Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Review: “Losing the Nobel Prize” by Brian Keating

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor
Brian Keating
W. W. Norton & Company (April 24, 2018)

Brian Keating hasn’t won a Nobel Prize. Who doesn’t know the feeling? But Keating, professor of physics at UC San Diego, isn’t like you and I. He had a good shot at winning. Or at least he thought he had. And that’s what his book is about.

Keating designed the BICEP telescope, whose upgrade – BICEP2 – made headlines in 2014 by claiming the first indirect detection of primordial gravitational waves through B-modes in the cosmic microwave background. Their supposed detection turned out to be contaminated by a foreground signal from dust in the Milky Way and, after a few months, was declared inconclusive. And there went Keating’s Nobel Prize.

In his book, Keating tells the story of the detection and its problems. But really the book is about his obsession to win the Nobel Prize and his ideas for reforming the award’s criteria. That’s because Keating has come to the conclusion that pursuing science to the end of winning a Nobel prize is no good, and he doesn’t want his colleagues to go down the same road. He also doesn’t think it’s fair to hand out the prize for maximally three people (who moreover should be alive) because by his own accounting he’d have been fourth on the list. At best.

“Losing the Nobel Prize” is well written and engaging and has a lot of figures and, ah, here I run out of nice things to say. But we all know you didn’t come for the nice things anyway, so let’s get to the beef.

I have found Keating’s book outright perplexing. To begin with let us note that the Nobel Prize is not a global community award. It’s given out by a Swedish committee tasked with executing the will of a very dead man. Keating apparently thinks he knows better what Alfred Nobel wanted than Alfred Nobel himself. Maybe he does. I don’t know, my contacts in the afterworld have not responded to requests for comments.

In any case, you’d think if someone writes a book about the Nobel Prize they’d hear what the Swedish Royal Academy has to say about the reformation plans. But for all I can tell Keating never even contacted them. His inside knowledge about the Nobel Prize is having been invited to nominate someone.

Keating doesn’t mention it, but the club of those eligible to submit nominations for the Nobel Prize is not very exclusive. Every tenured professor in the Nordic countries (in the respective discipline) can nominate candidates. Right, that’s not very equal opportunity. Fact is the Nobel Prize is unashamedly North European. And North Europeans in general, with Swedes in particular, don’t care whether US Americans like what they do. I’d be surprised if the Royal Academy even bothers responding to Keating’s book.

Even stranger is that Keating indeed seems to believe most scientists pursue their research because they want to win a Nobel Prize. But I don’t know anyone who has ever chosen a research project because they were banking on a Nobel. That’s because at least in my discipline it’s widely recognized that winning this award doesn’t merely require scientific excellence but also a big chunk of luck.

Maybe Keating is right and Nobel obsession is widespread in his own discipline, experimental astrophysics. But no such qualifier appears anywhere in the book. He is speaking for all of science. “Battle is an apt metaphor for what we scientists do.” And according to Keating, it’s not Nature’s reclusiveness that we battle but each other. And it’s all because everyone wants to win the Nobel Prize.

Keating at some point compares the Nobel Prize to Olympic Gold, but that’s a poor comparison. If you wanted to compare the Nobel Prize to say, discus throw, you’d have to let 99.9% of discuses randomly explode right after being thrown. And when that happens you disqualify the athlete.

In my experience, while almost everyone agrees that Nobel Laureates in Physics deserve their prizes, they also acknowledge it matters to be at the right place at the right time. And since everyone knows talent isn’t the only relevant factor to win the Prize, few hold grudges about not winning it. It’s really more a lottery than a competition.

Having said that, even after reading the book I am not sure just how Keating proposes we think about the Nobel Prize. While he uses analogies to athletic competition, he also compares the Nobel Prize with the Oscar and with a religious accolade, depending on what suits his argument. Possibly the reason for my difficulty understanding Keating is that he assumes his readers know what’s the fourth and fifth commandment and what was up with that Golden Calf in the Old Testament. I may know what B-modes are, but that one beat me.

He also lost me at various other places in the book where I just couldn’t figure out what’s going on or why. For example, I guess pretty much everyone who reads the book will know that BICEP failed to measure the signal they were after. Yet the reader has to wait until Chapter 14 to hear what happened there. Chapter 15, then, is titled “Poetry for Physicists,” contains some reflections on how we’re all made of stardust and so on, praises Jim Simons for funding the Simons Observatory, mentions as an aside that Keating will be the Observatory’s director, and ends with a poem about dust. The next chapter is slap back to Nobel’s will and then goes on about the lack of female laureates. If follows an image of Keating’s academic genealogy, and then we are transported into a hospital room to witness his father’s death.

If that sounds confusing it’s because it is. There are so many things in the book that didn’t make sense to me I don’t even know where to begin.

Keating for example suggests that the Nobel Prize only be given to “serendipitous discoveries,” by which he means if a theorist predicted it then it’s not worthy. You read that right. No Nobel for the Higgs, no Nobel for B-modes, and no Nobel for a direct discovery of dark matter (should it ever happen), because someone predicted that. Bad news for theorists I suppose. The culprit here seems to be that Keating (an experimentalist) doesn’t believe theory development has any role to play in experimental design. He just wants rich guys to crank out money so experimentalists can do whatever they want.

The most befuddling aspect of this book, however, is that Keating indeed seems to believe he had a chance of winning the Nobel Prize. But the Nobel Prize committee would have done well not handing out a prize even if BICEP had been successful measuring the signal they were after.

B-mode polarization from primordial gravitational waves would have been an indirect detection of gravitational waves, but there was a Nobel Prize for that already and being second doesn’t count. And in contrast to what Keating states in the book, this detection would not have been evidence for quantum gravity because the measurement wouldn’t have revealed whether the waves were or weren’t quantized.

Neither for that matter, would it have been evidence for inflation. As Keating himself notes in the passing by quoting Steinhardt, models for inflation can predict any possible amount of B-modes. He doesn’t mention it, but I’ll do it for him, that some models without inflation also predict B-modes.

So the claim that B-modes would be evidence for inflation is already wrong. Even worse, Keating repeats the myth that such a detection would moreover be evidence for the multiverse because that just sounds so spectacular. But it doesn’t matter how often you repeat this claim it’s still wrong, and it isn’t even difficult to see why. If you want to make any calculation to predict the B-mode spectrum you don’t need to begin with a multiverse. All you need is some effective theory in our universe. And that theory may or may not have an inflaton.

My point being simply if you don’t need X it to make prediction Y, measuring Y isn’t evidence for X. So, no, B-modes aren’t evidence for the multiverse.

I don’t personally know Brian Keating, but he’s on twitter and he seems to be a nice guy. Also I got this book for free, so I want to warmly recommend you buy it because what else can I say. If nothing else, Keating has a gift for writing. And who knows, his next book might be about not winning a Nobel Prize for Literature.


  1. Thanks Sabine.. sounds like a book he had to get out of him, good or bad. But I am confused about a tangential matter... how did the link between B-modes and inflation come to be so widely reported with no mention of non-inflation theories also leading to them?

  2. “Battle is an apt metaphor for what we scientists do.”

    I think that anyone who pursues science for the sole aim of "winning" anything should not be a scientist to begin with. Especially anyone who thinks doing science is to wage battle against other scientist should go look for another line of work (e.g., politics, stock markets).

  3. Well, how about the bright side of Brian's life?

  4. "doesn’t think it’s fair to hand out the prize for maximally three people (who moreover should be alive)" Big Science, 400 collaborators, $million prize, $2500 take home. No posthumous awards re the Solvay Conference.

    "no Nobel for a direct discovery of dark matter" Agreed. "Housewife discovers warp drive with simple kitchen microwave trick." $500K is motivating, even $350K.

    "Keating (an experimentalist)" Observe a tuft of wiry white crystals while cleaning out a five liter failed reaction…Nobel Laureate (Pedersen, 1987). Where is the justice!

    Everywhere. Mach schnell, Dr. Melanie Schnell.

  5. Of course people make research decisions based on seeing a Nobel PriZe at the end of a long tunnel. At least three of them have explicitly said this to me. I'll name only one, Ahmed Zewail.

    I never expected to win a Nobel Prize, but I certainly decided in substantial part on whom to do a PhD with based on my guess that he would. I was in grad school during the Vietnam War and would have moved to Canada had I been drafted, to work for a guy for the same reason. They shared the same Nobel with the post-doc I worked with.

    And there was no fancy theory behind the reasons for any of these people to do the winning experimental programs. (All the prizes were given, in reality, for being "who they were" rather than a single experiment.) They were based of "feelings" that the experiment would yield interesting results, and back of the envelope calculations that it would at least generate useful signal to noise.

  6. I saw the title of the book multiple times and always thought that this is a story covering people like Bell, Rubin, Hubble and co. I didn't realize that it's self-advertisement. Thanks for clarifying.

  7. bee:

    thanks for the review. i just canceled my order for his book and ordered another copy of your book, instead.

    btw - the people who hold grudges are not the ones who didn't receive the Prize but those who were rooting for the persons who didn't 'win' the Prize. and the Prize winners often publicly acknowledge the contributions of others to the work. In physics, the winners and losers usually behave a lot better than those in other 'competitions', e.g. the U.S. Presidency.


  8. Hi Sabine,

    I agree that there is a large element of luck involved in getting the Nobel prize.

  9. Freeman Dyson said I would rather that people ask me why I didn't win the Nobel Prize than ask me why I won the Nobel Prize. I ask why didn't these people win the Nobel Prize? Lord Kelvin, Mendeleev, Chatelier, Stokes, Gibbs, Boltzmann, Poincare, Heaviside, Baekeland, Lewis, Edison, Tesla, Hubble, Lemaitre, Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin. Their work are now textbook material or part of our daily life.

    People thought or wished he was dead. Newspapers wrote his obituary: "the Merchant of Death is dead." Alfred Nobel read his obituary and instituted the Nobel Peace Prize. The irony of the man reflects the irony of his Prize

  10. "he seems to be a nice guy"

    Many criticisms of someone's scientific work begin with "Well, he's a nice guy,...." :-)

  11. "how did the link between B-modes and inflation come to be so widely reported with no mention of non-inflation theories also leading to them?"

    One answer: because those who report want attention-attracting things to report.

    Another answer: Science is not black and white, but is about collective evidence which can rule out some hypotheses while strengthening our belief in others, in a Bayesian sense. Primordial B-modes are a pretty robust prediction of inflation, so detecting them would be interesting. This doesn't mean that there is no other way of producing them. To take an extreme comparison, suppose I find a fossil. What is it? Well, just some minerals in a specific form. There could be other mechanisms which produced it. (Indeed, "pseudofossils" exist). But I think that it is OK if an introductory book on paleontology essentially says "if it looks like a trilobite, it probably is a fossil".

  12. Since many of his criticisms have nothing to do with his personal loss, would he have written the book had he won the prize? Probably not.

    If he thinks that he had enough responsibility in the team to justify winning the prize, or even being fourth place, then he has enough responsibility that he should have prevented the jump-the-gun press release.

    All in all, seems like sour grapes to me. I think it is also sad that people who have attained a very high standing in the scientific community whine about not getting enough respect. Give the rest of us a break! In some cases, there might be oversights by the committee, but this isn't an obvious oversight, even if BICEP2 hadn't goofed big time. (I won't mention any names, but at least some of the overlooked (often with a better case than Keating) take it with self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek humor.)

  13. If you don't like the way the Nobel Prize is awarded, set up your own prize. Some people have done so.

  14. I think it is good that there is a limit of three. OK, it could be two or four, but one has to draw the line somewhere. (By the way, it is not true that the rules are cast in stone for all time because of Nobel's will; awarding it to more than one person is a change. This doesn't mean that everything will change, and posthumous Nobel Prizes are probably not a good idea.) Yes, there are big collaborations these days. But has everyone involved done work worthy of a Nobel Prize? No way. Yes, they showed up and did a good job, just like most people in the world. Nobel Prizes can be, and are, awarded to leaders of collaborations, both big and small. Awarding the prize to everyone on the team would weaken its worth, since soon (by the same token that most research is done in large teams) it would be an exception not to have a Nobel Prize. And this would seriously disadvantage those who work alone or in small collaborations.

  15. Often,
    (always?) one reads someone "won" the Nobel or some other
    Why don't those writers use the word "was awarded" ?
    This wording unmasks the belligerent thinking behind.

  16. Happily enough Jocelyn Bell got what Antony Hewish didn't get: Nobility.

  17. Despite that you "warmly recommend" the book, your description makes it an easy pass for me. Thanks for the review.

  18. At Bell Labs, on a tour I heard a bell ring four times! I was told that was what happened when a discovery was made, which of course happened every few weeks at Bell. More rarely, the bell rang 3 times! Bigger discovery! Even more rarely, 2 rings, and even more rarely one bell! But rarest of all was .. No bell !

  19. I think Andre Linde also expected to win big thanks to BICEP2. Stanford U diid their best to promote his cause with a staged video of Chao-Lin Kuo knocking on his door to tell him the good news:
    You know the video was staged when both Mr. & Mrs. Linde answer the door after Kuo's "unexpected" knock. This is normal?

  20. Yes, that video was pretty embarrassing for all involved, although they don't seem to notice.

  21. " I ask why didn't these people win the Nobel Prize? Lord Kelvin, Mendeleev, Chatelier, Stokes, Gibbs, Boltzmann, Poincare, Heaviside, Baekeland, Lewis, Edison, Tesla, Hubble, Lemaitre, Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin. Their work are now textbook material or part of our daily life."

    Why mention the first names only for the women? Neither Meitner nor Rubin is a common name; there is no ambiguity. As you say, they are household words, so the last names are entirely sufficient to identify the people in question.

  22. Mr (presumably) Lewis (a rather common last name), on the other hand, would benefit from a first name. :-)

  23. Keating for example suggests that the Nobel Prize only be given to “serendipitous discoveries,” by which he means if a theorist predicted it then it’s not worthy.

    But that would mean that he should not have been awarded one if the BICEP2 stuff had been real. Strange.

  24. It must be crushing to think for few months that you have all the fame in your field, you are on top of the world, and then it is taken away from you - because it was never there and what you though you saw was an artifact.

    Maybe if the research group of Dr. Keating was not as keen on the Nobels (and worrying too much about being scooped), they would have chosen more careful approach to re-checking their data before publishing them. The methods used for subtracting the dust background were a known source of artifacts, it was nothing new. The first job of a scientist is to make sure he is not deceiving himself with wishful thinking, he has to take in account his own confirmation bias etc. For example they could have invited someone from other group to a collaboration and have them repeat the analysis.

  25. You too have a great knack for writing. Your review cracked me up several times. Going to explore a bit more of your blog.

    Best regards,

  26. Regarding Keating’s remark:“Battle is an apt metaphor for what we scientists do.”

    In the Discourse, Descartes uses the metaphor of battle: "Or perhaps we should make the comparison with army chieftains.... for to try to conquer all the difficulties and errors which stand in our way when we try to reach the truth is really to engage in battle; and to reach a false conclusion on an important issue is to lose the battle."

    TO facilitate the goal “to make ourselves masters and possessors of nature” he calls for this, perhaps his most tangible forecast of modernity, the organized campaign of science:

    "Truth can be discovered only little by little . . . . It is true that as far as the related experiments are concerned, one man is not enough to do them all; but he could not usefully employ other hands than his own, unless those of workers or other persons whom he could pay. Such people would do, in the hope of gain, which is a very effective motive, precisely what they were told."

    In other words, he calls for a research army of mercenaries. He rejects volunteers, whose assistance would be ”at a net loss” for among other reasons “they would infallibly expect to be paid . . . in compliments and useless conversation which would necessarily consume much of the time needed for investigation.”

  27. Indeed there is speculation that GN Lewis committed suicide because he had not won the Nobel Prize after being nominated over 40 times and richly deserving thereof.

  28. I think many people / organizations – including Nobel Physics Prize Committee – have not paid due attention to the nature of STC, when it is imaginary or real. A list of evidences is given below in support of the fact that Einstein’s Space-Time Continuum is still not universally understood and accepted.

    Henri Poincare (29 April 1854 to 17 July 1912): He thought the STC to be only mathematical in nature, not real.

    Philipp E.A. von Lenard (07 June 1862 to 20 May 1947): He was a great experimental physicist and a leader as well. There was a debate between Lenard and Einstein in a conference in 1920. Lenard rejected Einstein’s hyper-theoretical and hyper-mathematical ideas as he saw a danger to experimental physics /1/.

    Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 to 25 Dec. 1977): They’re Cheering Us Both, You Because Nobody Understands You, and Me Because Everybody Understands Me. This is a soft but unfavorable remark on Einstein by Chaplin. Somebody questioned the Quote Investigator about the truth of the said tale and the QI gave positive reply /2/.

    Leader of GRG and Common- man, 2005: The present author witnessed an unsettled debate between a leader of the GRG and common-man in a conference on the popularization of physics in Mumbai (Borivali) India in January 2005. Author came to the conclusion that the leader failed in convincing the common-man on the exact nature of STC. Therefore the present author reported that episode in /3/ and also added a point which could be added by a common-teacher that is HSC level teacher /4/

    Rainer Weiss’s stiff STC, 2017: Rainer Weiss (who got half of the Nobel Physics Prize in 2017) said to Adam Smith of that the STC is enormously Stiff - in the interview. This statement is strange because if there is no matter in the STC, what is it that makes the STC stiff? /5/.

    Famous astrophysicist of Pune and a student of engineering Feb. 2018): The astrophysicist gave a popular lecture in the Science Club of COEP in February 2018. At the end of the lecture, a student asked a question about the elasticity of STC. But that question was ignored by the speaker, as per author’s expectation. Unless the problem of nature of STC is not solved, discovery of GWs will remain on shaky footing;.


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