. Whether you prefer a pale ale, wheat beer, stout, or lager, from the cask or a humble bottle, beer enthusiasts can agree that the topic of beer is as complex as its taste.

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Rivers of the Sultan

Seven new books on environmental history [reading list]

The reciprocal relationship between humanity and nature may define the future of our life on this planet, but it is also an inescapable force in our history. To discover how the natural world has impacted the course of history, explore these seven new titles on environmental history.

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Transcending Dystopia

Digging into the vaults of the unknown: the “Transcending Dystopia” research diaries

Research for Transcending Dystopia over the course of almost a decade was truly a journey, piecing together disparate snippets that have been transmitted in different repositories to gain insight into the musical practices and lives of Jews in postwar Germany. Among the 26 archives and private collections I consulted, two experiences stand out—the first being somewhat unusual, the second being quite extraordinary.

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Listening on the edge

Listen now before we choose to forget

Memory is pliable. How we remember the COVID-19 pandemic is continually being reshaped by the evolution of our own experience and by the influence of collective interpretations. The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), where I have worked for over two decades, asked me to design an oral history response to document the pandemic in our area.

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How face masks can help us understand the world

When historians only focus on written sources, they risk missing vital aspects of the historical record. The material traces of the past, the things people have chosen, made or used, can offer important evidence allowing us to understand the historical value of the material world. We can understand the relationship between material culture and history […]

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The city will survive coronavirus

In a recent essay, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman asked “Can City Life Survive Coronavirus?” It seems an apt question in this extraordinary time of mandated retreat from public life.  City streets and spaces normally teeming with people are nearly deserted now, evoking scenes from a Terry Gilliam film.  In an effort to slow the […]

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Untold stories of the Apollo 13 engineers

Late on 13 April 1970, the night shift had started in Houston’s Manned Spaceflight Center. Engineers tried to sift through reams of odd data coming about the Apollo 13 spacecraft, from instrument readings to the confused reports from three astronauts. It looked like they were rapidly losing their oxygen supply. “First of all, we thought […]

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Lessons for the coronavirus from the 1899 Honolulu plague

Public health officials all over the United States—indeed globally—are trying to decide how to deal with the world’s coronavirus pandemic.   They know the coronavirus originated in China, and they know they can identify it with certainty.  But they do not know what might kill it, and they have no cure for anyone who contracts […]

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Why we like a good robot story

We have been telling stories about machines with minds for almost three thousand years. In the Iliad, written around 800 BCE, Homer describes the oldest known AI: “golden handmaidens” created by Hephaestus, the disabled god of metalworking. They “seemed like living maidens” with “intelligence… voice and vigour”, and “bustled about supporting their master.” In the Odyssey, Homer […]

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Ten Facts about World Peace

The United Nations’ International Day of Peace is celebrated on 21 September each year, marking efforts to bring the world closer to a state of harmony and further away from violence. Here are some surprising facts about peace and the quest to achieve it:

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A forgotten African satirist: A.B.C. Merriman-Labor

In 1904, twenty-six-year-old A.B.C. Merriman-Labor stamped the red dust of Freetown’s streets from his shoes and headed for London. There he intended to prove his literary skill to the world. The Sierra Leone Weekly News had assured him that his color would no obstacle there, and he could “go anywhere, wherever his merits, either intellectual or social, will take him.”

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The eclipse that proved Einstein’s theories

The confirmation of Einstein’s new general theory of relativity on the 29th of May 1919 made headlines around the world. Arthur Stanley Eddington’s measurement of the gravitational deflection of starlight by the Sun was a triumph of experimental and theoretical physics.

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Gardens and cultural memory

Most gardens are in predictable places and are organised in predictable ways. On entering an English suburban garden, for example, one expects to see a lawn bordered by hedges and flowerbeds, a hard surface with a table for eating al fresco on England’s two days of summer, and a water feature quietly burbling in a corner.

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Who invented modern democracy?

Did modern democracy start its long career in the North Atlantic? Was it invented by the Americans, the French and the British? The French Revolution certainly helped to inject modern meaning into a term previously chiefly associated with the ancient world, with ancient Greece and republican Rome.

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