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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The scientific mysteries that led to Einstein’s E=mc^2 equation

Scientists deal with mysteries. As Richard Feynman once commented:  “Science must remain a continual dialog between skeptical inquiry and a sense of inexplicable mystery”. Three examples: it is profoundly mysterious as to why mathematics can so accurately describe our physical world, and even predict events, such as the motion of the planets or the propagation […]

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Is motion an illusion of the senses?

According to Aristotle, Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 – ca. 430 BCE) said, “Nothing moves because what is traveling must first reach the half-way point before it reaches the end.” One interpretation of the paradox is this. To begin a trip of a certain distance (say 1 meter), a traveler must travel the first half of it (the first 1/2 m), but before he does that he must travel half of the first half (1/4 m), and in fact half of that (1/8 m), ad infinitum.

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Understanding quantum mechanics [quiz]

Mechanics is that part of physics concerned with stuff that moves, from cannonballs to tennis balls, cars, rockets, and planets. Quantum mechanics is that part of physics which describes the motions of objects at molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic levels, such as photons and electrons. Although quantum mechanics is an extraordinarily successful scientific theory, on which […]

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Envisioning a post-crisis world

Early in World War II, in August 1941, before the United States had entered the war and Britain stood alone against Adolph Hitler, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill steamed in secret aboard their respective battleships and met off the coast of Newfoundland on HMS Prince of Wales. Their aim: Shape the Post […]

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Space for concern: Trump’s executive order on space resources

Among the bevy of executive actions undertaken by President Donald Trump during the COVID-19 crisis is, of all things, an executive order (issued on 6 April 2020) promoting the development of space resources, which states in part that: Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer […]

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The physics of swarm behaviour

The locusts have no king, and yet they all go forth in ranks, noted King Solomon some three thousand years ago. That a multitude of simple creatures could display coherent collective behavior without any leader caused his surprise and amazement, and it has continued to do so for much of our thinking over the following […]

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The scientists who transformed modern medicine

Structural biology, a seemingly arcane topic, is currently at the heart of biomedical research.  It holds the key to the creation of healthier, cleaner and safer lives, since it guides researchers in understanding both the causes of diseases and the creation of medicines required to conquer them. Structural biology describes the molecules of life. It […]

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The problem with overqualified research

Not all research findings turn out to be true. Of those that are tested, some will need to be amplified, others refined or circumscribed, and some even rejected. Practicing researchers learn quickly to qualify their claims, taking into account the possibility of improved measurements, more stringent analyses, new interpretations, and, in the extreme, experimental or […]

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Why scientists should be atheists

My friend and colleague George asked me, “Do you think a scientist can be an atheist?” I replied, “Not only can a scientist be an atheist, he should be one.” I was teasing because I knew what response George wanted to hear and this was not it. Sure enough, he shook his head. The only logical position that a scientist can take, he said, is to be an agnostic because we can never know the answer to the question of whether God exists or not.

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Reviewing for scientific journals: A how to

Scientific journals are complex ecosystems, bringing together different actors in what is loosely akin to an inquisitorial court of law. The chief editor is the judge. She will decide whether a manuscript goes out for review and makes the final decision should the paper be peer reviewed. Members of the editorial board are like council, […]

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Robot rats are the future of recycling

I just watched WALL-E for the first time in five years or so. It’s the story of a plucky little robot tasked with cleaning up the world by compacting rubbish into blocks and building structures out of the blocks to minimize the amount of land they take up. Of course, he falls in love and saves the […]

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Why academics announce plans for research that might never happen

Why do academic writers announce their plans for further work at the end of their papers in peer reviewed journals? It happens in many disciplines, but here’s an example from an engineering article: Additionally, in our future work, we will extend our model to incorporate more realistic physical effects . . . We will expand the detection […]

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How microwaves changed the course of the Battle of the Atlantic

Sir Robert Watson Watt is credited as the inventor of radar. In Britain radar was known as RDF (radio direction finding). The way that radar works is that pulses of microwave radiation of controlled frequency and polarisation are emitted from a transmitter. Some of these microwaves reach an object (an aircraft or submarine for example) directly […]

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250 Years of Oxford weather

Talking about the weather is a national obsession. Thomas Hornsby talked about the weather, or at least wrote about it, in Oxford back in the mid-eighteenth century. His surviving diaries from 1767 mark the commencement of the longest continuous single-site weather records in the British Isles, and one of the longest anywhere in the world.

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Predicting the past with the periodic table

Predicting the future is the pinnacle of what science can do. It’s impressive enough for a scientist to look at existing data and compose a theory explaining it. It’s even more impressive for a scientist to predict what data will look like before they are collected. The periodic table is central to chemistry precisely because […]

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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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