Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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 […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

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.

Read More

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, […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

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.

Read More

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 […]

Read More

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.

Read More

High pressure processing may be the future of food

For millennia, mankind has understood that we can apply heat to raw food materials to make them safe to consume and keep their quality for longer. Cooking is even credited as being key to human evolution, as its discovery (a trick unique to humans) greatly reduced the amount of energy bodies needed to digest and extract nutrients from food, allowing saved energy to be diverted into useful pathways such as those which developed more sophisticated brains.

Read More

James Harris, the black scientist who helped discover two elements

The year 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table. The Periodic Table is a tabular arrangement of all elements. Mendeleev developed it to recognize patterns of the known elements. He also predicted that later scientists would fill in new elements in the gaps of his table. Today’s […]

Read More

How do we measure the distance to a galaxy and why is it so important?

On March 3, 1912, Henrietta Swan Leavitt made a short contribution to the Harvard College Observatory Circular. With it she laid the foundations of modern Astronomy. Locked in solitude due to her deafness, Leavitt was the first person to discover how to measure distance to galaxies, thus expanding our understanding of the Universe in one giant leap.

Read More

Theranos and the cult of personality in science and tech

Elizabeth Holmes was a chemical engineering student who dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos: a silicon-valley start-up company that, at one point, was valued at US$9 billion. Her plan was to be another Steve Jobs. Today, she is facing fraud and other criminal charges.

Read More

The birth of exoplanetary science

The hunt for exoplanets was inspired by advances in understanding of the formation of stars: it was becoming clear that the gases that were contracting to form new stars were somehow shedding the bulk of their energy of rotation, while new observations were revealing disks full of gas and dust, spinning around such forming stars, and containing a lot of energy of rotation.

Read More

How six elements came together to form life on Earth

How did life begin? We will never know with certainty what the Earth was like four billion years ago, or the kinds of reactions that led to the emergence of life at that time, but there is another way to pose the question. If we ask “how can life begin?” instead of “how did life begin,” that simple change of verbs offers hope.

Read More