Q and A with Brian Keating

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.