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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The flow of physics

Galileo was proud of his parabolic trajectory. In his first years after arriving at the university in Padua, he had worked with marked intensity to understand the mathematical structure of the trajectory, arriving at a definitive understanding of it by 1610—just as he was distracted by his friend Paolo Sarpi who suggested he improve on the crude Dutch telescopes starting to circulate around Venice.

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The dilemma of ‘progress’ in science

Most practicing scientists scarcely harbor any doubts that science makes progress. For, what they see is that despite the many false alleys into which science has strayed across the centuries, despite the waxing and waning of theories and beliefs, the history of science, at least since the ‘early modern period’ (the 16th and 17th centuries) is one of steady accumulation of scientific knowledge. For most scientists this growth of knowledge is progress. Indeed, to deny either the possibility or actuality of progress in science is to deny its raison d’être. 

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From Galileo’s trajectory to Rayleigh’s harp

A span of nearly 300 years separates Galileo Galilei from Lord Rayleigh—Galileo groping in the dark to perform the earliest quantitative explorations of motion, Lord Rayleigh identifying the key gaps of knowledge at the turn into the 20th century and using his home laboratory to fill them in. But the two scientists are connected by a continuous thread.

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Innovation: in and out of the Budongo

In 2014, PLOS Biology published an article about a cousin of ours, a member of the Sono Community of wild chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in northwestern Uganda. In a video shared in relation to the study, an alpha male, NK, gathers moss from a tree trunk just within his reach, a prize he will use to lap up water in a nearby pool.

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Who discovered Newton’s Laws?

Newton’s famous remark, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” is not in his published work, but comes from a letter to a colleague and competitor. In context, it reads simply as an elaborately polite acknowledgment of previous work on optics, especially the work of the recipient of the letter, Robert Hooke. 

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Enjoying our Universe [slideshow]

What do we mean by “the Universe”? In the physics community, we would define “the Universe” as all “observable things”, ranging from the entire cosmos to stars and planets, and to small elementary particles that are invisible to the naked eye. Observable things would also include recently made discoveries that we are slowly coming to understand more, such as the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, and black holes.

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Bridging partisan divides over scientific issues

The current era in the Western hemisphere is marked by growing public distrust of “intellectual elites.” The present U.S. administration openly disregards, or even suppresses, relevant scientific input to policy formulation.

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C.P. Snow and thermodynamics, 60 years on

It’s nearly 60 years since C.P. Snow gave his influential “Two Cultures” lecture, in which – among many other significant insights – he advocated that a good education should equip a young person with as deep a knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics as of Shakespeare. A noble objective, but why did Snow highlight this particular scientific law?

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The gravity of gravitational waves

Rarely has a research field in physics gotten such sustained worldwide press coverage as gravity has received recently. A breathtaking sequence of events has kept gravity in the spotlight for months: the first detection(s) of gravitational waves from black-holes; the amazing success of LISA Pathfinder, ESA’s precursor mission to the LISA gravitational wave detector in space; the observation — first by gravitational waves with LIGO and Virgo, and then by all possible telescopes on Earth and in space — of the merger of two neutron stars, an astrophysical event that likely constitutes the cosmic factory of many of the chemical elements we find around us.

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Smashing black holes at the centre of the Milky Way

The centre of the Milky Way is a very crowded region, hosting a dense and compact cluster of stars—the so-called nuclear star cluster—and a supermassive black hole (SMBH) weighing more than 4 million solar masses. A star cluster is an ensemble of stars kept together by their own force of gravity. These large systems are found in the outskirts of every type of galaxy, being comprised of up to several million stars.

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What is a mathematical model?

As a mathematician who focuses his attention on a field called dynamics, I am often asked when queried about my area of specialty, exactly what is a dynamical system? I usually answer something like: “I study the mathematics underlying what is means to model something mathematically.” And this seems to work as most people have a basic understanding that mathematics is used in science and engineering to model either a physical or an abstract process and to mine it for information.

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The road to safe drugs

Healthcare is expensive, and not just in high income countries. Those who are suffering or struck by illness in resource limited countries are often unable to afford services that can provide them the care they need. Inequitable access to health services continues to be among the greatest public health challenges of our time. Since becoming […]

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2019, the year of the periodic table

The periodic table turns 150 next year. Given that all scientific concepts are eventually refuted, the durability of the periodic table would suggest an almost transcendent quality that deserves greater scrutiny, especially as the United Nations has nominated 2019 as the year of the Periodic Table. These days it seems that physics gives a fundamental explanation of the periodic table, although historically speaking it was the periodic table that gave rise to parts of atomic physics and quantum theory. I am thinking of Bohr’s 1913 model of the hydrogen atom and his extension of these ideas to the entire periodic table.

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In defense of beating dead horses: probing a subtle universe

A February 2017 Workshop on Robustness, Reliability, and Reproducibility in Scientific Research was sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF).  The workshop was part of NSF’s response to growing concerns in Congress triggered by increasing media coverage of an apparent lack of reproducibility among findings, especially in clinical sciences. The participants, spanning diverse scientific subfields, were charged to assess the extent of any problems of reliability and reproducibility, and to formulate next steps toward solutions.

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Fifty years on: what has plate tectonics ever done for us?

In 2004, John Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister in Tony Blair’s New Labour government, remarked, “the tectonic plates appear to be moving”, referring to the impending downfall of Mr Blair. Since then, the tectonic plates metaphor has been applied to just about every major political transition, including events following the UK referendum on leaving the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US President.

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