UCSD astrophysicist has thoughts on improving Nobel Prize: Brian Keating says dated premise doesn't further science

The Nobel Prize! In winning, you join the esteemed ranks of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.

Who would dare criticize the Nobel Prize?

That would be UC San Diego astrophysicist Brian Keating, who many thought might win the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his work mapping Big Bang cosmic microwave background radiation with the super-cooled Bicep2 telescope at the South Pole. He did so recently in a new book: "Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Sciences Highest Honor," published by W.W. Norton & Co.

So far, Keating's book has been getting good reviews from the likes of Astronomy Magazine, Nature, Science and ScienceNews. Reviewers have described it as: "deft, charming, clever, rivoting, clear, engaging, and easy to understand."

In addition, it made Amazon's "10 Best Nonfiction Books of the Month" list and Nature magazine's "Six Best Books of the Season."

As it turned out, Keating did not win the Nobel Prize back in 2014 because it became clear that galactic dust had interfered with his findings.

However, the process Keating went through in chasing the Nobel, he said, caused him to rethink his drives and desires, and compose a critique of the prize in the hopes of improving its value as a stimulus for scientific investigation.

Keating spoke about his experiences at a book launch party, April 25, jointly sponsored by the UCSD Library and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Imagination held at Calit2's Atkinson Hall on campus. After his solo address, science-fiction writer David Brin came to the stage to engage Keating in conversation.

Keating compared cosmology with cosmetology, amusing the audience with his tongue-in-cheek error: "I headed up a team of cosmetologists ... I mean cosmologists."

He went on to explain that cosmology and cosmetology are similar in that both are concerned with what the ancient Greeks called "cosmos" or beauty — one strives to make people beautiful, the other to understand the beauty of the universe.

According to Keating, the first great cosmological finding was the discovery that the Earth was not flat but rather a revolving orb. The second was that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. The third was the realization that the solar system is not at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn, is not at the center of the universe (nor the multiverse!).

Keating then discussed Alfred Nobel, who many think was responsible for the killing of more people than any man who has ever lived because he invented dynamite.

Nobel — like the inventors of the atomic bomb, who spent the rest of their lives trying to "ban the bomb" — attempted to make amends for his "sins" by setting aside funds to award a yearly prize "to those who, during the proceeding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind."

Keating had several points of criticism for the Nobel Prize. First, he thinks it's sexist and patriarchal because it has passed over to ignore many worthy female scientists.

Second, he said, the Nobel committee only gives the award to, at most, three people, when many of today's scientific breakthroughs are usually the product of a large team effort.

Third, Keating argued, the award is not given to people who have died after their discovery; and fourth, it is only given for findings in a particular year, while most scientific breakthroughs usually take many years.

And last, but not least, Keating pointed out that the nomination process is an old boys network — comprised of mostly past winners who qualify to nominate potential winners.

Keating countered that the Nobel committee should: 1) add prizes in vibrant new scientific disciplines; 2) award groups of any size; 3) give retroactive awards; 4) allow posthumous laureates; and 5) acknowledge unexpected discoveries rather than confirmations of previous theories.

"The Nobel Prize actually hampers scientific progress by encouraging speed and competition while punishing inclusively, collaboration, and bold innovation," Keating concluded.

Associate director of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, Erik Viirre, M.D., Ph.D., reckoned to the crowd that Keating wrote his book because: "Brian loves science and he loves to teach it. He wants the Nobel Prize to be better for science. He wants it to enable the best scientific research possible."

— You can view Brian Keating's conversation with David Brin, 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 29, 2018 on UCSD-TV. For more information, visit briankeating.com

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