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After dust stymies a quest to confirm cosmic inflation, a physicist questions science’s most prestigious award

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor

Brian Keating
Norton
2018
350 pp.
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In March 2014, the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) collaboration, a team of astrophysicists mapping the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, excitedly announced an unexpectedly strong signal in their data. The researchers reported apparent evidence that primordial gravitational waves from a hypothesized rapid stretching of space, called the inflationary era, skewed the radiation’s profile in a particular way.

Although ordinary light is unpolarized, twisting equally in clockwise and counterclockwise directions—a bit like a balanced collection of left-handed and right-handed screws—BICEP2 revealed distinct polarization patterns that beautifully matched some of inflation theory’s predictions. Months later, however, hopes were dashed when further analysis pointed to a more prosaic cause for the signal: interstellar dust.

Losing the Nobel Prize, by astrophysicist Brian Keating of the University of California, San Diego, offers a riveting account of the rise and fall of the seeming confirmation of the cosmological theory of inflation. Keating, who played a major role in the BICEP2 project and in related previous endeavors, wonderfully captures the drama behind major (and expensive) cosmological experiments that have the potential to revolutionize science and bolster careers. He nicely explains the impetus behind the inflationary-era hypothesis and describes why many researchers are eager to confirm it.

Keating offers vivid profiles of the personalities involved in shaping our modern view of the universe, including the pioneers of inflation. One of those figures, Princeton cosmologist Paul Steinhardt, receives special attention in the book for his controversial decision to abandon the inflation approach, which he helped mold, and his subsequent efforts to craft a competing model, called the cyclic universe. Keating cogently explains the philosophy behind Steinhardt’s decision, placing it in the context of earlier visions, such as the steady-state cosmological model.

Keating describes how the BICEP2 signal originally seemed to favor inflation and imperil cyclic models. As a bonus, it seemed to provide a way of probing gravitational waves at the quantum level, potentially revealing new physics. He well captures the joy felt by inflationary theorists, such as Andrei Linde, when their models seemed proved at last and their grave disappointment when the purported evidence vanished into dust.

STEFFEN RICHTER, HARVARD-SMITHSONIAN CENTER FOR ASTROPHYSICS

The BICEP2 telescope (left) was deployed to search for evidence of cosmic inflation in 2009.

Occluding Keating’s account, however, are his personal beefs about “losing” the Nobel Prize. Unlike the Olympics or marathon races, the Nobel Prize is not a competition between vying players who train for a shot at a trophy. These days, physics has so many researchers and subfields that it is not always clear who and which are in contention.

Normally, scientists don’t base their careers on what will snag them the “Nobel gold,” but rather on a passion for scientific inquiry and the enjoyment that comes from learning more about the universe. It is therefore jolting to read passages in which he recalls calculating what he needed to do to maximize his chances of being a laureate and in which he recounts slights from his colleagues that threatened to block his way.

Such gripes taint Keating’s otherwise thoughtful analysis of ways the Nobel committee’s selection process could be improved. That is a shame, because many of his ideas, considered dispassionately, are quite worthy.

Keating suggests, for example, opening up the physics prize to larger groups than the current maximum of three—a change that certainly makes sense given the sizable collaborations in today’s megaprojects. He also urges establishing new prizes for emerging scientific disciplines and correcting past omissions. He supports allowing posthumous awards, within reason, such as to those who die right before their colleagues are honored for the same result. Finally, he suggests awarding more prizes for serendipitous findings, rather than through confirmation.

Losing the Nobel offers an important lesson that not everything in science goes according to plan. There are often many false starts before progress is made. Researchers can spend their careers planning and carrying out experiments that lead nowhere.

Yet true scientific satisfaction comes with the journey, not just the destination. Even if the Nobel Prize vanished tomorrow, we are curious beings and would undoubtedly carry on extending the limits of knowledge. Losing the Nobel would be a shame, but hardly the end of science.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Department of Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics at the University of the Sciences, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.