Field of Science

3 Quarks Daily annual science writing prize

I am honored and frankly a bit stunned to hear that my post on the "fundamental philosophical dilemma" of chemistry was awarded first place in the annual 3 Quarks Daily science writing prize contest. I am deeply thankful to the editors of the site, to those who nominated the post and to Prof. Nick Lane who judged the final nine entries.

I am enormously gratified that my entry was selected by Nick Lane, biochemist and science writer extraordinaire, whose latest book "The Vital Question" proposes a novel theory of the origins of life based on the genesis and evolution of the energy generating apparatus in cells. I have long since admired Nick's books both for their originality and their clarity so I was especially thrilled that he picked my post. And I am stunned because my entry was included in a roster of entries that included some very fine writing indeed by writers whose work I have respected for a long time, so I didn't expect my own entry to win. Congratulations especially to my fellow prizewinners, Aatish Bhatia and Nadia Drake, for their incisive and highly readable pieces. The list of finalists is also very much worth taking a look at.

Here's what Nick had to say about the post and about his own views on writing:

When I read a blog, I'm not really looking for a beautiful piece of writing, or stunning visuals, or links to amazing videos, even though these things make a great post. I'm looking for a personal point of view, usually from someone with a particular vantage point, whether scientific or journalistic. I'm looking for something that I couldn't find so easily in the mainstream media, grounded in personal experience, and more idiosyncratic than most magazines would allow you to get away with. (That's one of the things I like about writing books too.)

I don't really know where to draw the line between a blog and a news story, or a feature article, or even a short story. Some of the finalists here did not really write blog posts at all, in my view, but achieved a higher calling, works of art in their own right. So with all that in mind, here goes:

The winner is Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar. I loved this post. It is personal and authoritative, and grows from what starts out as a quirky irritation in the day job into a profound commentary on the limits of the controlled experiment in chemistry, stemming from fundamental physics. Ash begins with the different interactions between atoms in molecules – electrical charges, hydrophobic interactions and the rest – and shows them to be different aspects of the same fundamental electrochemical force, making it impossible to achieve any independent changes in a molecule. He finishes with a lovely twist, justifying the thrill of experiment as the only way to explore design in chemistry, making the subject endlessly fascinating. 

Ash's writing style is crisp and clean, admirably precise without being patronising, even in the use of italics, which can easily feel preachy. Not here. I followed the links for genuine interest, and there was a great discussion in the comments pointing out an equivalent problem in biology, in the use of knockout models. In an age when science is being pushed towards supposedly managed outcomes, this is a refreshing reminder of why it can't be planned.

Many thanks to Nick for his very thoughtful appraisal and appreciation of the piece. I am especially thrilled to see writing about fundamental chemistry - a topic that doesn't usually get much billing in the popular science literature - being recognized. The limits of performing controlled experiments in science is a topic close to my heart, and I'm glad to see that others have thoroughly appreciated the problem too. 

Occasionally we'll hear drumbeats about the "end of science" which proclaim the complete ascendancy of knowledge in one field or another. While this kind of proclamation ignores the simple fact that progress in different fields is not all created equal (as a commenter on a blog recently mentioned, "we can land a probe on a comet at 17,000 miles/hr but we still don't know if butter's bad for you") I think it's also important to realize more fundamental, epistemological limits to knowledge that arise from the kinds of limits on measuring basic atomic and molecular interactions that I was talking about in my post. 

But crucially, while some may see such limits as heralding "the end", I see them as heralding endless opportunities and fascinating discoveries which will forever remain open-ended. If that's not the opposite of "the end" I don't know what is.


  1. Congrats Ash-- this is deserving recognition!

  2. Congratulations! You deserved it. I think moving your blog here was the best move ever! I enjoy your posts much more now.

    1. Thanks! Couldn't agree with you more that the move has been refreshing.

  3. Well done - have been enjoying your writing for many years, and I'm pleased to see it recognised in this way. Could not agree more with the "crisp, clean, and admirably precise without being patronising" :)


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