Quasicrystal article wins international physics journalism prize

18 March 2015

This year’s IOP-STFC Physics Journalism Prize has been awarded to Lisa Grossman for her article Quasicrystal quest: The unreal rock that nature made, published in New Scientist.

IOP-STFC Physics Journalism Prize
Lisa Grossman and her editor, Richard Webb

The judges of this year’s prize were unanimous in their decision to award the prize to Lisa, highlighting and praising her ability to tell a story that manages to captivate from the beginning until the last word.

In her award-winning article, Lisa, a physical sciences news editor at New Scientist, covers the years-long quest to discover a naturally made quasicrystal, a rock whose atoms are arranged in a way that was thought to be impossible. The tale, which includes maths, physics, materials science, geology, and a little bit of planetary science, follows physicist Paul Steinhardt and his band of colleagues from Steinhardt’s lab in Princeton, NJ, to a rock museum in Florence, Italy, and eventually to a streambed in the Koryak mountains in far eastern Russia, where a meteorite struck hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Lisa was presented with the award at the Scientists Meet the Media party on 17 March at the Science Museum, among some of the most influential opinion formers and experts in UK science. “I'm thrilled that my story about the quest for natural quasicrystals has won the physics journalism prize,” Lisa said. “Such a wild adventure tale with such an intriguing central character doesn't come along often, and I'm glad to know others have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Many thanks to my editors at New Scientist for guiding the story along, and to Paul Steinhardt and his motley band of meteorite hunters for letting me tell their tale. I hope to use the prize to follow another rare adventure!”

The judges also commended the two runners-up, Ralph Lorenz and Justin Mullins, for their expert communication skills. Lorenz writes about his own research on rock movements in Death Valley and offers scientific insight to an area that has long bewildered scientists. Mullins’ article manages to make complicated science comprehensible for non-specialist audiences by cleverly using metaphors to tell a story about Braess’s paradox.

The Physics Journalism Prize is designed to encourage journalists to grapple with often complex topics and help spread excitement about the subject, and also aims to encourage physics researchers to write about their own work.

Institute of Physics president Frances Saunders, one of the prize’s judges, said: “I am very impressed with the standard of writing and the breadth of science covered in the entries this year.”

Saunders was joined on the judging panel by president of the Association of British Science Writers, Martin Ince, physics professor at UCL, Jon Butterworth, head of communications from the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Terry O’Connor, and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group, Roger Highfield.

Highfield said: “This was an impressively strong field, but the winning and commended entries really stood out from the rest when it came to style and substance. As for the overall winner, Lisa has an eye for colour and tells an entertaining story. Her quasicrystal quest also reveals how science actually works. Given that science, through technology, is the biggest force on modern culture we need more great storytellers like her.”

Along with receipt of the 2015 trophy, Lisa will receive a travel grant of up to £5,000 to enable her to investigate a physics-related story of her choice.

Read more about the IOP-STFC Award for Physics Journalism.

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