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.)