Companions the creator seeks, not corpses, not herds and believers. Fellow creators the creator seeks—those who grave new values on new tablets. Companions the creator seeks, and fellow harvesters; for everything about him is ripe for the harvest.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
There’s a long tradition in the history of medicine where people figured out the cause of an industrial disease by noticing that one profession had a much higher rate of the disease than everyone else. For example, in Victorian and Edwardian England, chimney sweeps had a rate of scrotal cancer more than 200 times higher than workers who weren’t exposed to tar on the job. No, we are not making this up.
Now it’s your turn to do something similar. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a review of the mysteries on a topic and send it to us at slimemoldtimemold[at]gmail[dot]com by July 1st 2023.
Pick a topic, and write about the mysterious aspects of that topic, like we did for the mysteries of obesity in Part I of A Chemical Hunger. We mostly expect you to review topics from “hard science” areas like medicine, biology, chemistry, and neuroscience, but we are open to reviews of mysteries from social science, economics, political science, or the humanities. If you feel you can make a strong case for some mysteries and why they are mysterious, that’s good by us.
You can include Normal Mysteries, things that are unexplained but that most people know about and don’t seem all that confusing. For example, IBS and migraines are about 2-3x more common in women than in men. Everyone kind of knows this, so it’s not all that weird, but no one can really explain it, so it is still a mystery. The first three mysteries we reviewed about the obesity epidemic were all pretty normal.
You should also review Weird Mysteries, things that most people aren’t aware of and/or that seem like they totally don’t make sense, things that fly in the face of our understanding. The rest of the mysteries we reviewed about the obesity epidemic were pretty weird, like how lab animals and wild animals are also getting more obese. What’s up with that?
Our hot tip is that the simplest form of mystery is just unexplained or unexpected variation. A good example is how obesity rates vary by altitude — low-altitude counties in the United States have much higher obesity rates than high-altitude countries do. This is not predicted by most theories of obesity, and many people found this very surprising.
An unexpected LACK of variation can also be a mystery. For obesity, it feels intuitive that people who eat different kinds of diets should weigh different amounts, but diet consistently seems to make very little difference. From the perspective of the mainstream understanding of obesity, this is pretty mysterious.
How do you know that you’ve found a good mystery? It’s an emotion, a feeling that starts in your gut, not unlike IBS (which, hey now that we think about it, is pretty mysterious). Start with something that you just can’t wrap your stomach around. We’re looking for a confusion that started rumbling in your tummy when you were a student who kept asking the same basic questions and couldn’t get a straight answer, a confusion that has just kept grumbling away right there next to your esophagus ever since — now that’s a mystery. The best mysteries will be assumptions where everyone else thinks everything is fine, but you have a nagging suspicion that something is wrong.
Please focus on the mysteries of your chosen subject — DO NOT include a theory. If you feel you need to provide context, you can discuss popular theories and how your mysteries support or undermine them (like we did in Part II). But no arguing for a theory or introducing a theory of your own.
This is a mystery contest, not a theory contest. Your mystery review is the hook; if you do a great job reviewing some mysteries and win the contest, everyone will be excited to hear about your theory. Then you can put it on your own blog and get a lot of readers. If people think you have a promising direction, maybe you can get funding to study it further.
Software engineers who have just lost their jobs; grad students on strike; academics who are fed up with the paywall curtain; couples who have just retired at 35; founders whose last venture was recently acquired; billionaire playboys with too much time on their hands; anyone who is looking to make a pivot to research — this is the contest for you. You don’t need a lot of research chops to look at something and tell that it’s weird; anyone can pick out mysteries by noticing when things don’t add up, when things are unexplained, or when experts all disagree on the best explanation.
If anything, outsiders and newbies have an advantage. If your career doesn’t rely on pretending to understand, it’s easier to spot things that don’t make any sense.
We have recruited some judges to help us evaluate the mysteries: Adam Mastroianni, Lars Doucet, Applied Divinity Studies, Tony Kulesa, and possibly some other judges TBA. We will consult with these judges and will choose around 5-10 finalists, which will be published on the blog. Then readers will vote for the best. First place will get at least $2000, second place $1000, third place $500, though we might increase those numbers later on.
Use your expertise. The best entries will probably be about things YOU are already familiar with, things where you know about the mysteries the rest of us haven’t noticed yet.
All forms of media are welcome! We like to write really long stuff, and sometimes we just post our correspondence. But if you like to boil ‘em instead of mash ‘em (or stick them in a stew!), that’s cool too. Podcasts, videos, slideshows, semaphore code, etc. are all welcome. All written finalists will be published on the blog. Finalists in other formats (e.g. videos, podcasts) will be linked to. The language shared by the judges is English, so we prefer materials that suit the conventions of English speakers.
You must submit your entry under a pseudonym. This helps people discuss you and your work without having to say, “the guy or lady perhaps or person or team who wrote the SMTM mystery contest entry on pancreatic cancer”. Instead they can say, “blorpShark’s wonderful mysteries of pancreatic cancer review”, which is much nicer.
Pseudonyms also keep famous people from having an advantage. For this reason, if you already go by a well-known pseudonym on the internet, please choose a new pseudonym for this contest.
Team submissions are strongly encouraged (friendship is the most powerful force in the universe), and we encourage you to pick a band name. Go to your nearest band name generator and pick the stupidest name it generates. For solo entries, we recommend a rap name generator, like Post Malone did.
After the contest is over, if you want to connect your pseudonym to your other name(s), please feel free to do so. If you do not provide a pseudonym, one will be provided for you.
If you submit a non-written entry, please send it to us in a form that is as anonymous as possible. For example, you might send a podcast entry as an audio file, or a video essay as a video file. Don’t mention your name in the recording, etc.
Please submit written entries by putting them in a Google doc and sharing that doc with us. We will try to preserve your formatting as best we can if we publish your entry as a finalist, but no promises. If you want to make sure your formatting appears as intended, use simple formatting (e.g. bold, italics, and images). The more complicated your formatting is, the more likely we are to make an error in copying it over.
Please don’t put your name or any hints about your identity in the Google doc itself. If you do, we may remove that information or disqualify your entry.
Please make sure that the Google doc is unlocked and that we can read it and share it with the other judges. Go to the “Share” button in the upper right, and on the bottom of the popup click on where it says “restricted” and change to “anyone with the link”. If you send us a document we can’t read, we will probably disqualify you.
Frankly we reserve the right to disqualify entries for any reason, or no reason at all.
If you win, we will send you your prize money in the form of an envelope stuffed with cash, or something else if we agree that it’s more convenient.
Your due date is July 1st, 2023. If you have any questions, ask in the comments so other people who have the same questions can see. You can also email us or ask us questions on twitter. Good luck!