Questioning the Future and Fairness of the Nobel Prize

In cosmologist Brian Keating’s memoir about his quest for the Nobel Prize, he uncovers the darker side of science’s highest honor, calling into question many ethical dilemmas surrounding the award and its rigorous qualifications. Losing the Nobel Prize is Keating’s illuminating journey in his quest for truth about the notorious prize, as well as his own research.

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Prize. By Brian Keating. W.W. Norton, Sept 2018. @ReadMoreScience

I chose Losing the Nobel Prize as January’s Read More Science Book Club pick. It was perfect to start off a year of reading more science. Keating’s book is part science memoir, part exploration into the history of the Nobel Prize.

Keating documents he and his team’s development of BICEP, a gravitational wave background telescope, their falling out, and his subsequent exclusion from BICEP2. In accessible, emotionally-vivid writing, he recounts feelings of excitement and disappointment upon hearing of BICEP2’s success — and his exclusion from even being credited for inventing the instrument in the first place. It’s a surprisingly gripping story of rivalry.

I read a not-so-great review of Keating’s book when it came out, and it initially turned me off towards the book. He was critiqued by other reviewers for coming across as resentful, or even vengeful — that by not receiving credit for his accomplishments, or because of the intense rivalry between scientific teams, he’s somehow blaming the Nobel Prize for his own failures. Then I found out Keating was critiquing the prize for reasons I wholeheartedly agree with, and I realized I absolutely had to read his book.

I did not interpret Keating’s book as some act of revenge or bitterness. In fact, by the end of it, I doubt very many readers will be mistaken that Keating’s intention was not to call-out other scientists he was frustrated with, or even to vent about not winning the prize. Perhaps a cosmologist or physicist would interpret it differently, but this is the way I read it. Instead, he calls into question several issues not just with the Nobel Prize, but with the field of physics.

Alfred Nobel, the wealthy inventor of dynamite, created the Nobel Prizes in his will and left an enormous sum of money for the awards. You can read a little bite more about the history of the prize and its creation here, but Keating summarizes it well in his book. Specifically, he focuses on Alfred Nobel’s original intentions for the prize — and how the award has strayed from them.

Though Keating’s book is structured around the narrative arch of his own experiences working on BICEP and recounting BICEP2’s story, he includes three chapters titled “Broken Lens” in which he explores a significant issue with the Nobel Prize. These were my favorite parts of the book, not only because they are well-written and thought out, but because they directly challenge an extremely powerful institution.

In the first Broken Lens, Keating mourns the death of Vera Rubin, who “was credited with the serendipitous discovery of dark matter.” Though she was considered “a shoo-in” for the 2016 prize, her death before the announcements ensured that she would not receive it: the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously. This is just one of Keating’s frustrations with the prize.

The gender inequity in the Nobel Prize for physics is extremely apparent. In 2018, Donna Strickland became the third woman to ever win the prize. The last female recipient was Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and the first was Marie Curie in 1903. The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded 112 times.

Keating explores this issue at some depth — yes, there is a lack of women in the field of physics, but it’s not as if there are no women in physics. There needs to be more recruiting, more mentorship, more encouragement of the young woman pursuing career in the competitive world of physics. There needs to be more acknowledgement of the work female professionals in physics due – you may have head that Donna Strickland wasn’t considered important enough for a Wikipedia page.

But I won’t spoil the other two Broken Lens chapters. I think Keating makes persuasive enough arguments without me having to vouch for them here.

This is a great book for those interested in the rigors of physics and cosmology research. This is an excellent memoir for readers curious about the life and work of an accomplished scientist. I would recommend this book even for those simply curious about the Nobel Prize itself, its history, its alleged failures (and successes). And ultimately, I think Keating makes important, interesting arguments worth readers’ consideration.

Find a copy of Losing the Nobel Prize at your local bookstore, and enjoy your journey into the cosmos!

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