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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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What is the history of science for, and who should write it?

By Frank James
I have been pondering these questions recently in the course of researching and writing the biographical memoir for the British Academy of the distinguished and influential historians of science Rupert Hall (1920-2009) and his wife Marie Boas Hall (1919-2009). Before the 1939-1945 war history of science was practiced almost exclusively by scientists of one form or another such as Charles Singer (1876-1960) in England and George Sarton (1884–1956) in the United States.

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Nature’s building blocks

By John Emsley
I am sometimes asked the question: how many elements are there? I reply that there are several answers to that question. Should it include only those we know about? Then the answer is probably around 120 and I say ‘probably’ because some have been claimed but not confirmed. There are definitely 114 elements, although that includes some very transient ones.

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SciWhys: How does the immune system work?

By Jonathan Crowe
Each day of our lives is a battle for survival against an army of invaders so vast in size that it outnumbers the human population hugely. Yet, despite its vastness, this army is an invisible threat, each individual so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye. These are the microbes – among them the bacteria and viruses – that surround us every day, and could in one way or another kill us were it not for our immune system, an ingenious defence mechanism that protects us from these invisible foes.

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SciWhys: How does an organism evolve?

By Jonathan Crowe
The world around us has been in a state of constant change for millions of years: mountains have been thrust skywards as the plates that make up the Earth’s surface crash against each other; huge glaciers have sculpted valleys into the landscape; arid deserts have replaced fertile grasslands as rain patterns have changed. But the living organisms that populate this world are just as dynamic: as environments have changed, so too has the plethora of creatures inhabiting them. But how do creatures change to keep step with the world in which they live? The answer lies in the process of evolution.

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Chernobyl disaster, 25 years on

On April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Now, 25 years later, the current crisis in Fukushima is being called the “worst since Chernobyl.” Will we avoid another disaster? And further more, in another 25 years, how will we feel about nuclear energy?

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SciWhys: How is a gene’s information used by a cell?

By Jonathan Crowe
In my last two posts I’ve introduced the notion that DNA acts as a store of biological information; this information is stored in a series of chromosomes, each of which are divided into a number of genes. Each gene in turn contains one ‘snippet’ of biological information. But how are these genes actually used? How is the information stored in these genes actually extracted to do something useful (if ‘useful’ isn’t too flippant a term for something that the very continuation of life depends upon).

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Do not phase out nuclear power — yet

Tweet By Charles D. Ferguson The ongoing Japanese nuclear crisis underscores yet again the risks inherent in this essential energy source. But it should not divert nations from using or pursuing nuclear power to generate electricity, given the threat from climate change, the health hazards of fossil fuels, and the undeveloped state of renewable energy. […]

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Quantum computers – have birds got there first?

By Vlatko Vedral
European robins are crafty little creatures. Each year they make a round trip from the cold Scandinavian Peninsula to the warm equatorial planes of Africa, a hazardous trip of about four thousand miles each way. Armed with only their internal sense of direction these diligent birds regularly make the journey without any fuss.

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The way of the abstract

“Physics, most of us would agree, is the basic science of nature. Its purpose is to discover the laws of the natural world. Do such laws exist? Well, the success of physics at identifying some of them proves, in retrospect, that they do exist. Or, at least, it proves that there are Laws of Physics, which we can safely assume to be Laws of Nature.”

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SciWhys: What are genes and genomes?

By Jonathan Crowe
I described in my last blog post how DNA acts as a store of biological information – information that serves as a set of instructions that direct our growth and function. Indeed, we could consider DNA to be the biological equivalent of a library – another repository of information with which we’re all probably much more familiar. The information we find in a library isn’t present in one huge tome, however. Rather, it is divided into discrete packages of information – namely books. And so it is with DNA: the biological information it stores isn’t captured in a single, huge molecule, but is divided into separate entities called chromosomes – the biological equivalent of individual books in a library.

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On Being

By Peter Atkins
Deep questions of existence have entertained both sharp and dull minds throughout the history of humanity. Where did it all come from? What is the point of it? What happens after you die? Great mounds of implausible speculation have been tipped on these pressing questions by theologians and philosophers; whole churches have been founded as a result of the institutionalization of the answers. But all those answers were guided by speculation and sentiment and typically expressed in compelling language that captured minds but concealed emptiness. They were emperor’s new clothes with no emperor within.

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International Women’s Day: Émilie du Châtelet

By Patricia Fara
Émilie du Châtelet, wrote Voltaire, ‘was a great man whose only fault was being a woman.’ Du Châtelet has paid the penalty for being a woman twice over. During her life, she was denied the educational opportunities and freedom that she craved. ‘Judge me for my own merits,’ she protested: ‘do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that renowned scholar’ – but since her death, she has been demoted to subsidiary status as Voltaire’s mistress and Isaac Newton’s translator.

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SciWhys: What is DNA and what does it do?

Today we’d like to introduce our latest regular OUPblog column: SciWhys. Every month OUP editor and author Jonathan Crowe will be answering your science questions. Got a burning question about science that you’d like answered? Just email it to us, and Jonathan will answer what he can. Kicking us off: What is DNA and what does it do?

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Quantum Theory: If a tree falls in the forest…

Philosophers have long argued that sound, colour, taste, smell and touch, exist only in our minds. We have little basis for our assumption that these qualities represent reality as it really is. So, if we interpret the word ‘sound’ to mean a human experience, then the falling tree really is silent.

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