There’s a fascinating new book just now appearing in book stores, Losing the Nobel Prize, by astronomer Brian Keating. An excerpt from the book is available at Nautilus, with the title How My Nobel Dream Bit the Dust. Some reviews that are out are here, here, here and here. Sabine Hossenfelder is not too happy with the book (response from Keating here).
Much of the book is an excellent explanation, from the beginning, of a significant part of the current state of cosmology. It does a good job of even-handedly explaining the controversy over the scientific status of inflation and the multiverse, giving Paul Steinhardt’s views equal billing with those of multiverse enthusiasts like Guth and Linde. It’s written from the point of view not of a theorist, but of an observational astronomer, and thus explains well some of the details of the current state of the technology being used. Much of the book is about the BICEP telescope, operated in the hostile environment of the South Pole.
One of the strongest aspects of the book is that it is also the memoir of a life and a profession, giving a very personal take on what it’s like to get interested in astronomy as a kid, then grow up and pursue a career in the field. Keating’s book is very much in the tradition of Watson’s The Double Helix, giving a portrayal of himself and others that doesn’t leave out the very human aspects of ambition, competitiveness and jealousy.
Unlike the Watson book, which is about a great scientific achievement, the unusual aspect of Keating’s story is that what he was involved in was not a success, but the biggest fiasco in the history of his field. On March 17th, 2014, the New York Times reported on its front page that Space Ripples Reveal Inflation’s Smoking Gun, and this same story was reported by most media outlets. This was based on results from the BICEP2 telescope unveiled at a press conference at Harvard (press release First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation). At the press conference, PI John Kovac claimed that the chance the results were a fluke was only one in 10 million.
I wrote several blog postings about the story as it evolved, you can find them here, here, here and here. The BICEP2 result was often portrayed as a definitive experimental vindication of the multiverse, which was one reason I was writing about it. By the later postings, I was covering the story of the collapse of the BICEP2 claims, as it became clear that what they had measured was a signal coming from dust in the galaxy, not from primordial gravitational waves.
Keating’s insider account of what happened makes clear that the true story is that the BICEP2 telescope, because of the way it was designed (sensitive to only one part of the sky at one frequency), was never capable of distinguishing primordial gravitational waves from dust. They were in hot competition with the Planck satellite collaboration, which did have the capabilities needed to distinguish the signal they were seeing from dust, and was generally assumed to be the experiment with the best chance of seeing primordial gravitational waves. BICEP2 could have released its data, making clear that it might be primordial gravitational waves or it might be dust, that Planck would need to weigh in to decide. This would have made a splash, but probably not a front-page one, and if the gravitational wave signal was real, Planck would have shared in the glory of identifying it.
Instead of behaving responsibly, the BICEP2 collaboration found arguments to convince themselves that the dust could not be a problem, arguments which included scraping data off a slide of a preliminary Planck result presented at a conference (while, it seems, misunderstanding the significance of the data in that slide). Keating gives a very defensive explanation of how this happened, claiming that he was well aware of the danger that the signal was just dust. About Planck, he writes
We desperately tried to work with the Planck team, while being careful not to tip them off as to what we’d found… The Planck team wouldn’t cooperate.
which I guess really means “we desperately tried to rip them off, but they weren’t that dumb.” While he had these concerns, in the end he decided to agree (as did the whole collaboration) with the tactic of writing a paper claiming dust wasn’t a problem and going public with an aggressive and heavily promoted discovery claim.
The cost/reward computation they were engaged in when they decided to go public with a problematic claim involved two possibilities:
- Planck data would show the dust was not a problem. If this was the case, BICEP2 would be the people who found the primordial gravitational waves, Planck the losers who measured some boring dust.
- Planck data would show that the signal was dust. This would be embarrassing, but, this is America, and all publicity is good publicity, right?
As far as I can tell, the BICEP2 scientists haven’t suffered much professionally from the fiasco. When David Spergel talked here at Columbia about the subject, he noted that this hadn’t stopped the PI, John Kovac, from getting tenure at Harvard. In the book, Keating mentions some “embarrassment and guilt”, but no negative professional consequences, instead explaining how a few months later Jim Simons came to him to offer to fund a next generation observational program (the Simons Observatory, of which he is now Director) to be built in Chile. The Nobel Foundation in 2015 was contacting him to request him to nominate candidates for 2016. Keating does write that he thinks the BICEP2 story shows that scientists should be given some formal training in ethical norms, but at the same time he makes clear that violating such norms sometimes provides significant rewards, with few penalties.
A major theme of the book is Keating’s obsession with the possibility of winning a Nobel Prize as well as long discussions of what’s wrong with the way Nobel Prizes are awarded and what he feels should be done about this. On some of these issues I agree with him. In particular, the Higgs discovery story makes clear the problem with awarding prizes only to individuals, not collaborations. You end up with a prize not for the most important experimental discoveries in physics, but for the most important discoveries made by experimental groups with a small enough list of high profile leaders.
Sabine Hossenfelder’s review was quite hostile about Keating’s complaints concerning how the Nobel Prize is operated, for reasons I didn’t understand until I read the book. It’s very hard to have much sympathy for Keating’s recounting of his many Nobel-related jealousies and resentments. In particular, even if there had been no dust, he was never really in the running for a piece of the BICEP2 prize nomination since he had been pushed out of a leadership role due to his involvement with a competing experiment. He still seems bitter about this and gives the impression that this is at the root of his complaints about the Nobel. One suspects that if there had been no dust and he had been given more prominence in BICEP2, after his trip to Stockholm he’d instead have written a book describing the Nobel Prize as the most well-designed and enlightened thing in the world. Instead of owning up to mistakes and writing a post-mortem about lessons learned and what to do about them, Keating’s choice to instead write a book blaming the Nobel Prize committee is a peculiar one.
Update: Keating has a Losing the Nobel Prize website, dedicated to promoting reform of the Nobel Prize along the lines suggested in his book.