W W Norton & Company
2018 | 352pp | £21.46
I finished reading Losing the Nobel Prize the weekend after an exciting week of Nobel announcements. In it, cosmologist Brian Keating tells the story of how scientists since Galileo have been trying to see back to the birth of the universe. He is one of those scientists, and his work on the BICEP2 telescope, which searches for signals from the early expansion of the universe, brought him close to winning a Nobel prize. But it wasn’t to be.
As well as telling the story of the science, Keating discusses how the Nobel prize has strayed from Alfred Nobel’s original intentions, and puts forward his suggestions for revolutionising and revitalising it in three ‘broken lens’ chapters. His proposals include bestowing the prize posthumously, to larger groups and to only serendipitous discoveries. The first two ideas weren’t new to me – and like many others I think they’re valid points, given the collaborative nature of science. Under the current system, a maximum of three people get the ultimate accolade for work that may have involved thousands of others, and a scientist’s lifetime contribution can go unrecognised if they are unlucky enough to die before the prize is announced. I’m not convinced, however, that only rewarding serendipitous discoveries would ‘redress the balance between Nobel prizes given for theory and those for experiment’. No offence to theoretical scientists, but why should it be 50/50? I’m also sceptical that serendipity criteria would have guaranteed the astronomer Vera Rubin a (certainly deserved) Nobel prize – that omission and the wider problem of women’s contributions going under the radar runs deep within science itself.
Still, I enjoyed reading Keating’s ideas. His writing style is a real treat; he expertly depicts the emotion and adventure of scientific discovery that is so often ignored when discussing complex research. And he balances technical details to satisfy a more curious reader in a way that a more general one could gloss over but still appreciate the overall story. I did get the sense that some of Keating’s objection to the Nobel prize comes from bitterness – he clearly feels cheated. It’s hard to believe he would have written this book had his individual contribution to his field garnered Nobel recognition. But there’s much to learn from his fascinating, and, in places, incredibly personal cosmological story – number one being that Nobel prize obsessions are not only pointless, they’re counterproductive.