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2014 Foundational Questions Institute’s Essay Contest

2014 Foundational Questions Institute’s Essay Contest

Foundational Questions Institute Essay ContestDystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes.

Our ever-deepening understanding of physics has enabled technologies and ways of thinking about our place in the world that have dramatically transformed humanity over the past several hundred years. Many of these changes have been difficult to predict or control—but not all.
In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.

The goals of the Foundational Questions Institute’s Essay Contest (the “Contest”) are to:

  • Encourage and support rigorous, innovative, and influential thinking connected with foundational questions;
  • Identify and reward top thinkers in foundational questions; and,
  • Provide an arena for discussion and exchange of ideas regarding foundational questions.


How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

Possible topics or sub-questions include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the best state that humanity can realistically achieve?
  • What is your plan for getting us there? Who implements this plan?
  • What technology (construed broadly to include practices and techniques) does your plan rely on? What are the risks of those technologies? How can those risks be mitigated

(Note: While this topic is broad, successful essays will not use this breadth as an excuse to shoehorn in the author’s pet topic, but will rather keep as their central focus the theme of how humanity should steer the future.) 


Foundational Questions Institute


In addition to the cash prizes listed below, all First, Second, and Third Prize Winners will be invited to FQXi Membership, if the applicant is not already a Member. Scientific American will also consider adapted material from winning essays for possible publication.

  • First Prize (top ranked essay): US$10,000
  • Second Prize (ranks 2-3): US$5000 each
  • Third Prize (ranks 4-8): US$2000 each
  • Fourth Prize (ranks 9-18): US$1000 each
  • Judging Panel Discretionary Prize (at its discretion, the panel can decide to award up to 2 special commendation prizes for non-professional and/or non-academic entrants):US$1000


18 April, 2014


  • An expert panel of judges will be instructed (and general readers strongly encouraged) to rate the entries by the degree to which they are relevant and interesting, as more specifically described below, with 1/3 weight given to relevancy and 2/3 weight given to interest.
  • Additionally, to be consonant with FQXi’s scope and goals, essays should be sure to touch on issues in physics and cosmology, or closed related fields, such as astrophysics, biophysics, mathematics, complexity and emergence, and the philosophy of physics.
  • Applications will be accepted electronically through the form on FQXi’s website.
  • Applicants must provide accurate contact information, an abstract of their essay, a brief biographical statement, and their essay.
  • Immediately after an essay application is submitted, the applicant will receive an application confirmation email containing this information at their specified email address. This confirmation DOES NOT mean your essay has been accepted into the Contest. All essays will be reviewed for rule compliance (see “Publication” below) and those that are eligible will be posted online within 10 days. Essays received on the deadline date will be posted in batches for up to 10 days after the contest ends.
  • Please note: You will be required to register an email address with and set up an account to enter the Contest.
  • In order to be judged, essays must at least satisfy minimal professional standards of acceptability for publication, both qualitative and quantitative.
  • Essays must be submitted as PDF documents.
  • Eligible essays must comply with these guidelines:
  • The body of the essay may not exceed 9 pages or 25,000 characters (not including spaces). To ensure your submission fits the character count, you can use our online character counter.
  • The length of the body of the essay must not exceed 9 pages, including figures and equations, calculated based on a standard 8 ½ x 11 inch single-sided page with 1 inch margins. The following can be appended to these 9 pages: one page of references, and up to two pages of technical endnotes. No essay text (such as textual footnotes), figures, notations, or equations can be included in the reference section. The technical endnotes are meant to provide an opportunity for additional technical detail while retaining a readable, accessible, and self-contained essay body; all essay reviewers, including the Expert Judges, will be encouraged to focus on the body of the essay, and use the endnotes only as a technical supplement to a self-contained work.
  • Color figures as well as hyperlinks within the document are acceptable.
  • Although FQXi will accept essays from anyone anywhere, the essay must be submitted in English.
  • Publication: After submission and review for rule compliance, each essay will be posted (within 10 days) in the FQXi Community Forum, under the category FQXi Essay Contest – “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”, along with each author name and bio. Thereafter, the author and interested readers (including FQXi Members, other contest entrants, and the general public) are invited to discuss and comment on the essay. (Although commenters will be rating the essays, the goal of the forum is to discuss the essays and the ideas they raise; thus commenters are strongly encouraged to cultivate a supportive atmosphere of scientific conversation rather than a judgmental atmosphere of critical scoring and evaluation.)
  • The Contest is open to everybody except employees and consultants (including Contest judges) of the Sponsors (Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, the Foundational Questions Institute, and Scientific American) and each of their respective parents, subsidiaries, affiliates, advertising and promotion agencies (collectively, the “Contest Entities”) and their family/household members (defined as parents, spouse, children, siblings, grandparents).
  • No person is allowed to submit more than one essay to the Contest, regardless if he or she is entering individually or as part of a collaborative essay. If more than one is uploaded, all except the first will be disqualified. (On the rare occasion when a replacement is requested by FQXi, this will be handled outside of the usual submission system.)
  • Collaborative essays written by more than one person can be submitted. If such an entry is awarded a Prize, it will be split equally among the collaborators.
  • More details about the competition here.


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