"Losing the Nobel Prize": A Q&A with Author and Astrophysicist Brian Keating

The glory of the iconic Nobel Prize accolade is the dream of many scientists. Author and astrophysicist Brian Keating spoke about the ups and downs along his journey, and lessons learned.

But the amazing announcement, whose broadcast was viewed by millions of people, wouldn’t hold up. Early the following year, another group of scientists revealed that interstellar dust was actually the cause of more than half of BICEP2’s signals. A founding member of the BICEP2 team, Brian Keating, documents the rise and fall of the experiment, and the limitations of physics’ top honor, in his new book, “Losing the Nobel Prize” (W. W. Norton and Co., 2018).

In an interview with Space.com, Keating talked about lessons learned, the importance of mentorship and the Nobel Prize’s role within the human endeavor of scientific discovery — plus, one major change he’d make to the prize

Scientists are humans and all humans have biases. They could have implicit biases, explicit biases. And then there’s confirmation biases and authority biases.

In the case of scientists like [Big Bang skeptic] Fred Hoyle and Galileo Galilei, and many, many scientists, including me and my project BICEP2, we were desperately desiring to see the signals that comported with our sense of the way the universe should “work.”

In the case of Galileo, he was subject to the forces of wanting to desperately establish an authority (Copernicus) and confirm the model that Earth went around the sun, which is correct. But Galileo kept seeking confirmation of what he already believed. He claimed that the tides of Earth’s oceans were caused by the Earth rotating around the sun and sloshing, because he wanted to further support the Copernican model … In the case of Fred Hoyle, he didn’t believe in the Big Bang… He, too, was brilliantly right about how stars could form elements. But he took to the grave believing that the Big Bang was wrong.

And then in our case with BICEP2, we desperately wanted to see inflation signals of gravitational waves, and we did so at such an extent that we were willing to suspend the best practices of science and how you’re actually supposed to treat data.

In reality we were victims of the same blunder, of that same confirmation bias. And the lesson is, be careful. Check your biases because a lot of times they can lead you down a path of something that’s wrong. You really have to be humble. We had a lot of hubris and that was to our peril.

The villain of my project was dust. And we’re not all past this hubris that we have as sentient cosmologists that we are somehow superior to a humbling substance. So I think if we can have humility, recognize that we do have flaws that we do have foibles and to guard against that, we can build in checks and balances … Go out to where the data leads you.

How might teaching practices at universities influence future scientific research, in your opinion?

Keating: An organization should protect the physical and mental safety of an individual: a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, and sense of value to the organization.

As Viktor Franklsaid, our search for meaning is really what makes someone feel important enough to carry out a mission. And all of our scientists have missions: to do, to create, to add to the body of knowledge that human beings have accumulated.


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