Wednesday, September 29, 2021

[Guest Post] Brian Keating: How to Think Like a Nobel Prize Winner

[The following is an excerpt from Think Like a Nobel Prize Winner, Brian Keating’s newest book based on his interviews with 9 Nobel Prize winning physicists. The book isn’t a physics text, nor even a memoir like Keating’s first book Losing the Nobel Prize. Instead, it’s a self-help guide for technically minded individuals seeking to ‘level-up’ their lives and careers.]

When 2017 Nobel Prize winner Barry Barish told me he had suffered from the imposter syndrome, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I couldn’t believe that one of the most influential figures in my life and career—as a scientist, as a father, and as a human—is mortal. He sometimes feels insecure, just like I do. Every time I’m teaching, in the back of my head, I am thinking, who am I to do this? I always struggled with math, and physics never came naturally to me. I got where I am because of my passion and curiosity, not my SAT scores. Society venerates the genius. Maybe that’s you, but it’s certainly not me.

I’ve always suffered from the imposter syndrome. Discovering that Barish did too, even after winning a Nobel Prize—the highest regard in our field and in society itself—immensely comforted me. If he was insecure about how he compared to Einstein, I wanted to comfort him: Ein- stein was in awe of Isaac Newton, saying Newton “... determined the course of Western thought, research, and practice like no one else before or since.” And compared to whom did Newton feel inadequate? Jesus Christ almighty!

The truth is, the imposter syndrome is just a normal, even healthy, dose of inadequacy. As such, we can never overcome or defeat it, nor should we try to. But we can manage it through understanding and acceptance. Hearing about Barry’s experience allowed me to do exactly that, and I hoped sharing that message would also help others manage better. This was the moment I decided to create this book.

This isn’t a physics book. These pages are not for aspir- ing Nobel Prize winners, mathematicians, or any of my fellow geeks, dweebs, or nerds. In fact, I wrote it specifically for nonscientists—for those who, because of the quotidian demands of everyday life, sometimes lose sight of the biggest-picture topics humans are capable of learning about and contributing to. Most of all, I hope by humanizing science, by showing the craft of science as performed by its master practitioners, you my reader will see common themes emerge that will boost your creativity, stoke your imagination, and most of all, help overcome barriers like the imposter syndrome, thereby unlocking your full potential for out-of-this-universe success.

Though I didn’t write it for physicists, it’s appropriate to consider why the subjects of this book—who are all physicists—are good role models. Physicists are mental Swiss Army knives, or a cerebral SEAL Team Six. We dwell in uncertainty. We exist to solve problems.

We are not the best mathematicians (just ask a real mathematician). We’re not the best engineers. We also aren’t the best writers, speakers, or communicators—but no single group can simultaneously do all of these disparate tasks so well as the physicists I’ve compiled here. That’s what makes them worth listening to and learning from. I sure have.

The individuals in this book have balanced collaboration with competition. All scientists stand on the proverbial shoulders of giants of the past and present. Yet some of the most profound moments of inspiration do breathe magic into the equation of a single individual one unique time. There is a skill to know when to listen and when to talk, for you can’t do both at the same time. These scientists have navigated the challenging waters between focus and diversity, balancing intellectual breadth with depth, which are challenges we all face. Whether you’re a scientist or a salesman, you must “niche down” to solve problems. (Imagine trying to sell every car model made!)

I wrote this book for everyone who struggles to balance the mundane with the sublime—who is attending to the day-to-day hard work and labor of whatever craft they are in while also trying to achieve something greater in their profession or in life. I wanted to deconstruct the mental habits and tactics of some of society’s best and brightest minds in order to share their wisdom with readers—and also to show readers that they’re just like us. They struggle with compromise. They wrestle with perfection. And they aspire always to do something great. We can too.

By studying the habits and tactics of the world’s brightest, you can recognize common themes that apply to your life— even if the subject matter itself is as far removed from your daily life as a black hole is from a quark. Honestly, even though I am a physicist, the work done by most of the subjects in this book is no more similar to my daily work than it is to yours, and yet I learned much from them about issues common between us. These pages include enduring life lessons applicable to anyone eager to acquire new the true keys to success!

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

A theme pops up throughout these interviews regarding the connection between teaching and learning. In the Russian language, the word for “scientist” translates into “one who was taught.” That is an awesome responsibility with many implications. If we were taught, we have an obligation to teach. But the paradox is this: To be a good teacher, you must also be a good student. You must study how people learn in order to teach effectively. And to learn, you must not only study but also teach. In that way, I also have a selfish motivation behind this book: I wanted to share everything I learned from these laureates in order to learn it even more durably. Mostly, however, I see this book as an extension of my duty as an educator. That’s also how the podcast Into the Impossible began.

I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about learning and education, combined with the recognition that life is short and I want to extract as much wisdom as I can while I can.

As a college professor, I think of teachers as shortcuts in this endeavor. Teachers act as a sort of hack to reduce the amount of time otherwise required to learn something on one’s own, compressing and making the learning process as efficient as possible—but no more so. In other words, there is a value in wrestling with material that cannot be hacked away.

As part of my duty as an educator, I wanted to cultivate a collection of dream faculty comprised of minds I wish I had encountered in my life. The next best thing to having them as my actual teachers is to learn from their interviews in a way that distills their knowledge, philosophy, struggles, tactics, and habits.

I started doing just that at UC San Diego in 2018 and realized I was extremely privileged to have access to some of the greatest minds in human history, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners and authors to CEOs, artists, and astronauts. As the codirector of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, I had access to a wide variety of writers, thinkers, and inventors from all walks of life, courtesy of our guest-speaker series. The list of invited speakers is not at all limited to the sciences. The common denominator is conversations about human curi- osity, imagination, and communication from a variety of vantage points.

I realized it would be a missed opportunity if only those people who attended our live events benefited from these world-class intellects. So we supplemented their visit- ing lectures with podcast interviews, during which we explored topics in more detail. I started referring to the podcast as the “university I wish I’d attended where you can wear your pajamas and don’t incur student-loan debt.”

The goal of the podcast is to interview the greatest minds for the greatest number of people. My very first guest was the esteemed physicist Freeman Dyson. I next inter- viewed science-fiction authors, such as Andy Weir and Kim Stanley Robinson; poets and artists, including Herbert Sigüenza and Ray Armentrout; astronauts, such as Jessica Meir and Nicole Stott; and many others. Along the way, I also started to collect a curated subset of interviews with Nobel Prize–winning physicists.

Then in February 2020, my friend Freeman Dyson died. Dyson was the prototype of a truly overlooked Nobel laureate. His contributions to our understanding of the fundamentals of matter and energy cannot be overstated, yet he was bypassed for the Nobel Prize he surely deserved. I was honored to host him for his winter visits to enjoy La Jolla’s sublime weather.

Freeman’s passing lent an incredible sense of urgency to my pursuits, forcing me to acknowledge that most prize- winning physicists are getting on in years. I don’t know how to say this any other way, but I started to feel sick to my stomach, thinking that I might miss an opportunity to talk to some of the most brilliant minds in history who, because of winning the Nobel Prize, have had an outsized influence on society and culture. So in 2020, I started reaching out to them. Most said yes, although sadly, both of the living female Nobel laureate physicists declined to be interviewed. I’m incredibly disappointed not to have female voices in this book, but it’s due to the reality of the situation and not for lack of trying.

A year later, I had this incredible collection of legacy interviews with some of the most celebrated minds on the planet. T.S. Eliot once said, “The Nobel is a ticket to one’s own funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it.” No one proves that idea more wrong than the physicists in this book. It’s a rarefied group of individuals to learn from—especially when the focus is on life lessons instead of their research. It would be a dereliction of my intellectual duty not to preserve and share them.

HOW TO APPROACH THIS BOOK

These chapters are not transcripts. From the lengthy interviews I conducted with each laureate, I pulled all of the bits exemplifying traits worthy of emulation. Then, after each exchange, I added context or shared how I have been affected by that quote or idea. I have also edited for clarity, since spoken communication doesn’t always translate directly to the page.

All in all, I have done my best to maintain the authenticity of my exchanges with my guests. For example, you’ll notice that my questions don’t always relate to the take-away. Conversations often go in unexpected directions. I could’ve rephrased the questions for this book so they more accurately represented the laureates’ responses, but I didn’t want to misrepresent context. Still, any mistakes accidentally introduced are definitely mine, not theirs.

Each chapter contains a small box briefly explaining the laureate’s Prize-winning work—not because there will be a test at the end, but because it’s interesting context, and further, I know a lot of my readers will want to learn a bit of the fascinating science in these pages, consider- ing the folks from whom you’ll be learning. Perhaps their work will ignite further curiosity in you. If that’s not you, feel free to skip these boxes. If you’re looking for more, I refer you to the laureates’ Nobel lectures at nobelprize.org. There, you will find their knowledge. But here, you will find examples of their wisdom—distilled and compressed into concentrated, actionable form.

Each interview ends with a handful of lightning-round questions designed to investigate more deeply, to provide you with insight into what these laureates are like as human beings. Often these questions reoccur.

Further, you’ll find several recurrent themes from interview to interview, including the power of curiosity, the importance of listening to your critics, and why it’s paramount to pursue goals that are “useless.” I truly hope you’ll enjoy going out of this Universe and the benefits it will accrue to your life and career!

Buy your copy of Think Like A Nobel Prize Winner here!

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