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Brian Keating's Nobel prize obsession surprised me

Brian Keating will release his first book, "Losing the Nobel Prize", on April 24th. I don't own it and I haven't read it. But I was still intrigued by some of the discussions about it.

Backreation wrote a review and Keating responded.

I used to think that the title was just a trick to emphasize the importance of Keating's work: He has done work that could have led to a Nobel prize but Nature wasn't generous enough, it has seemed for some 3 years. But the two articles linked to in the previous paragraph suggest that Keating is much more obsessed with the Nobel prize. That's ironic because the book seems to say that Keating is not obsessed, and he doesn't even want such a lame prize, but it's his colleagues, the spherical bastards, who are obsessed. ;-)

OK, let me start to react to basic statements by Keating and Hossenfelder. First, Keating designed BICEP1 and lots of us were very excited about BICEP2, an upgraded version of that gadget. It could have seen the primordial gravitational waves. Even though I had theoretical prejudices leading me to believe that those waves should be weak enough so that they shouldn't have been seen, I was impressed by the actual graphs and claims by the BICEP2 collaboration and willing to believe that they really found the waves and proved us wrong (by "us", I mean people around the Weak Gravity Conjecture and related schools of thought).

Keating has clearly designed a nice gadget and he deserves to be considered a top professional in his field. Because that gadget hasn't made a breakthrough that we would still believe to be real and solid, Keating hasn't won any major prize that also requires some collaboration of Mother Nature. He's still a top professional who rightfully earns a regular salary for that work and skills but his big lottery ticket hasn't won so he wasn't given a Nobel prize, an extraordinary donation.

During the excitement about BICEP2, if you told me that the Keating was this obsessed with the Nobel prize, I would have probably been more skeptical about the claims than I was. From my perspective, this obsession looks like a warning. If you really want a Nobel prize, it's natural to think that you make the arguments in favor of your discovery look a little bit clearer than what follows from your cold hard data. I don't really claim that Keating has committed such an "improvement" but I do claim that the expectation value of the "improvement" that I would have believed if I had known about his Nobel prize obsession would be positive and significant.

Keating seems to combine comments about his particular work with some more general criticism of the Nobel prize. Only 1/4 of the Nobel prize winners in physics are theorists; the rest are experimenters and observational people. Keating says that the fraction of theorists should be higher. I agree. He also says that experimenters shouldn't be getting Nobel prizes for things that some theorists outlined before them. I have mixed feelings about that claim – on some days, I would subscribe to that, on others, I wouldn't.

Hossenfelder seems upset about that very statement:

You read that right. No Nobel for the Higgs, no Nobel for B-modes, and no Nobel for a direct discovery of dark matter (should it ever happen), because someone predicted that.
Ms Hossenfelder must have missed it but one of these experimental discoveries has been made, that of the Higgs boson, and the experimenters indeed didn't get any Nobel prize. The 2013 Nobel prize went to Higgs and Englert, two of the theorists who discovered the mechanism and (perhaps) the particle theoretically. There have been several reasons why the experimenters haven't received the award (yet?): the CERN teams are too large, too many people could be said to deserve it (Alfred Nobel's limit is 3 – well, his will actually said 1 but soon afterwards, the number was tripled and another change would seem too radical now). But I think that Keating's thinking has also played a role. CERN has really done something straightforward. They knew what they should see. In my opinion, this makes the contribution by the experimenters less groundbreaking.

In 2017, Weiss, Thorn, and Barish got their experimental Nobel prize for something that was predicted by the theorists – such as Albert Einstein – namely the gravitational waves. But if you look at the justification, they got the prize both for LIGO and the discovery of the gravitational waves. So they were the "first men" who created LIGO and/or made it very powerful. It seems to me that no one who has done something this groundbreaking in particle physics experimentation was a visible member of the teams that discovered the Higgs boson. That discovery was made by a gradual improvement of the collider technology – by a large collective of people.

I think that if the primordial gravitational waves were discovered by BICEP2 and the discovery were confirmed and withstood the tests, Keating would both deserve the Nobel prize and he would get the Nobel prize. Now, some theorists have predicted strong enough primordial gravitational waves. But these waves may also be weak or non-existent. The difference from the Higgs boson is that the Higgs boson was really agreed to be necessarily there by good particle physicists, it was the unique player that makes the \(W_L W_L\to W_L W_L\) scattering unitary. On the other hand, there's no such uniqueness in the case of the primordial gravitational waves and their strength (and similarly in the problem of the identity of the dark matter). When the answers aren't agreed to be unique by the theorists, the experimenters play a much bigger role and they arguably deserve the Nobel prize.

Some people are very upset when Keating (or I) point out that the confirmation of a theory by an experiment – when the experimenter already knows what to look for – is less spectacular. For example:
naivetheorist said: Keating writes: "I am advocating that more theorists should win it, and experimentalists should not win it if they/we merely confirm a theory". Merely? that's an incredibly condescending attitude. Keating's rather lame response' affirms my decision to cancel my order for his book.
The attitude may look condescending but there are very good reasons for this "condescension". The Nobel prize simply is meant to reward the original contribution and when someone is just confirming the work (theory) by someone else, this work is more derivative even if the first guy is a theorist and the second guy is an experimenter. It's great that experimenters are confirming or refuting hypotheses formulated by the theorists. But that's merely the scientific "business as usual". Prizes such as the Nobel prize are given for something extraordinary that isn't just "business as usual". One needs to be the really first person to do something – and luck or Nature's cooperation is often needed.

Keating seems to propose some boycotts of the Nobel prize or lawsuits against the Nobel prize. I don't get these comments. The inventor of some explosives got rich and created a system in which his money is invested and some fraction is paid to some people who are chosen as worthy the award by a committee that Nobel envisioned in his Nobel. It's a private activity. Well, one that has become globally famous, but the global fame is a consequence of the fame of Nobel himself and the winners (plus the money that attracts human eyes), not something that defines the award. Just because the award is followed by many people in the world doesn't mean that these people have the right to change the rules. After all, it's not their money.

As I said, the Nobel prize could be "better" according to many of us – and a higher percentage of the theorists could be a part of this "improvement". But this discussion is detached from reality. The Nobel prize is whatever it is. Alfred Nobel was a very practical person – explosives are rather practical compounds – and I believe that if he knew the whole list of the winners of his physics prize, he would be surprised by the high percentage of nerds and pure theorists. And maybe he would find it OK. And maybe he would want to increase the number of theorists, too. We don't know. But the prize has some traditional rules and expectations. Theorists only get their prizes for theories that have been experimentally verified – like Higgs and Englert.

The original BICEP2 claims about the very strong gravitational waves seem largely discredited now. This simple fact seems much more important for the question whether BICEP2 should be awarded a Nobel prize or not than some proposals to increase the number of theorists or reduce the number of experimental winners who just confirm predictions by theorists.

Concerning the obsession by the Nobel prizes, well, I think it's normal for the people who get close enough to be eligible to think about the prize. Some of the fathers of QCD knew that they deserved the prize and they were patiently waiting for some 30 years. The winners get some money directly, some extra money indirectly, and they may enjoy the life more than they did previously.

I think that the people who work on hep-th and ambitious hep-ph – like string theory and particle physics beyond the Standard Model – must know that according to the current scheme of things, the Nobel prize for their work is unlikely. But that doesn't mean that their work isn't the most valuable thing done in science. The best things in hep-th almost certainly are the most valuable part of science. But things are just arranged in such a way that authors of such ground-breaking theoretical papers haven't gotten a Nobel prize and they're expected not to get it soon, either.

Is that such a problem? I don't think so. The Nobel prize is a distinguished award and – with the exception of the Nobel prize in peace and perhaps literature – it keeps on rewarding people who have done something important and who are usually very smart, too. But the precise criteria that decide who is rewarded are a bit more subtle – the physics prize isn't meant to reward people who are smart and/or made a deep contribution, without additional adjectives. The contributions must be confirmed experimentally because that's how "physics" is defined in the Nobel prize context. So there are rather good reasons why even Stephen Hawking hasn't ever received a Nobel prize although most quantum gravity theorists – and most formal theoretical particle physicists – would agree that his contributions to physics have been greater than those of the average Nobel prize winner. But the Hawking radiation hasn't really been seen. For me, the observation is a formality – I have no real doubts about the existence of the Hawking radiation and other things – but I have no trouble to respect the rules of the game in which these formalities decide about the prize. These are just the rules of the Nobel prize – and those ultimately reflect the rules of the scientific method.

By the way, I think that many people who have been doing similar things as your humble correspondent are often reminded that "they wanted a Nobel prize". It's possible that as a kid, I have independently talked about such things as well but at the end, I think that the obsession with the Nobel prize has primarily been widespread in my (or our) environment, not in my own thinking. The real excitement that underlined some of my important ideas – and even the hopes that one can get much further with these ideas – have had virtually nothing to do with the Nobel prize for over 20 years.

If you look rationally, the Nobel prize is just an honor. I actually think that my opinions about these matters – including the importance of the Nobel prize – were largely shaped by Feynman's view above since the moment when I read "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" for the first time. And I was 17. Well, the Nobel prize is still a better honor than almost all others. After all, e.g. Richard Feynman who didn't like honors was one of those who got that particular honor. ;-) But it's unwise to be obsessed with the selection process and generic winners of that prize. At the end, the decision is one made by a smart but imperfect committee, and the prize primarily affects the winners only.

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