Losing the Nobel Prize

A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor

[Amazon Link]

Another book obtained via UNH Library ILL from Tufts. (Fortunately, there aren't a lot of summer readers at Tufts, I guess.) Thanks to all involved. I put the book on my get-at-library list thanks to this post by Philip Greenspun. (Recommended, including comments.)

It's really three books, intertwined: (1) a history of the Nobel Prize, and recommendations for reforms in the nomination and awarding process; (2) a history of astronomical and cosmological research and theorizing, from Galileo up to the present; (3) the author's autobiography, starting with how he got interested in the universe as a boy, detailing his research, and … well, you see the title.

Keating's writing style is punchy and poetic, occasionally very funny. (And often quite flowery, which too often misfires. It's as if he took writing lessons from Carl Sagan.)

The science Keating describes is accessible to the generally science-literate, at least for awhile. But once we get into the details of Keating's own research, a lot of details are glossed over: too much math. Essentially, Keating and his research team were looking for a certain kind of polarization pattern in the 2.7 °K microwave "cosmic background radiation" discovered back in the sixties, caused by primordial gravity waves. This would have confirmed the cosmic inflation hypothesis, meant to describe the post-Big Bang expansion of the universe. (And we're talking very early: between 10-36 and 10-32 seconds after the Bang.)

Keating's own story is interesting, and is a picture of the somewhat sad state of leading-edge physics research: hyper-competitiveness between research groups for funding and publishable results; inter-group backstabbing and politics. Is everyone as obsessed with getting the Nobel as Keating was? At that level, maybe! His odyssey takes him all over the world, most notably the South Pole, with his trusty microwave-sensitive telescope.

One sad note, of which I was not aware: Andrew Lange, a brilliant physicist who was universally liked, chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech, comitted suicide in 2010, asphyxiating himself in a seedy motel room in Pasadena. (And I thought: I wonder if it's the same seedy motel I stayed in when I went back for class reunion? It's not as if there are that many seedy motels in Pasadena.) What does it say about the state of modern-day physics if it takes such a toll on people at its apex?

Keating's recommendations for Nobel reform are not as interesting as the other threads. But (yes) the current rules are archaic and don't reflect either Alfred Nobel's dying wishes or the realities of current-day research. And some people, especially women, have been arguably screwed over. If you'd like a taste of Keating's argument, check out his Wired article. True fact:

When in 1963 Maria Goeppert Mayer became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, a newspaper published the story under the headline, “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize.”

There is some sloppiness that probably could have been fixed with more diligent editing.

Page xvi: "I was reminded of a speech John F. Kennedy gave in 1959, when he said, "When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters—one represents danger and one represents opportunity."

Keating was born in 1971, so it's a little odd for him to be "reminded" of a 1959 speech. But let that go.

Kennedy said it, true enough, but a little checking shows it to be a bogus translation. Which kind of diminishes the point Keating's trying to make.

And then on page 42: "Clouds are made of tiny air molecules and much larger water molecules."

By kinetic diameter, an H2O molecule is about 265 picometers (pm) in diameter. "Air molecules" are almost all nitrogen molecules (N2) and oxygen molecules (O2). They're actually slightly bigger than H2O: (364 and 346 pm respectively).

What Keating probably meant to say: clouds are made of tiny air molecules and much larger water droplets. (And the following discussion is correct.)

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • Proverbs 10:28 piles on another problem for the wicked, notes another advantage of righteousness:

    28 The prospect of the righteous is joy,
        but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.

    You almost—almost—feel sorry for the wicked. So far, just in Proverbs 10, their cravings have been twharted (10:3); their mouths have been both overwhelmed by (10:6) and conceal violence (10:11); their names are rotting (10:7); their earnings are sin and death (10:16); their hearts are of little value (10:20); they'll be overtaken by what they dread (10:24); they are swept away by storms (10:25); and they are doomed to a short life expectancy (10:27).

    Sucks to be them.

  • Possibly related headlines:

  • But with respect to the Newfound Respect for a misguided ideology, Fernando Teson has some thoughts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians: Socialism: What’s in a Word? He notes that it's unclear what they're actually after:

    1. Perhaps by socialism they mean a political system where the state owns the means of production while preserving liberal freedoms. Call it democratic socialism. Democratic socialism offers the best of both worlds: an equal share of all in society’s material output, and the constitutional freedoms that are so central to our lives and that were denied by communism. Critics of democratic socialism have argued, along Friedmanian lines, that it will sooner or later degenerate into communism because in order to secure its ownership of the means of production the state must use intolerable amounts of coercion and thus suppress freedom. On this view, democratic socialism is empirically impossible. Democratic socialists retort that this is just a problem of technical constitutional design and that it should be in principle possible to preserve freedoms in such a system.
    2. Or perhaps by socialism they mean a political system based on robust markets where the state introduces market corrections to provide for the less fortunate, to reduce inequality, and to provide genuine public goods. Call it social democracy. The state actively taxes citizens and intervenes in the economy to provide all these services, but societal wealth derives from capitalist exchanges. Private property, investment, and capitalist profits are protected and encouraged. The usual exemplars are the Scandinavian democracies, Germany, and the like.

    The former is really bad, a misery-inducing failure wherever it's been tried; the latter… well, many of the countries implementing "social democracy" actually outscore the US on economic freedom.

    So would-be "socialists" should make it clear what they're arguing for. Not that I'm holding my breath.

  • At NR, Kevin D. Williamson writes on Stephen Miller’s ‘Hypocrisy’. Or, more precisely:

    What does it mean to be a hypocrite in politics?

    Stephen Miller, an adviser to President Donald Trump, has been denounced in the pages of Politico for his “hypocrisy,” by his uncle, no less. Miller, like the president, supports a more restrictive approach to immigration. His uncle, David S. Glosser, insists that this is an instance of “grim historical irony,” proving that all these generations after his Polish-speaking forebear uttered his first words of English, Mr. Glosser doesn’t quite know what “irony” means.

    I sympathize, I'm always getting "irony" wrong myself.

    Williamson notes that the appeal to hypocrisy argument is fallacious. (It's somehow even more fallacious when the hypocrisy is over something that happened decades ago to your ancestors.)

    The charge of hypocrisy is, in this context, only another expression of the ad hominem fallacy. “Never mind your argument, who are you to make that argument?” Miller’s arguments on immigration — and Trump’s, and Krikorian’s, and mine, and yours — are either good arguments or poor ones, productive or unproductive, leading to better policies or to worse ones. Whether those arguments are made by the offspring of Jewish immigrants from Belarus — or their uncles, or the grandsons of Bavaria-born hoteliers, or Armenian Americans, or dam-builders who show up in Texas one day from parts unknown — is irrelevant to the underlying question.

    The main advantage to making an appeal to hypocrisy: it's very easy to find hypocrisy wherever you look.

  • At Reason, Zuri Davis reports the sad news: Massachusetts Mayor Claims Sam Adams Is Profiting Off Trump’s ‘White Nationalist Agenda’.

    Joseph Curtatone, the Democratic mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, is calling on city residents to boycott the beer company Sam Adams for profiting off President Trump's "white nationalist agenda."

    Boston Business Journal reports that Sam Adams founder Jim Koch and other business executives dined with the president last Wednesday. During dinner, Koch reportedly thanked the president for a tax cut that would greatly help his business compete against foreign brewers. According to the report, Koch told Trump, "The tax reform was a very big deal for all of us, because 85 percent of the beer made in the United States is owned by foreign companies." He added that American beer companies paid 38 percent in taxes while foreign competitors paid 20 percent.

    I will diligently try to offset any politically-motivated decline in Sam Adams consumption.

    But more seriously: Sam Adams was an early Massachusetts anti-tax activist; it's disappointing, but not surprising, that today's Mass-Tories want to trash any reminder of that proud history.

  • And an inspiring story from the Babylon Bee: Modern-Day Job Refuses To Curse God Even After Three Hours Of Spotty Internet.

    Much like Job from the Bible, Stephen Bowen found his faith tested by Satan when calamity struck, giving him extremely unreliable internet for three whole hours one evening.

     It started as he sat down to continue binge-watching Supernatural. The show buffered and buffered but would not load. Plugging and unplugging the modem brought no solace. He had to eat his Hot Pockets in silence, but his faith did not waiver.

    Next, Bowen was suddenly struck with extreme curiosity as to where the abbreviation for pounds comes from, but Google would not load the answer. So he stood there in ignorance, but still he worshiped: “The Lord gives bandwidth, and the Lord takes it away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

    I'm not sure I would be as strong as Stephen.