Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Guest Post: Brian Keating about his book “Losing the Nobel Prize"

My editor always said “Don’t read reviews”... But given that I’ve received some pretty amazing reviews lately, how bad could it be? Nature even made a delightfully whimsical custom-illustration of my conjecture: that some of my fellow astronomers look to the skies for the Nobel Prize:

Illustration by Stephan Schmitz for Nature.

When I saw Sabine had finally gotten round to reading my book, I was thrilled! This is sure to be an awesome review from a fellow-traveller: a first-time author herself.

Gulp. After reading Sabine’s blog, I immediately regretted not taking my editor’s advice. But, Sabine was kind enough to offer me a chance to reply to her review (a review of a review?) so here goes.

First off, speaking of not reading things, the cover of the version I sent to Sabine explicitly says “don’t quote without checking against the final version” (See the white cover version in the upper left hand corner of this photograph on Medium).

Unfortunately, Sabine never read the finished version. In fact, the few times I asked her about her progress reading the “ADVANCE UNCORRECTED” review copy’ book sent to her in August, she only replied “I’ve not started it”. Fair enough, she was writing her own book about things being Lost. And she did pass it on to a German publisher on my behalf, which was terribly kind of her.

But the version Sabine read was not even proof-read, nor copyedited, nor fact-checked. Right on the cover it implores the reader to “not quote for publication without checking against the finished book”. This is something she, as an author, probably should have realized before writing her review. I’ve reviewed multiple books for fellow physicists long before writing my own -- as has she -- and always make sure to cross-check against the final version(s) [plural because often I’ve read and listened to the audio book before writing my review].

[[SH: I quoted a single sentence, and I assume that sentence is still in the book because otherwise hed have rubbed it in by now.]]

But, what about the substance of her review? Well, much of what’s inaccurate about it stems from unwarranted or incorrect assumptions. For example, she complains that I did not inquire as to what “Swedish Royal Academy has to say about the reformation plans”.

First of all, I’m not sure how she could possibly know with whom I’ve been in communication with...she’s not Zuckerberg!

[[SH: I guessed that much from my exchange with him, and reading the book confirmed it because if he had been in touch with them he’d have mentioned it.]]

Secondly, not only did I seek (and receive permissions from the Swedish Academy), I corresponded with a member of the Swedish Academy...and they agreed with my proposal:

“Thanks for sending me your interesting piece in the Scientific American. Although I, for obvious reasons, cannot comment on any details concerning the Nobel prize, I can assure you that all the points that were rised [sic] in your article are actively discussed in the Committee and the Academy, and have been so for a long time. We are acutely aware of both challenges and difficulties related to revising the self-imposed rules for how the prize is awarded. We also very much welcome debate about these issues, so I thank you for caring about the future of the Nobel prize, and I will forward you article to the other members of the committee.

How’s that for seeing what “they have to say”?

[[SH: I was the one who got Brian in contact with the above quoted member of the Swedish Academy after it became clear to me that Brian had not bothered communicating them.]]

Some of this appears in the final book version.

[[SH: I am so happy I could be of help.]]

And all of this I would have been happy to share with Sabine...had she asked. I was gratified to see that my concerns were shared by them and that they had not, as Sabine asserted, ignored my ideas: “I’d be surprised if the Royal Academy even bothers responding to Keating’s book.”

I agree with her: I’m not convinced anything will come of it...until the day the Nobel Prize in physics is boycotted or sued. And I think that day is coming.

Why? It relates to two objections Sabine raised early in her review:

“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.”

It really not that perplexing, Sabine. The Nobel Prize is a global event, not just a simple Swedish smorgasbord. The prize for peace, for example, is for world peace, not merely to implore Norsemen to stop making war with their many conniving enemies, right?

Fact: According the Nobel Foundation, 100 million people tune into the festivities each year...ten times the population of Sweden and about 10% of the audience the Oscars receive. Winners become celebrities and the Nobel Committees revel in the fame and adoration the events receive.

Why, they’re even moving into a brand, spanking new $150M building in Stockholm next year, designed by a fancy architecture firm, for all their many festivities (the old venue is too small apparently).

The winners are disproportionately non-Scandinavian and the prize aims to reward those who have benefitted “all mankind”, not just Swedes. In fact, the prize for literature is currently undergoing a bonafide sex scandal:

“STOCKHOLM — A sexual abuse and harassment scandal roiling the committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature deepened on Wednesday, as the king of Sweden and the foundation that finances the prize warned that the scandal risked tarnishing one of the world’s most important cultural accolades.” [emphasis mine]

The Nobel Prize leaders and the King recognize the power of the prize. It is not only science’s greatest accolade, it’s the greatest one humanity has to offer as well. As such it should be held to a higher standard.

With respect to the many comments others have made about me having sour grapes, no one who reads the book could come away thinking I actually still want to win it. Of course, after reading Sabine’s review, many have cancelled their orders so they may never learn!

But even that notwithstanding, I’m often criticized for writing about it without having won the Nobel. I find that a bit silly. Can one not criticize Harvey Weinstein without being an member of the Academy? Can one not criticize President Trump if one has not been president?

As to this snarky bit: “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.”

I resonate with Sabine’s admission that she has no direct lines to the afterworld; neither do I. And that’s the exact purpose of a will, isn’t it? “A last will and testament is a legal document that communicates a person's final wishes pertaining to possessions and dependents

Alfred died without any children or spouse...his will specified what was to be done with the money he made from the (world wide) patent on dynamite. After providing some kroner for his friends, and his nephews and nieces (the nieces got only ½ of what his nephews received...perhaps an early source of the prize’s legendary sexism?), he left money for the titular prizes. Reading the will, we learn:

“The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, ...shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. ... one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics…”

One sees three conditions for awarding the prize:

1. The person [in the singular]
2. Who in the Preceding year
3. Conferred “the greatest benefit to mankind”

I don’t need to have clairvoyance into the netherworld because Alfred did it for me. It is abundantly clear what he wanted and all three of these rules are routinely ignored and have been for over a century.

As for the power of the prize to affect the judgement and career choices of scientists, let me just say it affects non-astronomers too: "With physicist Peter Mansfield, Lauterbur in 2003 bested Damadian to Nobel recognition of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This outcome prompted the appearance of full-page ads financed by the Friends of Raymond Damadian in a number of newspapers, including The New York Times.” [emphasis mine].

Wherever there is an idol, people will bow down to it, the Nobel is no baal [Warning: another Old Testament reference], but it is no exception either.

As for the pro-experimental bias of my book “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.” Sabine, how could you miss the lovely pie chart I made for you and your fellow brainiacs as well as the accompanying text: “A serendipity criterion would mean Nobel Prizes would go to the theorist(s) who predict new phenomena, though they should win only after experimental verification.”

[[SH: He also explains that if a theorist predicted it, then the experimental verification wasn’t serendipitous, so what gives? And yeah, I was about to make a joke about that pie chart but then felt sorry for the graphics designer who probably just did what Brian asked for.]]

In the book I am advocating that more theorists should win it, and experimentalists should not win it if they/we merely confirm a theory...that leaves them/us susceptible to confirmation bias. For reference, this was in the copy Sabine read.

Alas, time is fleeting and the launch of my book is few short days away, so I must take leave of back reacting.

But I am thankful that Sabine has permitted me this chance to address some of her concerns. And I am grateful for the many kind words she did employ in her review. I enjoy your work and I wish you best of luck with your book...may you never read a review you have to react to!


  1. "But I am thankful that Sabine has permitted me this chance to address some of her concerns."

    A theorist boasts its best work (GR). An experimentalist suffers its worst work (Fifth Force, Ephraim Fischbach; antigravity, Eugene Podkletnov; etc.).

    50 years of "beautiful" physical theory derives baryogenesis did not happen. While the mob wanders beguiled by reflections in a hall of mirrors, the occasional outlier instead looks for a door, and lunch.

  2. I am very pleasantly surprised at the level of respect they gave each other, both in the criticism of the book and in the reply. Here in Argentina we are used to mediocre people who answer a criticism without arguments, with aggressions and with the sole motive of stepping on the other.

  3. Keating writes: " I am advocating that more theorists should win it, and experimentalists should not win it if they/we merely confirm a theory". Merely? that's an incredibly condescending attitude. Keating's rather lame response' affirms my decision to cancel my order for his book.

  4. Alfred Nobel made his money from a patentable invention, so when he said the physics prize should go the person who made the best invention or discovery (which benefits humanity), I think that is what he had in mind. For example, the inventors of the transistor got the Nobel Prize, not the theorists who discovered the principles by which transistors work. Recently the inventors of the gravity-wave detector won the prize, not, as I take it, for discovering gravity waves, but for developing a device capable of detecting gravity waves and thereby giving humanity the benefit of a lot more data about the universe.

    For a theoretical discovery to win, as I see it, the theory must have practical benefits to humanity within the theorist's lifetime, according to the terms of Nobel's will. As great as Einstein's General Relativity Theory was and is, the first practical benefit from it which I can think of is in GPS calculations. (I designed turbines for many years using just Newton's Laws for physics calculations.)

    I would be good to have some world-wide way to recognize and fund great theorists, but that does not seem to be what Nobel had in mind.

  5. My query has less to do with the Nobel Prize than with further observations. The B-modes are signatures of primordial gravitational waves generated by inflation. The BICEPII found signatures of these, but then shortly after it all got “dusted up.” Dust in this galaxy will polarize EM radiation and mimic this. So the 6-σ result tanked into if I remember a 3-σ result. However it seems to me that further observations could untangle inflationary B-modes from dust polarization. Dependency with respect to the azimuthal angle might give better understanding of the two signals. Further detailed observations of the amount of dust observed through might further help. I understand there is BICEPIII underway as well, but I do not know the entire experimental protocol. This seemed like a problem that could be solved. The whole affair does not seem to be a null result yet.

  6. 1 2 3 Infinity (why not promote yet another book?):
    Dr. Keating doesn’t like that the two possible yearly Nobel physics prizes can be awarded to a maximum of three people each, arguing that more people should be included because ... Nobel’s will said that one prize should be awarded to one person. “I’m not convinced anything will come of it...until the day the Nobel Prize in physics is boycotted or sued. And I think that day is coming.”
    Boycotted? Maybe, if enough physicists can agree on something. But sued? That train left the station long ago. Nobel’s heirs tried to invalidate his will, but those disputes were settled before 1900. The settlement (and with it the legal effect of Nobel’s will, no matter what words he used) was codified in a statute (no. 63 of that year), approved by the legislature and signed by the King of Sweden, creating the Nobel Foundation and specifically allowing it to divide the prizes. Nobel’s will means what they decided it means, no more, no less. (“In matters of particle physics, do not bet against the Standard Model.” In matters of law, always bet against common sense.)
    But even common sense is against Dr. Keating’s reliance on the wording of Nobel’s will. Nobel said to give one prize to a “person.” The 1900 settlement and statute said that two prizes per field could be awarded, each of them to a potentially infinite number of people (“two or more”) who carried out the work. In 1968, the Foundation changed that section, as it presumably had the power to do (I am not a Swedish lawyer), to limit each prize to three people. Dr. Keating objects to the three-person limit and wants to return to the 1900 situation – two prizes max, each shared by unlimited persons. But since 1 < 2 < 3 << infinity, the Foundation’s 1968 rule is much closer to what Nobel intended than Dr. Keating’s preference is.
    Dr. Keating may be right about the prizes. Diversity is good. Big physics collaborations are good. But arguing for changes based on Nobel's will is just weird. Good luck with that lawsuit.

  7. Brian Keating: "In the book I am advocating that more theorists should win it, and experimentalists should not...." etc.

    Unspiek, Baron Bodissey: "Only losers cry out for fair play" (Night Lamp, Chapter 2, by Jack Vance)

  8. Gaaah, what the what is this? I would think it's obvious to everyone that Nobel is indeed "not a global community award", but lawfully depends on the judgment of "a Swedish committee tasked with executing a will". But then again these days I see people demanding private free online social networking services to be held accountable for their election results, be obliged to care about their real-world safety and promote them professionally. Barking up wrong trees?
    Although admittedly I might be losing the forest because of the narrow and probably demi-flawed focus of the author's replies.

  9. "until the day the Nobel Prize in physics is boycotted or sued. And I think that day is coming."

    It could be boycotted, though I think that the chance is slim. But sued? On what grounds?

  10. "In the book I am advocating that more theorists should win it, and experimentalists should not win it if they/we merely confirm a theory"

    Let me get this straight: You are saying that even if BICEP2 had really detected primordial B-modes, then you shouldn't have received the prize?

  11. Phillip,

    Regarding sueing, I had a longer paragraph on this in my review. I then felt it's too off-topic, but let me reproduce it here. I think at some point we'll have to ask whether not there should be governmental restrictions on how much private institutions/donors are allowed to influence science. And the North/Middle European "Welfare states" are most likely to have the first go at this.

    The comparison that the commenter by name chapette makes is not a bad one. It's similar to the problem you have with private companies screwing over democracy. In both cases Americans blame the wrong party. Zuckerberg and the Nobel committee are playing within the confines of the system. If you don't like their influence on society/academia pointing with the finger at them isn't going to help; you need legislation.

  12. And regarding what Brian says, yes, he is advocating that he himself shouldn't have gotten a Nobel Prize even if BICEP had detected it. But that ship has left the harbor anyway. Now he's director of some observatory that will hopefully make a serendipitous discovery...

  13. "I think at some point we'll have to ask whether not there should be governmental restrictions on how much private institutions/donors are allowed to influence science."

    OK, but that is a different question than suing the committee.

  14. Despite all errors made by fallible human beings, I seems to me that the Nobel committees have chosen rather worthy recipients over the past 115 years. If they hadn't, nobody would care much about this particular prize, which is neither the oldest nor the largest prize in the world (though I don't know of any prize that beats Nobel on both age and size).

    That goes for the science prizes. These days the Swedish Academy, which hands out the Nobel prize in literature, is falling apart in a quite spectacular and public civil war.

  15. Raymond Damadian explains the words will of A Nobel related to physics , chemistry and medicine. He explains why Jonas Salk was not given for polio vaccine. There is another reason for JSalk not receiving the Nobel Prize. He refused to patent the vaccine and got the lobbyists upset. However , Salks Noble act saw polio being eradicated in many countries as the vaccine was available at a low cost and sometimes free in some poor countries.

    Here is the Noble J Salk saying " could you patent the sun" in this video below

  16. "There is another reason for JSalk not receiving the Nobel Prize. He refused to patent the vaccine and got the lobbyists upset."

    Do lobbyists decide to whom the Nobel Prize is awarded?

  17. Brian Keating - you weren't good enough to win the Nobel Prize. Stop whinging and get over it. And I won't be buying your sour-grapes whinging book.

  18. @StevenG, I have as little or less interest in the discussion as you, however there is no good reason to be so rude. Look at it scientifically what constructive purpose is likely by making such a comment. A little decency and respect towards one another has a better chance of succeeding if you feel there is a valid point to be made.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. StevenG, Louis,

    Sorry, I didn't read Steven's original comment carefully. I will not approve further insults, so suck it up.

  21. As humans we all love a good story of personal tragedy or success. But science doesn't usually work that way. We do honor many physicists of the past by naming things like the Higgs field, Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model, etc. Curiously, Feynman was against all that personal glory stuff, and his students sometimes were surprised to later learn that a lot of the things they learned had people's names to go along with them. How I can invoke a famous physicist's name in an argument against personal fame I'll never know.
    In the collaborations I've been fortunate to be part of, they would find some arbitrary way of listing all the collaborators as authors on all their papers. For some that might be annoying, but the reasoning behind it was that you can't justify excluding anyone from a body of work that so many hands made possible.
    So I've always felt that the Nobel prizes were extremely arbitrary and somewhat dishonest. On one hand it draws attention to the sciences, which is great especially in today's political climate. But at the same time it mis-represents the activity of science and may even trick people into thinking that their contributions are less important if they don't personally achieve some breakthrough or win some award.
    Keating says "... and experimentalists should not win it if they/we merely confirm a theory." But I think it's way more complicated than that. No one experiment can confirm a theory.

  22. "Secondly, not only did I seek (and receive permissions from the Swedish Academy), I corresponded with a member of the Swedish Academy...and they agreed with my proposal:"

    I don't care much about the topic, but I do care about truth. If the contact was made after the review (as pointed out in Sabine's comment a few paragraphs later), then this is misleading and manipulative because it gives the impression that it was made before the review.

    We can do better as scientists and as humans.

    1. The contact was made BEFORE the October...see the committee member's response to my piece in SciAm.
      Brian Keating

    ... Read Pedersen's 1987 Nobel acceptance speech. Really?

    Kary Mullis'1993 Nobel awarded being stoned while driving a switchback mountain road. Bednorz and Müller Nobeled in 1987 for insubordinately embezzling laboratory funding. IBM/Zürich came down on them, history then being sanitized.

    NMR happened because a mis-modeled big magnet drove a physicist with a week of strong coffee and no sleep into screaming rage. He spun the dial to burn the firetrucker...and the signal oozed across his oscilloscope screen. Turn it back and the signal slid the other way. A guy named Henry deserved 1/3.

    Science is blood sport. You jump and sometimes a net appears beneath you. You DO it, and sometimes the foo bird flies overhead. Polishing your lab bench every Friday gets you being part of the problem.

  24. I couldn't read it all. It (sadly) showed we are all human. Nobel Prizes are baloney. What we humans, collectively, are achieving is truly AWSOME for us naked apes. Do physics (and astronomy, and etc.) and shut up about stupid prizes.

  25. Armin,

    I had some exchange with him after he finished writing the book but before he made the final revisions, upon with I offered to make the contact. Hence it's not in the review version I got but (I assume) in the final version (which I haven't seen).

  26. In this web site
    BKeating wants to do justice for Rosalind Franklin. There is only DNA structure mentioned. There is more work done by this great lady
    Her work on holes in coal , papers here led to the discovery of molecular sieve properties of carbon.
    Then here contribution to virology led to Aaron Klug winning the Nobel Prize.
    The Nature paper is there with an excellent tribute by JD Bernal.
    One feels that there should be prize as large as Nobel in her name for posthumous scientists who do excellent work and somehow fate plays it otherwise. This will be a great tribute to this lady who did great work in such a short period of her life. The coal papers are very interesting because she has reported all what she got in her experimental investigation( negative as well as positive).

  27. No one who really cares about science gives a damn about prizes. Feynman didn't, Dirac didn't, Einstein didn't. If I were you, I'd be embarrassed about BICEP2 and act appropriately to recover my shot reputation, which I realize is not going to happen.



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