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UC San Diego Physics Professor Calls For Nobel Reform

The cover of "Losing the Nobel Prize" by Brian Keating.
The cover of "Losing the Nobel Prize" by Brian Keating.
UC San Diego Physics Professor Calls For Nobel Reform
UC San Diego Physics Professor Calls For Nobel Reform GUEST: Brian Keating, author, "Losing the Nobel Prize"

>>> A few years ago science watchers were sure a new experience experiment about cosmic ripples would provide insights about the universe. Professor Brian Keating was part of that team that thought it had a real shot at a Nobel Prize in physics. Their results were found to be faulty. He writes about those experiences in his new book losing the Nobel Prize. He spoke to midday producer Michael Lipkin. >>> Of the research at the heart of this book is about inflation. Everyone in the science world feels very convinced that if your research panned out you would win the Nobel Prize. What exactly is inflation? >> Inflation is like a spark that it nights of firework or something. You see the universe rushing apart right now. All of the galaxies of the superclusters of galaxies rushing apart from one another. If you think about it, that means in the past things were close together. That is what the big thing implies. There was a singularity a point in which time and space began. The universe started to expand fast. But we don't have a mechanism to start the process or ignite the fuse. Inflation is the spark that ignited the fees that caused the universe to explode forth in this Big Bang. ? What was special about your experiment that if you years ago people were saying this might be it. >> We set out to look for the signature of this explosion. If that period of inflation happened, it was told to us by many theoretical cosmologists that the universe would be fused with the type of radiation unlike any other radiation we have witnessed before. This is called gravitational radiation waves of gravity itself. That was the prediction. We set out to look for that. >> Reporter: You had a telescope trained to look at the beginning of everything. Your book is called losing the Nobel Prize. It is not a spoiler to say that not everything goes right in this experiment. You see the data and the rest of the team says look we found it. What was there that you look at instead? >> When we sit on this planet this planet is a big ball of rock. We are not the only rock in our galaxy. There are 10 or trillion planets in our galaxy alone. This enormous number of planets is accompanied by dust. This dust also suffuses the universe just like weights of gravity. Maliciously or not, these particles of dust can conspire to mimic the signal we were seeking. Literally there was dust in the way. We did not leave the lens cap on the telescope, we did a precise measurement and had extreme confidence in the veracity of the signal to this day. But we misinterpreted what we saw. We had a competitor which was a space-based telescope. We were located at the bottom of the world and the South Pole. This telescope was in space. It was 100 times more expensive than our telescope by $1 billion. This telescope had a perfect perch and we were afraid it was going to swoop down and scoop us. That drove us to to -- take liberties with our data. This is something we should not of done. >> Reporter: The way Nobel prizes are given out, when we look out at the research being done, can you say that this race for the Noble prize major research were standing it would've been otherwise? >> That would be a way to interpret what I feel. I do feel like the Nobel Prize looms over scientists in some capacity. Not all scientists. Just like not all Oscar winners set out their careers to win an Oscar. You can believe that every Moody's -- movie studio hopes their actors when they OSCAR. Now when it comes to noble prizes they want to get funding, accolades, some of that is driven by the ultimate accolade the Nobel Prize. >>> You have a couple of other criticisms and reforms that you are proposing to help address them. Number one the number of people who can win a single Nobel prize . >> artificially the noble institution foundation that awards a Nobel Prize, the determing method can only be three winners. My experiment had 49 collaborators. In the 2017 experiment they had 1048 collaborators. Only 31. What -- when you look at what that does, like only three people with only pick one team can win a gold medal even though you have for the race how does that affect the fourth swimmer. Obviously you cannot go back and say Isaac Newton can't get a price, but one of the co-creators was not eligible to win the Nobel Prize even though he died six months before the teammates wanted and he was a key founder of the experiment. I thought that was cruel to his family and his legacy and to the integrity of history of science itself. To write him out of history denigrates the service. >>> This reform would have taken you out of contention had your experiment been successful. Do not a war ward a Nobel Prize for someone who is looking for something and finds it. He found evidence that shows that the Big Bang may have propagated the universe why not reward that. >> It takes a lot of technical competency to build an aircraft carrier or a couple building in Silicon Valley. We are not awarding for technical accomplishments. Couple that with the fact that human beings have a great predisposition to see things they want see. One of the many biases human beings have, I think it is detrimental and can lead to the situation we experienced what we set out to find something and in part we were told and the day of the announcement that we would win a Nobel Prize it was a sure to us. I think that is dangerous. When we set out to look for things you end up finding them. That to me is potentially detrimental effect for the integrity of scientific method itself. >>> You're pushing for the prizes to be awarded only if someone serendipitously discovered something they did not expect. You know some people on the Nobel Prize committee that have the power to make any of these changes, how do they receive your criticisms? >> I sent early copies of the book for people on the committee, every single one of them agreed with me. They were not willing to go on the record. They were not willing to endorse the book publicly. >>> That is the important part right? >> I feel like change is going to come. I feel like this is the time where the Nobel Prize will get to experiment -- experienced the gender gap between the number of female scientists it's only been to in the history of physics to win a Nobel Prize. I think the change will come whether it's a boycott, scandal, and I think that these things unfortunately are going to be the route to change the Nobel Prize. My book was written in a hopeful tone that they would take action before boycotts and protestations take Place. >>> That was UC San Diego Brian Keating speaking with Michael Lipkin. Keating's new bill -- book is called losing the Nobel Prize the story of cosmology ambition and the perils of science's highest honor.

A few years ago, science watchers were sure a new experiment to detect gravitational waves in the cosmos would reveal new insights about the beginnings of the universe. UC San Diego cosmology professor Brian Keating was part of that team. The scientific community thought the work had a real shot at a Nobel Prize in Physics.

But the initial results were quickly found to be faulty. Instead of measuring what they believed was cosmic background radiation, remnants of the Big Bang, Keating and colleagues had instead detected signals from stellar dust.

Keating wrote about what it was like inside that high-stakes experiment in the new book, "Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor." He said that pressure can cause scientists to cut corners. He is also pushing for reforms on how the Nobel committee awards its honors.

Keating joins KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on his hunt for the origins of the cosmos.