Losing The Nobel Prize
The inside story of a quest to unlock one of cosmology’s biggest mysteries, derailed by the lure of the Nobel Prize. What would it have been like to be an eyewitness to the Big Bang? In 2014, astronomers wielding BICEP2, the most powerful cosmology telescope ever made, thought they’d glimpsed the spark that ignited the Big Bang. Millions around the world tuned in to the announcement, and Nobel whispers began to spread. But had these cosmologists truly read the cosmic prologue or, driven by ambition in pursuit of Nobel gold, had they been deceived by a galactic mirage? In Losing the Nobel Prize, cosmologist Brian Keating―who first conceived of the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) experiments―tells the inside story of BICEP2’s detection and the ensuing scientific drama. Along the way, Keating provocatively argues that the Nobel Prize actually hampers scientific progress by encouraging speed and competition while punishing inclusivity, collaboration, and bold innovation. To build on BICEP2’s efforts to reveal the cosmos’ ultimate secrets―indeed, to advance science itself―the Nobel Prize must be radically reformed.
Video tour of the book
CBS News Interview with Brian Keating at the South Pole!
Explore BICEP’s home at the South Pole with Google Maps!
Reviews & Endorsements
“Brian Keating's riveting new book tells the inside story of the search for cosmic origins, emphasizing the influence of Nobel dreams and laying bare the question of whether the lure of grand prizes is ultimately a good thing for science.” — Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
“A fascinating autobiographical account, full of intriguing detail, of the passions and inspirations that underlie the scientific quest to comprehend the nature and origins of our universe...A highly thoughtful and informative book.” — Sir Roger Penrose, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, University of Oxford and author of The Emperor’s New Mind
“Visionary Brian Keating takes us along on a refreshing and honest journey to see how great discoveries are made and unmade. This is one of the greatest stories told in cosmology. I couldn't put it down!” — Stephon Alexander, Professor of Physics, Brown University, jazz musician, and author of The Jazz of Physics
“In this riveting personal account, Brian Keating writes frankly of his challenges, frustrations, and motivations during the years spent building and operating the instruments used to tackle one of the most fundamental problems in science: how our universe began.” — Martin J. Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of Universe
“Part adventure story, part cautionary tale, Brian Keating’s <Losing the Nobel Prize is that rare thing among popular science books—a page-turner.” — Rae Armantrout, professor emerita, University of California, San Diego, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Versed
“Brian Keating describes the thrilling highs and dramatic lows that accompany the relentless pursuit of science’s top accolade. This is a personal, cautionary tale to which we should all listen.” — Peter H. Diamandis, chairman/founder, XPRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, and author of Abundance and Bold
“Brian Keating's compulsively readable book shows us the human side of science: the passion, the competition, the jealousies, the mistakes, the triumphs, the heartbreaks. A first-hand account of how science happens at the very highest levels.” — Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture
“Brian Keating is a wonderful storyteller with a very good story to tell. His tale is provocative and evocative as he takes us on a highly personal journey to the heart of the scientific exploration of the universe.” — Lee Smolin, Perimeter Institute, and author of Time Reborn
“I loved this well-told tale of science, passion, and the pursuit—literally to the ends of the earth—of life’s purest questions. Brian Keating weaves together a must-read drama of big dreams, awe-inspiring technology, and a belief in the power of science to solve any puzzle. He is thoroughly modern and forward facing, questioning the veneration of the Nobel Prize, and making the case with his heartfelt story that the real prize is in the science itself.” — Julian Guthrie, author of How to Make a Spaceship
“Three fascinating tales entwine between these covers; a young man growing to scientific maturity, an elusive baby picture of our universe, and the prize he hoped that picture would garner. The story, enthralling as it is, remains unfinished.” — Jill Tarter, Bernard M. Oliver Chair, SETI Institute
“Our most august institutions—government, billion-dollar corporations, and even staid academia—are rife with human politicking and raw ambition. In Losing the Nobel Prize, Brian Keating describes just some of that jockeying and maneuvering among the smartest people in the world, studying the most abstruse and fundamental knowledge, while chasing humanity's greatest honor. Along the way, Keating provides understandable explanations of the more mind-bending aspects of modern cosmology, and just what we know about our universe.” — Antonio García Martínez, author of Chaos Monkeys
“A fascinating blend of personal history and an honest behind-the-scenes look at high-stakes science. Brian Keating was at the origin of what appeared to be one of the most exciting discoveries in modern cosmology. His vivid storytelling brings humanity’s search for the origin of the Universe to life.” — Jay Pasachoff, author of Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets
“Cosmologists had thought that they had glimpsed a distant image of the first moments of the universe. Instead, this image turned out to be ‘smudge on the window’: galactic dust once again bedeviling cosmologists. Keating conveys this exciting search through a personal tale of the ups and downs of cutting edge science.” — David Spergel, Professor, Princeton University, Co-Winner of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics
“In Losing the Nobel Prize, Brian Keating shares a view from the jagged frontiers of scientific exploration, offering fresh insights into the passions, ambitions, and competition that drive many researchers today. A fascinating journey.” — David Kaiser, professor of physics and the history of science, MIT and author of How the Hippies Saved Physics
"According to Brian Keating, the Oscar and Nobel science prizes have a lot in common. In Losing the Nobel Prize, he weaves together the Nobel Prize institution, his personal life, and his own involvement in modern cosmology into a multi-facetted and highly readable story. Providing a vivid picture of the adventurous and competitive world of cosmological research, he also suggests radical reforms to the venerable but perhaps outdated Stockholm institution.” — Helge Kragh, Emeritus Professor, Aarhus University and author of Cosmology & Controversy
FAQ about Losing the Nobel Prize
Is your books like Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit and the Ultimate Experiment, by Gary Taubes?
I don’t think so because I intentionally didn’t read that book by Taubes! But hopefully readers of that book will find my work equally engaging.
What did influence you to write this book?
Part of the impetus for the book was Helge Kragh’s review of Robert Friedman’s The Politics of Excellence, which is about the Nobel Prize in the sciences. Kragh says “Friedman is understandably puzzled why and how the laureates have become elevated to scientific semi-gods. Focusing on the selection and nomination processes, but paying almost no attention to the media coverage and reception of the prizes,he is unable to come up with a good answer.” I believe my book reveals the real reason why the Nobel Prize endures and I’m honored Kragh blurbed it!
Why did you write this book?
The Nobel Prize is not only the most prestigious award in science, it’s also humanity’s most esteemed accolade, its most sacred cow. Everyone recognizes the contributions of the laureates who win it, but few have spoken about the darker sides of the prize itself, how it incentivizes brutal competition for dwindling resources, how it excludes entire groups of scientists, and how it establishes scientific dogma by way of authority. In an era where once-revered organizations are facing long-overdue scrutiny and reform, I thought it was time to examine the effects that the Nobel Prize has on science, from the perspective of an insider who was once in the running for science’s top honor.
What was the original intent of the Nobel Prizes ?
The Nobel Prizes were, in part, an attempt at posthumous public relations. Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite. In a premature obituary written about him a few years before he actually died he was called “The Merchant of Death”. That brush with death shocked him. Soon after he wrote his will and endowed the prizes that would forever be known by their mission statement “For the benefit of mankind”.
Does the Prize still represent Alfred Nobel’s original vision?
I think Alfred might roll in his grave were he to see what it has become: Peace prizes given to warmongers and terrorists, literature prizes given to pop musicians. Alfred’s vision was to celebrate discoveries that improved humanity and do so quickly – his will requires the prizes be awarded for such findings within a year of their discovery. I think the prize process today is hampering innovation. It’s causing funding agencies to become more risk averse while simultaneously demanding “spectacular breakthroughs” for every discovery in order to justify continued support. The Nobel Prizes turn colleagues into competitors, science into spectacle, and laureates into demigods. I do not think that was at all what Alfred intended.
You highlight a number of imperfections with the awards selection process including people who are excluded from even being considered. What kinds of work or people does the prize tend to exclude?
Physics in Alfred’s time was often done by lone geniuses working in isolation. That’s why his will specifies that the Physics prize go to “the person”, i.e., in the singular, whose discovery most benefited mankind in the previous year. And while Alfred didn’t say the prize could only go to men, he may as well have: there have been only two women who have won Nobel Prizes in Physics in history. That’s only two more women laureates than female Popes! It’s also ironic that a prize established after the death of its namesake benefactor (and two of his brothers), is forbidden to go to scientists who are deceased, even if they die right before the announcements! This was never part of Alfred’s intent. After all, how does the prospective laureate’s death invalidate the discovery that he (only twice, she) has made towards benefitting mankind?
Do you believe the Nobel Prize should be abolished or simply reformed? What reforms would you like to see the Nobel Prize committee put in place?
To avoid the bursting of the Nobel Bubble, I give five very specific reforms in the book ranging from allowing posthumous awards, within a reasonable time frame and giving the award to groups, as was allowed according to the early Prize rules…and as is still allowed in for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Do you think the Nobel Committee will take your suggestions seriously?
I hope so and I’ve corresponded with members of the Committee who tell me, in confidence, that they share my concerns. I worry that, like other once-revered institutions from Hollywood to Politics, we are at a sort-of “Peak Prize”, a time when the stature accorded by the Nobel Prizes is at risk. Of course many will say I have sour grapes or I would gladly accept a Nobel of my own, were it to be offered. I say my sincerity can be tested by offering me one.
This is also a book about cosmology. Can cosmology really benefit mankind, as the prize rules require?
Human beings have always hungered to know how we got here. What few people realize is that we still don’t understand how it all began or even whether there was one, single origin of the universe. Despite the popularity of the Big Bang Theory, the television show, the actual theory of cosmic origins itself is still not fully appreciated. It is even unclear whether or not there was a single beginning. Even if there was a single origin, what caused that spectacular event to take place? Understanding how time itself began would satisfy the deepest animating impulses of what it means to be human. It’s also what drove me to create the experiment that took me on a journey from the ends of the Earth to the beginning of time. It almost took me to that most exclusive of all scientific locations: Stockholm, Sweden.
In your book you describe the many biases and blunders that have taken cosmology astray. Are mistakes driven by the desire to win the Nobel Prize?
The Nobel Prize definitely a motivator. But in addition to the fierce competition for scarce resources within science, scientists themselves are humans, seeking credit and attention, despite stereotypes to the contrary. We scientists suffer from the same frailties that any other humans: an inherent bias to overemphasize authority, stake credit, and confirm preconceived beliefs. In Losing the Nobel Prize, I show how hubris and a bit of the most humble substance in the cosmos – dust – derailed a quest to discover the spark that ignited the Big Bang. While my brilliant cosmological colleagues write about the implications delightfully exotic phenomena like wormholes and extra dimensions, I chose to write about dust. The universe abounds with dust – it forms whispy nebulae as well as the planet we call home, and it has clouded the judgement of cosmic visionaries since the time of Galileo. While dust doesn’t captivate the mind as the other cosmic sensations there’s a reason books comes with dust jackets, not wormhole jackets! My book offers a cautionary tale for future astronomers seeking science’s ultimate prize: you may first need to wade through some of the comos’s trash before you can grab your own Nobel treasure.