What is ‘The Last Why’?

Image: Mike Gifford/Flickr
Image: Mike Gifford/Flickr

I’m changing this blog’s name from Is Nerd because I haven’t felt like a nerd for a while and the blog’s contents have reflected that, too. At the same time, I’m not going to split up my stuff between different blogs because, though at all times Is Nerd was being nurtured as a brand, it still only comprised all my publishable output, nothing more or less. So as I feel like I’ve left that identity behind me – not that it ever belonged, of course – I want my blog to acknowledge the same thing.

What’s ‘The Last Why’? As a bumbling science writer, the one question I haven’t been able to answer is how many whys deep do you go. Let’s say I’m writing about the Higgs boson, which I’ve done a bit of. How complicated can I get? Can I presuppose that my audience knows what field theory is? You’d say that depends on who I’m writing for. But I’ve learnt from experience that it actually depends on the word limit. Because no matter who I’m writing for, if I was allowed 3,000 words, I’m sure I can write something that both 12-year old schoolgoers and 30-year old physics graduates could understand. I’d be answering a lot of whys. If I was allowed 300 words, on the other hand, I’d only be able to write something for a very specific demographic – and I’d be answering only a few whys.

To me, the last why is the why that’d settle a question. It’s the why that’s the most challenging to get to and to lay out. It describes the first cause in the cause-effect chain that leads to whatever piqued my curiosity. It’s the why I like asking, and having answered, the most.