Monday, April 16, 2018
Book Review: “Losing the Nobel Prize” by 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.