The Winners of the 3QD Science Prize 2015

2015ScienceWinner 2015 Science Nick Lane Winner 2015 science Nick Lane

Nick Lane has picked the three winners from the nine finalists:

  1. Top Quark, $500: Ashutosh Jogalekar, The fundamental philosophical dilemma of chemistry
  2. Strange Quark, $200: Aatish Bhatia, The Sound So Loud That It Circled the Earth Four Times
  3. Charm Quark, $100: Nadia Drake, When Hubble Stared at Nothing for 100 Hours

Here is what Nick has to say about the winners:

I hardly need to say that the standard of the nine finalists is extremely high, and any one of them would have been a worthy winner. So I'm sorry to disappoint most of you. In judging, I've had to apply a few criteria (or biases) of my own. The 3QD prize is for a single post, not a blog, and that doesn't reflect how I normally read blogs. I often search for a particular question, come across a fascinating post, and then spend more time than I ever had available reading other posts on the blog. A good blog, to me, is one that has a long run of thought-provoking views.

Those views are expressed not only by the blogger, but also in the comments. As an evolutionary biologist, I'm wary of comments; in my field they often bring out the worst in people. But when it works the other way around, blogs transcend any other medium. Few things are more enjoyable than a well-informed discussion below a post, in which the blogger is actively involved.

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.

Second prize goes to Aatish Bhatia, a previous winner of this prize, for his piece on Krakatoa. This is another beautifully written and presented post that makes full use of the medium, with spectacular links to videos of an exploding sperm whale and the shockwave of a recent volcanic eruption, and even 19th century barometric data of air pressure spikes. For me, this was not quite a blog – more of a feature article on a subject I knew little about (although I'm aware of books on the subject). This was not quite so personal and ruminative, although I liked especially the idea of ‘inching up against the limits of what we mean by sound.' Where this post really came alive for me was in the comments, with a fascinating exchange on the physics of pressure waves, in which Aatish is exemplary in both responsiveness and a deep underlying knowledge, worn lightly. A masterclass.

Third prize goes to Nadia Drake for her post on the Hubble telescope. This combined a fine piece of storytelling with a tremendously important point – that often the most iconic discoveries in science stem from one person's courage and vision to defy conventional wisdom, risking their own position or reputation to do so. In this case the astronomer Bob Williams focused Hubble on an ‘empty' patch of sky for 100 hours. The ‘emptiness' was filled with thousands of galaxies, expanding the estimated number of galaxies in the universe about five-fold. I was reminded of Leeuwenhoek, who more than 300 years ago turned his simple microscope on an ‘empty' drop of water, and discovered an invisible microcosmos of protozoa and bacteria. The spirit of discovery is what draws most of us into science, and I hope that blogs like this might remind policy makers that naïve questions are often the best.

Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (remember, you must claim the money within one month from today—just send me an email). And feel free, in fact we encourage you, to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Many thanks also, of course, to Nick Lane for doing the final judging.

The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed by me, Sughra Raza, and Carla Goller. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!

Details about the prize here.

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