In August, we launched the Homeworld Ideas Writing Challenge. The goal of the contest was to encourage more writers to explore visions for how biology can enable a positive and sustainable future. The effort was co-led by Homeworld Collective and Niko McCarty, with additional awards funded by Pillar VC.
Several submissions shifted our world views on biotechnology, or proposed applications we hadn’t considered. Finalists were each reviewed by at least three judges, who evaluated submissions for Clarity, Novelty, and Impact. Today, we’re honored to announce the winners.
But first: The whole reason we did this essay contest was to get more people to write; to put their ideas into the world, get public feedback, and make that idea feel tangible or actionable. We’re pleased that 130 writers submitted more than 150 total pieces, including about 80 non-fiction essays, 40 works of fiction, 15 poems, as well as several research proposals and visual artwork. About 45 percent of submissions came from the United States, but more than 15 total countries were represented, including Nigeria, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India.
We sent an optional survey to everyone who applied, and collected 62 responses. Of those who replied:
- 32% said that they never would have written their piece without the Homeworld Ideas Challenge
- ~50% said they have never written anything outside of school.
- 75+% percent of respondents said that the challenge had a “positive effect” on their interest in writing.
This, for us, is a massive win. But choosing the handful of winners was immensely difficult. We wish we could have given detailed feedback to all the submissions, but hope our general reactions below help all the writers develop.
Submissions were many and varied, and a different set of judges may have decided upon a different set of winners. Judges prioritized submissions that presented original ideas in a clean, logical structure. It was often possible to tell which writers knew what they wanted to say before they started writing. Writers who “bit off” too much, and tried to cover an entire topic rather than focus on a specific angle or thesis, tended to ramble.
Winning submissions had many of the elements of great writing: An intriguing hook, followed by a rapid shift to the nut graf, with plenty of detailed and specific examples. A good mantra for all writers is “Specificity is the key to credibility.” One phrase overheard in the judging conversations was “Cool idea, but did it ‘land?'”
Often, the best stories were those that explained a singular aspect of a much broader topic in a beautiful and dense way. H.E.R. is one of the best movies about AI, but isn’t technical in the slightest. Instead, the movie tells a simple love story, centered within a broader universe, to get at a deeper meaning. Much the same can be said for great essays.
Congratulations to the winners.
“As sessile beings, synplants performed this feat without a nervous system and without moving. In the Botanocene, plant moods are not often questioned.”
R.P. Oates imagines a future Botanocene, in which humans live and evolve in harmony with plant biomass. A new human species, Homo botanicus dominatus, enjoys clean air and low mortality rates. They develop neural-interfaces that enable them to interpret the happiness, or suffering, of their natural surroundings. And then, well, everything goes off the (fictional) deep end from there. This science fiction story is both playful and deeply researched, at first plausible and then strange.
“The birds, routine visitors to this region, had begun to change color, directed evolution shaping a non-directed one.”
Xander Balwit writes an imagined news story from 2040 that explains how tree engineers have created white trees that reflect solar energy and heat. The piece recounts real scientific breakthroughs from our recent past and predicts how they will continue to progress into the future.
“Biology has been called ‘the science of exceptions,’ but it only seems this way because nature likes to make shapes that don’t fit neatly into low-dimensional boxes.”
Alex Telford makes an impassioned case for a fundamentally new view of disease; one that prioritizes a holistic view of biology, and the molecular mechanisms responsible, rather than strict, often arbitrary categories. This essay is beautiful, in part, because it centers upon a single idea, or thesis, and then supports the thesis by appealing to historical and contemporary examples. It’s no small feat to land such a big idea in such a compact essay.
“Instead sunshine in the shape of eggs;
Imagine ru__ed be__ars all gone
And instead cashmere-clad, priggish men –”
Kale Spoon has crafted a brilliant poem that plays on the fallibilities of CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology for which Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Cas9 protein only cuts at genome sites located near the nucleotides “NGG,” where N refers to any nucleotide (A, T, C, G). But sometimes, it gets things wrong. Everytime a biologist revisits this poem, they are bound to discover something new.
“Beyond its mystical ability to triple the price of any snack it contains, the hotel mini fridge also manipulates electrons in a way that is hitherto unknown to biology.”
Viroid sets out to answer a question that sounds inane on the surface, but is surprisingly deep: Living organisms can harvest electrons from sunlight, sugar, hydrogen, and lots of other things; but why not heat? The resulting piece is a delightful mix of great biology references, science trivia (such as red hot plutonium) and internet-worthy prose: “…these ideas all rely on a gradient forming over a tiny distance – just 30 water molecules end-to-end. I’m no entropist, but that doesn’t feel workable to me.“
“Simply, if we are to engineer signals in a future green economy, we need to understand their transmission and decay. We want the future to be green, not make us feel green.”
Michael Darcy outlines research ideas to develop an artificial nose, and supports the idea by appealing to the relatively poor sense of smell in humans, the depths of chemical sensing in the natural world, and pointing toward new methods that may soon enable a “superhuman smell” sensor.
“Commencement Speech, University of California San Diego, Class of 2053,” by Emily Greenhalgh ($100)
“Matter can be neither created or destroyed but it can be sequestered. And the cyanobacteria biomineralized the carbon right out of the equation.”
We enjoyed this piece for its positive perspective on the future potential of cyanobacteria, and want to make one scientific side note from the quote above: It is a common misconception that forming carbonates in the ocean will draw down carbon dioxide. In practice, the formation of carbonates consumes alkalinity which creates a net release of two CO2 molecules for every carbonate formed.
“What are humans but Tremblaya—the center of a scale-defying network of nested intelligences? Invisibly small bugs in us. Invisibly gargantuan AIs in the cloud.”
This is a creative, “big-think” take on the future AI/human interface. Ideas too big for a single essay can often blur into forgettable cliches, but this is written in a bio-centric metaphor which is fun, interesting and thought-provoking.
The judges do not endorse every argument in the selected entries.