Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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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How do black holes shape the cosmos?

At the center of every galaxy is a supermassive black hole. Looking at the wider scale, is it possible that these gravity monsters influence the overall structure of our universe? Using a new computer model, astrophysicists have recently calculated the ways in which black holes influence the distribution of dark matter, how heavy elements are produced and distributed throughout the cosmos, and where cosmic magnetic fields originate.

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Ascending to the god’s-eye view of reality

Frank Wilczek famously wrote: “A recurring theme in natural philosophy is the tension between the God’s-eye view of reality comprehended as a whole and the ant’s-eye view of human consciousness, which senses a succession of events in time. Since the days of Isaac Newton, the ant’s-eye view has dominated fundamental physics. We divide our description of the world into dynamical laws that, paradoxically, exist outside of time according to some, and initial conditions on which those laws act.

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Celebrating women in STM [timeline]

Throughout the month of March, Oxford University Press will be celebrating women in STM (science, technology, and medicine) with the objective of highlighting the outstanding contributions that women have made to these fields. Historically many of the contributions made by women have gone unsung or undervalued, and these fields have been male-dominated and inaccessible for women to enter.

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How many ‘Earths’? Rich findings in the hunt for planets of other stars

Ever since it was realised that the stars are other suns, people have wondered whether any of them are accompanied by planets, or ‘exoplanets’ as we now call them. Speculation along these lines were among the charges that led to Giordano Bruno being burned at the stake in the year 1600. It is only since the 1930s that astronomers seriously thought they had the observational tools to be able to find out.

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The impossible behavior of light

At the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Young proved that light was a wave phenomenon. He did so by illuminating a screen (in an otherwise darkened room) with a beam of sunlight that had passed through a card with two slits in it. The proof was the interference pattern on the screen, whose alternating light and dark portions could only have occurred if light consisted of waves, not particles.

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The first contracting white dwarf

White dwarfs are the remnants of solar-like stars that have exhausted the reservoir of fuel for the nuclear fusion reactions that powers them. It is widely believed, based on theoretical considerations, that young white dwarfs should experience a phase of contraction during the first million years after their formation. This is related to the gradual cooling of their interior which is not yet fully degenerate.

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Why physicists need philosophy

At a party, on a plane, in the locker-room, I’m often asked what I do. Though tempted by one colleague’s adoption of the identity of a steam-pipe fitter, I admit I am a professor of philosophy. If that doesn’t end or redirect the conversation, my questioner may continue by raising some current moral or political issue, or asking for my favorite philosopher.

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POTY 2017 nominee Spotlight: the sun [excerpt]

How big is the Moon in the sky? What is its angular size? Extend your arm upward and as far from your body as possible. Using your index finger and thumb, imagine that you are trying to pluck the Moon out of the sky ever so carefully, squeezing down until you are just barely touching the top and bottom of the Moon, trapping it between your fingers. How big is it?

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Modernizing classical physics: an oxymoron?

Open most textbooks titled “Modern Physics” and you will see chapters on all the usual suspects: special relativity, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, solid state physics, particle physics and astrophysics. This is the established canon of modern physics.

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What’s wrong with electric cars?

Recently, we’ve heard that Volvo are abandoning the internal combustion engine, and that both the United Kingdom and France will ban petrol and diesel cars from 2040. Other countries like China are said to be considering similar mandates.

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The importance of physics for humanists and historians

If you studied history, sociology, or English literature in your post-secondary education, it was probably in part because physics was too hard to understand or not as interesting. If you did not pay attention to quiet developments in the world of physics over the past several decades, you missed some very interesting important discoveries. Today, physics is not what our parents or even any of us who went to high school or university in the last quarter of the twentieth century learned because the physicists have been busy learning a lot of new things.

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How well do you know quantum physics? [quiz]

Quantum physics is one of the most important intellectual movements in human history. Today, quantum physics is everywhere: it explains how our computers work, how lasers transmit information across the Internet, and allows scientists to predict accurately the behavior of nearly every particle in nature. Its application continues to be fundamental in the investigation of the most expansive questions related to our world and the universe.

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On theory and consensus in science: a journey in time

In ordinary discourse, a theory is a guess or a surmise, as in “that’s only a theory.” In science, however, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is supported by confirmed facts and/or observations. Verification of a theory’s predictions ensures its eventual acceptance by the community of scientists working in the particular discipline.

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Why solar and wind won’t make much difference to carbon dioxide emissions

We all like the convenience of electrical energy. It lights our home and offices, and drives motors that are needed in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems that keep us buildings comfortable no matter what the temperature is outside. It’s essential for refrigeration that secures our food supply. In short, it makes modern life with all its comfort and conveniences possible.

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World Space Week: a reading list

Space exploration has dominated human imagination for the most of the last 125-odd years. Every year we learn more about what lies beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere. We learn about extraterrestrial resources, such as metals on asteroids or water on the Moon; we discover new exoplanets that may be able to support life; we research new technologies that will get us onto planets a little closer to home, such as Mars.

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