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.)