Essays

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Scientists near the Daneborg research station in Greenland, July/August 2014. Photo by Jean Gaumy/Magnum

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Philosophy of science
The necessity of awe

In awe we hold fast to nature’s strangeness and open up to the unknown. No wonder it’s central to the scientific imagination

Helen De Cruz

An Indian worker shows a European man a sample of opium taken from one of the large clay pots in the foreground. Photo by Bourne and Shepherd/British Library

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Global history
From vice to crime

European empires were addicted to opium smoking. Then their own agents launched a moral crusade to prohibit it

Diana S Kim

A Catholic nun and a young Hispanic immigrant in Central Park, New York, 1976. Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

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Thinkers and theories
Laughter is vital

For philosopher Henri Bergson, laughter solves a serious human conundrum: how to keep our minds and social lives elastic

Emily Herring

Photo by Martin Roemers/Panos

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Mental health
Unboxing mental health

Our system for diagnosing mental disorders doesn’t work. The transdiagnostic model offers a humane, clinically sound alternative

Melissa Black

The cleaner wrasse (pictured here accompanying the larger black-and-white snapper) can seemingly recognise itself in a mirror. Photo by Ullstein Bild/Getty

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Biology
The face of the fish

They’re not cuddly, they don’t behave at all like us – yet they are sentient. Why fish belong in the moral community

Michael Woodruff

An Ashokan pillar at Vaishali, India. Photo by Rajeez Kumar/Wikipedia

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The ancient world
Ashoka’s moral empire

Being good is hard. How an ancient Indian emperor, horrified by the cruelty of war, created an infrastructure of goodness

Sonam Kachru

A group gather to watch another victim taken to a hospital during the 1956 polio epidemic in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

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Illness and disease
Stealth infections

From the Black Death to polio, the most dangerous pathogens have moved silently, transmitted by apparently healthy people

Wendy Orent

Detail from Beethoven Frieze, Hostile Forces (1902) by Gustav Klimt, on display at the Secession Building, Vienna. Courtesy Wikipedia

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Music
Vienna, city of paradox

How did the city of elegant classicism give birth to an explosive modernism, threatening to destroy its very traditions?

Alexander Carpenter

Joan Miller in labour. Chicago, 19 September 1946. Photo by Wayne Miller/Magnum

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Pleasure and pain
The hysteria accusation

Women’s pain is often medically overlooked and undertreated. But the answer is not as simple as ‘believing all women’

Elizabeth Barnes

A section of the Andromeda galaxy M31, from the largest and most detailed image ever taken with the Hubble telescope. The full image shows more than 100 million stars stretching across more than 40,000 light years. Photo courtesy NASA, ESA, J Dalcanton, B F Williams, L C Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team and R Gendler

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Astronomy
Does dark matter exist?

Dark matter is the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found: it’s time to consider alternative explanations

Ramin Skibba

Václav Havel wrote: ‘all at once, I seemed to rise above the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time …’ Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

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Thinkers and theories
Peak ellipsis

Does philosophy reside in the unsayable or should it care only for precision? Carnap, Heidegger and the great divergence

Sam Dresser

A guard in the ‘segregation block’ at the Adelanto Detention Center, the latest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in California and managed by the private GEO Group. ICE detains an average of 33,000 undocumented migrants. Photo by John Moore/Getty

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Human rights and justice
Private gain, public loss

Putting public services in private hands is bad economics. Worse, it undermines our bonds as a political community

Alon Harel

Pupils in a science class at Summerhill School in Suffolk, England. Summerhill will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2021. Photo by In Pictures Ltd/Corbis/Getty

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Education
Education, unchained

Rousseau’s child-centred ideals are now commonplace but his truly radical vision of educational freedom still eludes us

James Brooke-Smith

A hunting scene discovered painted in a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia, is thought to be 44,000 years old. Photo courtesy Ratno Sardi/Griffith University

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Human evolution
Ancient yet cosmopolitan

Art, adornment and sophisticated hunting technologies flourished not only in prehistoric Europe but across the globe

Gaia Vince

Two girls with their Cabbage Patch dolls. New York City, 1986. Photo by Leonard Freed/Magnum

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Mood and emotion
The bittersweet madeleine

It is a guilty pleasure and undergirds nationalist bombast, yet nostalgia for the past can help propel us into the future

Elizabeth Svoboda

A view of Singapore’s central business district from a hotel along Beach Road. Much of Singapore’s recent development has been built upon land reclaimed from the sea. Photo by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos

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Politics and government
The ungoverned globe

The end of the liberal order would unleash chaos; its continuance means unconstrained economic suffering. What to do?

Benjamin Studebaker

Carl Schmitt addresses the German Industry and Trade Day at the Kroll Opera House, Berlin, 8 April 1930. Photo by Ullstein Bild/Getty

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Political philosophy
Lawyer for the strongman

Demagogues do not rise on popular feeling alone but on the constitutional ideas of Weimar and Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt

David Dyzenhaus

Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos

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Self-improvement
Beware of lateral thinking

De Bono’s popular theory is textbook pseudoscience: unsound, untested and derivative of real (unacknowledged) research

Antonio Melechi

On a mountain road from Koya to Ryujin, Japan. 1998. Photo by Peter Marlow/Magnum

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Physics
From chaos to free will

A crude understanding of physics sees determinism at work in the Universe. Luckily, molecular uncertainty ensures this isn’t so

George Ellis

Prisoner-patient William Porter, convicted of housebreaking and theft. From the Perth Criminal Lunatic Department Prison Register. December 1898. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/48/3

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Human rights and justice
Criminally insane

The insanity defence offends the conscience, has no basis in modern psychiatry, and penalises poor and black defendants

Susan Vinocour

Photo by Mayr/Flickr

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Consciousness and altered states
Consciousness regained

After years of deep therapeutic pessimism, emerging therapies offer hope for patients trapped between coma and wakefulness

Aurore Thibaut

Aerial view of the Apollo 9 space vehicle on the way from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center. 3 January 1969. By 1966, NASA directly employed a staff of 36,000, with another 400,000 people working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries. Photo courtesy NASA

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The future
Where did the grandeur go?

Superlative things were done in the past century by marshalling thousands of people in the service of a vision of the future

Martin Parker

Photo by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Medicine
The medicalised life

Why do so many see vaccines and other medical interventions as tools of social control rather than boons to health?

Bernice L Hausman

The Sea of Ice (Das Eismeer), by Caspar David Friedrich (1823). Courtesy the Hamburger Kunsthalle/Wikipedia

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History of ideas
In praise of aphorisms

What if we see the history of philosophy not as a grand system of sustained critique but as a series of brilliant fragments?

Andrew Hui

Early Anglo-Saxon helmet (late-6th to early 7th century) made in either Scandinavia or England, and discovered at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, United Kingdom. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

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Archaeology
The fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’

Racists use it to bolster their ethnohistorical myths, but historians and archaeologists should not abandon the term

Howard Williams

From Le Petit Journal, 18 February 1912. Photo by Getty

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Ethics
The trolley problem problem

Are thoughts experiments experiments at all? Or something else? And do they help us think clearly about ethics or not?

James Wilson

Scientists working extra hours during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases in Athens, Greece. 18 March 2020. Photo by Enri Canaj/Magnum

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Philosophy of science
The good scientist

Science is the one culture that all humans share. What would it mean to create a scientifically literate future together?

Martin Rees

Alt-Berlin, Waisenstraße (1927) by Hans Baluschek. Courtesy of the Märkisches Museum, Berlin/Wikipedia

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Cities
Money and modern life

Sociologist Georg Simmel diagnosed the character of modern city life: finance, fashion and becoming strangers to one another

Daniel Lopez

The Inquisition Scene (1808-1812), by Francisco Goya. Courtesy the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, Madrid

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Virtues and vices
Vice dressed as virtue

Cruelty and morality seem like polar opposites – until they join forces. Beware those who persecute in the name of principle

Paul Russell

From Piers Plowman (1427) by William Langdon. Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104. Courtesy the Bodleian Library, Oxford

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Language and linguistics
On gibberish

Babies babble, medieval rustics sing ‘trolly-lolly’, and jazz exults in bebop. What does all this wordplay mean for language?

Jenni Nuttall