Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The best of all possible worlds

Voltaire is known today for Candide, a short novel published in 1779. The young hero Candide travels the world in a tale littered with rape, murder, pestilence, enslavement, and natural catastrophe. Amidst this apocalyptic nightmare, Candide’s tutor Dr Pangloss maintains a philosophical detachment, arguing against all evidence to the contrary that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

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Remains of ancient “mini planets” in Mars’s orbit

The planet Mars shares its orbit with a few small asteroids called “Trojans”. Recently, an international team of astronomers have found that most of these objects share a common composition and are likely the remains of a mini-planet that was destroyed by a collision long ago. Trojan asteroids move in orbits with the same average distance from the Sun as a planet, trapped within gravitational “safe havens” 60 degrees in front of and behind the planet.

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Liar, liar, pants on fire: alternative facts

Oxford lists several definitions of belief, but here is a paraphrase of their meanings: something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion; a religious conviction; trust, faith, or confidence in something or someone. How do truths believed by individuals or groups compare with scientific truths? On the face of it, scientific observations and experiments are backed by physical evidence, repeated in many settings, by many independent observers around the world.

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Quantum fields

Some say everything is made of atoms, but this is far from true. Light, radio, and other radiations aren’t made of atoms. Protons, neutrons, and electrons aren’t made of atoms, although atoms are made of them. Most importantly, 95% of the universe’s energy comes in the form of dark matter and dark energy, and these aren’t made of atoms. The central message of our most fundamental physical theory, namely quantum physics, is that everything is made of quantized fields.

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Schrödinger’s cat, aka quantum measurement problem

It’s been 116 years since Max Planck introduced the quantum idea, yet experts still disagree about quantum fundamentals. My previous post on the wave-particle duality problem, argued the universe is made of fields, not particles, and that photons, electrons, and other quanta are extended bundles of field energy that often act in particle-like ways.

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Deconstructing pseudoscience

Can magicians (illusionists) really levitate themselves and others or bend spoons using only the power of their mind? No. Emphatically no. But they surely make it seem as if they can. Enjoy being fooled? Then you’ll love watching really good magic shows that allow people the opportunity to suspend their disbelief momentarily. But don’t let this suspension become permanent.

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Is the universe made of fields or particles?

A few ancient Greek philosophers seriously considered this question and concluded that everything is made of tiny particles moving in empty space. The key 17th-century scientist Isaac Newton agreed, but a century later, Thomas Young’s experiments convinced him and others that light, at least, was a wave, and Michael Faraday and James Maxwell showed that light and other radiations such as infrared and radio are waves in a universal “electromagnetic field.”

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What’s in a name?

In September 2015, the UK Met Office and Met Éireann (the Irish meteorological service) announced a project to give names to potentially damaging storms. The basis for naming any particular storm was the expectation that there would be major impacts on conditions over the British Isles and, in particular, of very high winds. The first storm, Abigail, brought high winds to northern Scotland and the Outer Hebrides.

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Heavy-metal subdwarf

An international team of astronomers led by Professor Simon Jeffery at the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland has discovered a small, very blue helium-rich, and hot star called UVO 0825+15, which has a surface extremely rich in lead and other heavy metals and varies in brightness by up to 1% every eleven hours. Only the fourth “heavy-metal subdwarf” discovered, and the second to be variable, the new star raises major questions about how these stars form and work.

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John Glenn was a hero; was he a pioneer?

John Herschel Glenn passed away recently at age 95. He was the first American to orbit the Earth, on board Friendship 7 in February 1962, and before that, a much decorated war veteran, serving as a fighter pilot in both World War II and in Korea, finally retiring as a colonel in 1965. As if that wasn’t enough, after leaving NASA, he won a US Senate seat, representing his home state of Ohio, and served for 25 years.

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Looking at the stars

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars were mathematically perfect orbs, made from unearthly materials. These bodies were believed to move on perfectly symmetric celestial spheres, through which a backdrop of fixed stars could be seen, rotating majestically every 24 hours. At the centre was the motionless Earth. For the Greeks, the power of reason was more important than observation.

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Spectacular science in the shadows of New York

New York is a world center of commerce and finance, media and transportation, and many other facets of modern life. It is also a great hub of science, but this seldom transpires when New York is mentioned. Yet science, especially when including technology, inventions

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Dark matter, black holes, and dwarf spheroidal galaxies

Our current understanding of the Universe suggests that it is composed of an invisible component called “dark matter”. This mysterious type of matter represents more than 25% of the entire matter and energy of which the Universe is made. The matter that we are used to “seeing” in our everyday life and that represents the building blocks for both our bodies and stars that shine in the sky, represents only 5% of the Universe.

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A new philosophy of science? Surely that’s been outlawed

The main thing that drew me to the history and philosophy of science was the simple desire to understand the nature of science. I was introduced to the exciting ideas of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend, but it soon became clear that there were serious problems with each of these views and that those heydays were long gone. Professionals in the field would no longer presume to generalize as boldly as the famous quartet had done.

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A question of public influence: the case of Einstein

Einstein’s scientific achievements are well known even if not widely understood by non-scientists. He bestrode the twentieth century like a colossus and physicists are still working through his legacy. Besides, the theory of relativity penetrated far beyond science into many areas of literature and the arts. If hard to measure, evidence of his cultural influence is unmistakable.

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Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion

Are God and chance compatible?

It has long been the unquestioned assumption of many religious believers that the God who created the world also acts in it. Until recent scientific discoveries, few challenged the idea of how exactly God interacts with the world. With the introduction of Newtonian science and quantum theory, we now know much more about how the world works, and the mode of God’s action has become a serious question for believers.

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