I’ve just finished “Loosing the Nobel Prize”, by Brian Keating.  I’d heard the book mentioned in episodes of his “Into the impossible” podcast\({}^1\).

This is a pretty fun and interesting book, with a few interesting threads woven through it:

  • his astronomical and cosmological work,
  • a pretty thorough background on a number of astronomical principles and history,
  • rationale for a number of the current and past cosmological models,
  • how he got close to but missed the Nobel target with his work,
  • discussion and criticisms of the Nobel nomination process and rules, and
  • DUST!

I had no idea that dust has been the nemesis of astronomers for so many hundreds of years, and will likely continue to be so for hundreds more.  This is not just dust on the lenses, but the dust and other fine matter that pervades the universe and mucks up measurements.  It will be a fitting end for his book to end up dusty on bookshelves around the world once all the purchasers have read it.

The author clearly knows his material well, and presents a thorough background lesson on the history of cosmology, starting way back at the Earth centered model, and moving through the history of competing narratives to the current big bang and inflationary models that seem to have popular consensus.

I’ve never thought much of cosmological ideas, as they go so deep into the territory of extrapolation that they seem worthless to me.  How can you argue that you know what happened \( 10^{-17} \) seconds into the beginning of the universe \({}^2\), when we can’t solve a three body problem without chaos getting into the mix?  The level of extrapolation that is required for some of these models makes arguments about them seem akin to arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

What’s kind of sad about cosmological models is how little difference they make.  It doesn’t matter if you subscribe to the current big bang religion, cyclic variations of bang and collapse, steady state, multiverses, or anything else: none of the theories have any practical application to anything that we can see or hear or touch.  I don’t think that my preconceived ideas about the uselessness of cosmology has been changed much by reading this book.  However, I do have a new appreciation for the careful and thorough thought, measurement, and experiment that has gone into building and discarding various models over time.  This book details many of the key experiments and concepts that lie behind some of the models.  It would take a lot of work to fully understand the ideas that were outlined in this book, and that’s not work that I’m inclined to do, but I did enjoy his thorough overview.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant against cosmology.  Don’t let my distaste of that subject dissuade you from reading this book, which is well written, entertaining, informative, and thoughtful.

As a small teaser, here are a couple of selected lines that give a taste for the clever wit that is casually interlaced into the book:

  • Trying to interest others in astronomy: “If you can imagine teaching music appreciation to a class filled with tone-deaf students, it was like that, only more disheartening.”
  • “It was all worth it, he assured me: because there was only going to be one sunset and one sunrise in the next year at the South Pole, he would take home $75,000 for a single night’s work!”
  • “By the time I arrived at the Pole, it was chilly for summer: -30 C (-25 F).”


[1]  I have not worked through all of his back episodes, but his line up of recent guests (Penrose, Susskind, Wilczek, Glashow, …) has been pretty spectacular.

[2] I am probably wrong about the precise levels of granularity that is claimed to be known, but do recall from my teenage reading of Hawking’s Brief History, that he insisted we “know” what happened down to insane levels of precision.