Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Losing the Nobel Prize

Review: "Losing the Nobel Prize", by Brian Keating

The obvious question: did Brian Keating really write a book just to complain because he did not win the Nobel Prize?

After all, it is called, “Losing the Nobel Prize”. But that could be merely a hook to snare your salacious attention. The book is really a very personal memoir of his life in science, and a history of cosmology, and a behind-the-scenes account of the BICEP2 botched non-discovery of gravitational waves from the early universe, and a critique of the twisted culture and arcane practices associated with the Nobel Prize. Wow: four books in one! Five, if you still think it all adds up to grumbling.

Lots of people grumble about the Nobel Prize. They complain that it does not reflect how the world of science really works. The Nobel succumbs to the myth of individual heroes; it shows a great lopsided bias towards those most visible, most previously lauded, and most Western, white and male; and it operates under a set of arbitrary arcane rules.

I fail to see the problem. That sounds like an accurate reflection of science to me.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Ashtray

The Ashtray may be the world’s first coffee table book of philosophy. It a glorious soup of styles. There are lavish photographs with often only tangential connections to the text, and no nearby captions — art reproductions, photographs, movie stills, people, places, things, the Minister of Silly Walks, Humpty Dumpty, an Aardvark. There are notes that run down the margins and accumulate a word count that competes with the main text. The topic of the book, a thought-provoking mix of intellectual assault on Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and personal vendetta against Kuhn himself, flowers into digressions on philosophy, translation, Borges, Wittgenstein, the history of irrational numbers, fantastic animals in the fossil record, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There are interviews, with philosophers, old friends, Steven Weinberg, Noam Chomsky. There are evocations of a lost age of academic freedom (“You were supposed to be teaching a course on Goedel, but you were using Mao’s Little Red Book”). There are abstract notions rendered in no-nonsense words. It is, in short, a blazing talisman for knowledge, enquiry, originality, uncompromising investigation, and just the sheer all-encompassing mental exuberance that we have to hope will be the cure to our grim times.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

That inevitable moment in the life of every pretentious pseudo-intellectual has arrived: I have read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and now I will pontificate about it.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, the blurb tells us that Structure, first published in 1962, was “a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science”. The Introductory Essay in my copy opens: “Great books are rare. This is one. Read it and you will see.” You need more? Structure was the source of the term “paradigm shift”, and is a hell of a lot shorter than the source of the term “Catch 22”. (Admittedly less funny.)

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The Danish Paper: One Year Later

Pre-requisite reading: The Irresistable Allure of Controversy.

Here is where I left the story one year ago.

The “Danish Paper” had claimed to find previously unnoticed correlations in the background noise in the first LIGO gravitational-wave observation, GW150914, and many readers’ interpretation of this interpretation of the data was that maybe the first detection was not as slam-dunk as it first appeared. Sabine Hossenfelder wrote an online post in Forbes that propelled the paper out of its just-another-arXiv-entry obscurity, with the innocent title, “Was it all just noise?” A subset of the LIGO collaboration bravely sacrificed time that would otherwise have been wasted doing actual scientific research, and leaped to PR firefighting duty, and their response, a careful dismantling of the Danish Paper’s claims, was released to the world through that true apotheosis of science communication, Sean Carroll’s blog. That was the point at which I decided to join the fun.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A blog burst on the horizon: The Danish Paper redux, Losing the Nobel Prize, Philip Roth, Thomas Kuhn, and The Ashtray

After another long absence, during which I was trying to do many other amazing things that I eventually did not do, it is time for a few more blog posts. This is an advance warning, mostly to make me feel sufficiently obligated that I really do write them.

Sunday, 18 February 2018


Here follow my thoughts on the latest Errol Morris creation, Wormwood.

Wormwood is a six-part series that Morris created for Netflix. If you have not watched it, you should. You should certainly watch it before you read what I have written; you should watch it in the most complete state of blissful ignorance that you can achieve.

“Goddammit!” you curse. “I clicked here because I have five minutes to waste reading a superficially amusing pseudo-intelligent article — not six hours to watch a documentary! I’ll watch the damn film later, but right now I want something to read!”

Fine: go and read the other stuff I wrote about Errol Morris. You will find my review of his Stephen Hawking documentary, “A Brief History of Time”, both entertaining and thoughtful. If you prefer scathing reviews, I recommend my review of the more recent (non-Morris) Hawking drama, “The Theory of Everything”, which was such a forgettable mediocrity that spoilers can hardly make it worse; its only redeeming feature is that it started me on my Errol Morris kick in the first place. You may be irritated that my article on Morris’s career is framed as a faux-profound insight into life choices, but I guarantee that the gems of his biography will make up for it. And finally, we get down to what I consider the most fascinating aspect of Errol Morris, his dogged devotion to Truth. I also wrote about that, and, Yes indeed, there were more profound insights.

For all those who have watched Wormwood, let us continue.