Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What mushrooms have taught me about the meaning of life

Once upon a time, I spent 30 years studying mushrooms and other fungi. Now, as my scientific interests broaden with my waistline, I would like to share three things that I have learned about the meaning of life from thinking about these extraordinary sex organs and the microbes that produce them.

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SciWhys: Why do we eat food?

We all know that we eat food to keep ourselves alive. But why do we find ourselves slaves to our appetites and rumbling stomachs? What’s happening inside each of us that couldn’t happen without another slice of toast or piece of fruit, or the sneakily-consumed mid-afternoon bar of chocolate?

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2012: The year that the Higgs boson is discovered

By Jim Baggott
The new year is a time for bold and often foolhardy predictions. Certainly, most of us will take the prophesy of impending doom on 21 December, 2012 with a large pinch of salt. This date may represent the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, but it doesn’t necessarily signal the end of all things (not even in Mayan history, contrary to popular belief). I think that when the time comes, we can plan for Christmas 2012 with a reasonably clear conscience. But, despite the obvious pitfalls, I am prepared to stick my neck out and make a prediction. I predict that this will be the year that the Higgs boson is discovered.

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Curies discover radium

This Day in World History
Working in an old shed on a sample of pitchblende, or uraninite, using chemical processes to separate different elements, the wife and husband team finally reached their breakthrough. They isolated a new element more radioactive than the uranium studied two years before and called it radium.

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The periodic table: matter matters

By Eric Scerri
As far back as I can remember I have always liked sorting and classifying things. As a boy I was an avid stamp collector. I would sort my stamps into countries, particular sets, then arrange them in order of increasing monetary value shown on the face of the stamp. I would go to great lengths to select the best possible copy of any stamp that I had several versions of. It’s not altogether surprising that I have therefore ended up doing research and writing books on what is perhaps the finest example of a scientific system of classification – the periodic table of the elements.

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SciWhys: Why are plants green?

By Jonathan Crowe
After the greyness of winter, the arrival of spring is heralded by a splash of colour as plants emerge from the soil, and trees seemingly erupt with leaves. Soon, much of the countryside has moved from being something of a grey, barren wasteland to a sea of verdant green. But why is it that so much vegetation is green? Why not a sea of red, or blue? To answer this question let me take you on a colourful journey from the sun to within the cells of plant leaves.

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Professor Frank Close talks neutrinos

Neutrinos: what are they and why does nature need them? In a recent lecture Professor Frank Close gave an overview of the discovery of neutrinos, discussing how we are becoming increasingly aware of their significance and speculating over ways in which we may utilise them.

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The origin of Reactions

By Peter Atkins
There are three major problems associated with the challenge of reaching out to the general public with chemistry. One is its collective disagreeable memory of how in many cases it was taught. Another is the association of the subject with harmful effects on humanity and the environment. The third is what is perceived as the intrinsically abstract nature of its explanations. If chemistry, and all its marvellous contributions to the joy of being alive, is to be appreciated by the general public

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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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