Losing the Nobel Prize

This will be the first of a few posts about Losing the Nobel Prize by Brian Keating, a cosmology professor at UCSD.

Let me urge readers to download the Kindle version and read the book so that the discussion will be more lively on future postings!

The book has the following components, mixed together to some extent:

  • a readable tutorial on the history of experimental cosmology (augmented by Shaffer Grubb’s superb illustrations)
  • a detailed history of the BICEP project, envisioned by Brian Keating and supported by Andrew Lange, which looks for inflation-induced gravitational waves
  • a career guide for would-be physicists
  • the personal history of the author
  • statements that physicists who have identified as “female” have not been given sufficient credit for their work
  • an analysis of the effects of the Nobel Prize, as currently structured, on physics

A sample on the genesis of the BICEP project:

Life in Palo Alto in September 1999 was miserable for a postdoc making $35,000 per year with college loans to pay off. My mood moved inversely with the late 1990s’ NASDAQ. The booming stock market severely limited my housing options. The only apartment I could afford was miles off campus, located on the major Caltrain artery connecting the Valley to the City, at the precise location where the train conductors were required to blow a 150-decibel horn to warn would-be rail-jumpers of impending doom. The horns began blaring at 5 a.m.

On a good night, I would accumulate about five hours of sleep. I was exhausted and depressed. My postdoc advisor, Sarah [Church, physicist turned fellow at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research and now a bureaucrat], could sense it. When I’d doze off at work, I’d dream about a new type of telescope, which would later become BICEP. In my mind’s eye, it was a telescope that could see all the way back to the Big Bang.

For the first few months of my time at Stanford, I was completely absorbed by a new paper called “Polarization Pursuers’ Guide,” written by cosmologists Andrew Jaffe, Marc Kamionkowski, and Limin Wang. … It was the first time I heard anyone say it was possible to experimentally probe the first instants of cosmic history, that mysterious epoch called inflation,

Not only was it possible to see whether inflation had really happened, but, according to these cosmologists, it would require only a modest-sized telescope. I had worked on just such a small telescope for my PhD project.4 I knew that tiny telescopes come with big bonuses: they are simpler, more efficient, and less expensive than their bigger brothers. A small telescope that could capture microwaves, rather than optical light like Galileo’s, could probe the inflationary epoch just as well as a telescope many times its size and cost.

After his talk, Lange agreed to chat with me for a few minutes. I had heard so much about him I felt like I knew him. He was forty-two years old and had been at Caltech since 1993, after a meteoric rise from freshly minted PhD in 1987 to professor, both at UC Berkeley. Caltech had been courting him for a while, betting that his stock would continue to rise. BOOMERanG proved they were right. By the time I met him, he was rumored to be the most popular professor at Caltech; the lecture I’d just heard confirmed those rumors.

Lange hosted social events at his house and clearly enjoyed his role as both a mentor and a friend. Soon, he and I developed a close bond. Often, he’d give me nuggets of what he called “fatherly advice”: words of wisdom about science, academia, and occasionally even about actual, biological fatherhood. The latter information, while not immediately relevant, made a deep impression on me nonetheless. He worshipped his three young sons. His office was a museum of their artwork. On the shelves he’d placed their science projects right next to his own award plaques and pieces of the actual rockets he’d launched into space. Most Mondays, he’d regale me with tales of his weekend exploits with his sons, camping out or launching model rockets in the Mojave Desert. It was clear that they were his world, a refreshing revelation to me: you could be one of the world’s most brilliant scientists and still make fatherhood your top priority.

BICEP took five years and two million dollars to build. You can, however, build a polarimeter simply by donning polarized sunglasses, looking at the zenith at sunset, and spinning around in place. Because light is polarized when it scatters off air molecules, you’ll notice the brightness of the sky varies twice, from bright to dark to bright to dark, every time you spin a full circle. This twofold brightness variation is the signature of polarization.

Like your sunglasses polarimeter, all polarimeters have four features in common: optics (for you, the lenses of your eyes), a polarizing filter (the sunglasses) to separate vertically polarized light from horizontally polarized light, detectors (your retinas), and a polarization modulator (your legs keeping you spinning) that causes the intensity of the light through each of the polarizing filters to vary predictably. So too did BICEP feature these same four essential polarimeter elements. BICEP’s optics were 30 cm (1-foot) diameter lenses made of high-density polyethylene, the same material used in milk jugs. Though these containers appear opaque to the eye, they transmit microwaves almost perfectly. The two lenses produced clear vision over a huge field of view nearly twenty degrees wide—equivalent to two fists held at arm’s length.

Compared to the retina or even a smartphone camera, BICEP’s detector count—98—seems pitiful. But if we were lucky, our pixels would capture waves of gravity coursing through the oldest light there is. No phone, no matter how smart, could even come close to taking that picture.

To detect the faint CMB heat at all, the detectors needed to be cooled to just a quarter of a degree Celsius above absolute zero. Here, once again, BICEP’s Lilliputian size was its biggest asset. Since it was small, barely 1.5 m (5 feet) long, the entire BICEP telescope—optics, polarizing filters/detectors—could be put inside what was essentially a giant thermos. BICEP’s thermos was a cylindrical vessel just large enough to contain all the optical elements and hold them at a pressure less than a millionth of what you feel at sea level. Keeping the pressure inside low was crucial; if there were too many air molecules inside the cryostat they’d quickly rob heat from the walls of the thermos, bringing unwanted heat into the detectors and rendering them useless. The thermos had two chambers within it filled with liquid helium. A dedicated refrigerator held a liquid form of an isotope of helium, called liquid helium-3. Ordinary liquid helium got BICEP to about 3 kelvin, and helium-3 helped it reach 0.25 kelvin. For the first time in human history, we had cooled an entire telescope to the temperature of interstellar space.

It gets exciting when the new refractor is parked down at the South Pole. Unfortunately, one of the parents does not survive to see the scientific child grow to adulthood:

[Andrew Lange] called me to say he was separated from his wife … He sounded so sad, so uncharacteristically down. I was crushed that my fatherly mentor wouldn’t be there for me, but even more than that, I felt awful for his three sons.

Four weeks after BICEP2 began observing, on January 22, 2010, I was in the middle of a POLARBEAR collaboration meeting at UC Berkeley when Paul Richards, Andrew Lange’s thesis advisor, burst into the conference room. Two decades earlier, he had supervised Andrew in that very room. “Andrew is dead,” Paul cried out. “He committed suicide.”

A few years later, I went back to where Andrew’s remarkable life came to an end: a seedy motel, so utterly unworthy of containing the greatness of this sweet man. When I interviewed at Caltech a decade earlier, I had stayed in this very motel. The beginning of my life inextricably entwined with the end of his, at a crappy motel near the campus where he had once had it all: National Academy member, California Scientist of the Year, seemingly certain Nobel laureate.

[See “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” for statistics on the tendency of American men to commit suicide after an encounter with the local family court.]

Professor Keating chronicles how the Nobel Prize was set up to reward lone geniuses and then expanded to permit recognizing up to three scientists per year/discovery. If you’re a listed author on a Nobel-winning physics paper, what are your statistical chances of being a personal Nobel-winner? Perhaps 1 in 1000:

FIGURE 55. Number of credited collaborators on Nobel Prize–winning experiments in physics, plotted on a logarithmic scale. Four particularly large values stand out: 385 authors on the discovery of the W and Z bosons in 1984, 6,225 authors on the two Higgs boson discovery papers in 2013, 342 authors on the neutrino oscillation discovery paper in 2015, and 1,004 authors on the LIGO gravitational-wave detection paper in 2016. Gaps represent years with no prize or prizes given for theoretical discoveries.

Some have complained that giving a share in the physics prize to every scientist involved would devalue the award, decreasing the well-earned attention that the originators of the project deserve. Yet awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to groups has in no way decreased its prominence. The peace price can be awarded to groups, individuals, or groups and individuals (as was the case, for example, with the 2007 prize, half of which was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the other half to former U.S. vice president Al Gore. Especially in experimental science, where collaboration is essential, expanding recognition would help convince young people to take more risks in the ideas and projects they pursue. For me personally, the most rewarding aspect of my job is working with scientists from all over the world, from Uganda to the Ukraine, from Thailand to Texas, on every continent including Antarctica. It’s high time the Nobel Prize reflects the true reality of modern physics: the best science of all is the most collaborative.

What if you are lucky enough to win this lottery?

After winning the ultimate accolade, laureates benefit from the “rich get richer” phenomenon that historian and sociologist Robert Merton called the Matthew effect, in which a greater proportion of scientific resources becomes concentrated in the hands of a smaller group of (mostly male) scientists. Laureates receive resources unavailable to their colleagues, and these come not only in the form of research funding and lab space. Papers by Nobel Prize winners garner more citations. Laureates attract the best graduate students and postdocs. It’s not that other great scientists can’t attract funding, lab space, and graduate students—it’s just that our society gives laureates a gilded stamp of approval that makes them even more desirable to funding agencies, universities, and prospective students. And, since past Nobel Prize winners are automatically invited to nominate future winners, their protégés receive the ultimate job perk: they are far more likely to become laureates than those who were not mentored by laureates.10 There’s one last, if little-known perk: according to a recent study, Nobel laureates enjoy an extra year of longevity compared to nominated scientists who didn’t win.

How does it compare to Olympic gold?

Olympic competition stresses athletes with pressures similar to those that dog scientists aspiring to win Nobel gold: grueling work done in isolation, over many years, for low wages. The costs required to train, travel, and compete to win an Olympic medal are astronomical: as high as seven million dollars per gold medal, according to a recent study.16 Is there sufficient return on investment for national Olympic committees? The same could be asked of universities, where the financial packages used to lure Nobel laureates sometimes exceed Olympic medal amounts. Institutions, and the donors they must make proud, clearly feel the answer is yes. There’s one price tag for each Olympic gold medal that far exceeds that of Nobel gold. In the mid-1990s, the sports psychologist Robert Goldman posed “Goldman’s dilemma” to elite athletes, asking if they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them in five years. Approximately half of the elite athletes surveyed said they would take it. One hopes that no young scientist would trade years of his or her life to win Nobel gold. But the pressures on young scientists are greater than at any time in the past. Many young scientists feel the ladder has been pulled up behind their senior colleagues. The reason for this, once again, comes down to the scarcity of resources.

More: Read Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize.

Readers: I hope that you’ll join me in chewing on the material in this book!


6 thoughts on “Losing the Nobel Prize

  1. The Nobel Prizes for the sciences or literally arts are no different from “Fame” in general. Fame gets you attention, credibility, funding and all the other goodies. Why am I not surprised?

    The Nobel PEACE prize however is a different animal. The Nobel Peace Prize is a JOKE doled out by morons of the Norwegian government. The recipients in general are already famous and they need no research funding or publishing creds. They gave it to the likes Arafat for being a terrorist and people like Obama for doing… well… nothing.

    It’ll be real funny if Trump is somehow given the prize and promptly turned it down saying “I don’t need the money and I sure don’t need to be in bad company!”

  2. Pretty sure you wouldn’t get busted for providing a bittorrent or copying most of the book, since you already copied enough of many books to get the gist without getting busted. There’s always pain in pursuing anything for money. The economy is so unpredictable, you’re better off learning how to survive without money & doing whatever you’re interested in.

  3. As a Norwegian born person, I must protest that it is not nice of dwight looi to leak our state secrets!

    Regarding turning down the prize, that was one of Obama’s chances to be a statesman.

  4. Mclionhead: The Kindle version is $14.16. The hardcover is $18.98 with two-day shipping. I hope that my readers aren’t so short of cash that they need to turn to the dark web to save $14.16. But if any readers have been so unwise as to have impoverished themselves by embarking on a Ph.D. program in physics, I will gladly reimburse them for the $14.16 via PayPal! (I’m too old for Venmo).

  5. “There’s one last, if little-known perk: according to a recent study, Nobel laureates enjoy an extra year of longevity compared to nominated scientists who didn’t win.”

    I’m curious about this study. How did it account for the survivorship bias given the Nobel is often a long-delayed award but can’t be awarded posthumously? (I’m guessing they accounted for it somehow, since I’d bet that would be bigger than a one-year effect by itself.)

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