Space is the Place
The Mind-bending Search For Our Origin
Dr. Brian Keating is Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Physics, Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences, University of California, San Diego (UCSD)
Adam Jacobs: Hi, Professor Keating, and welcome to Beyond Belief. It is a great pleasure to meet you, and thank you so much for taking the time to be here today.
Brian Keating: It’s a great honor to meet you too, rabbi. Thank you for hosting me.
Adam Jacobs: My pleasure. So been thinking a lot about cosmology this week and have a bunch of questions to ask you, and I'm just very curious to hear. I was very excited to read this book, which I recommend to our whole audience, “Losing the Nobel Prize” in which you do a fabulous job, I think, explaining the history of modern cosmology and the back and forth and the winners and the losers, and you also couch it in these terms surrounding the Nobel Prize, and its mystique and how it affects people.
So I have questions about all of that, but I figured I'd open up like this, and I have a feeling you've been asked this kind of question before, but bear with me for one second. Okay. We did a little research. So according to an organization called the International Food Policy Research Institute, 7 billion dollars is the minimum cost of reducing global undernutrition. So then I also discovered that Cern, which is an incredible atom smasher, dozens of kilometers long, wants to spend another 23 billion on a new collider. So my question for you, and this is for us lay people who don't know as much about it as you do, is given the choice between feeding people for three years worldwide or building a new super collider, which one wins out and why?
Brian Keating: Well, I think it's a false dichotomy to present it as if we can cut from scientific expenditures and either cause a net benefit in a targeted specific area, or B, that there's somehow fungibility between these quantities that you're talking about. Look, they're both astronomical and pun intended, but the fact is that we have proof even within the realm of physics itself; when a cut was made to what was called the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, I was a beginning graduate student at Brown University. I hadn't picked what I was going to do for my Ph.D., and I was kind of wandering the halls of the Barron Hall building there on Hope Street, and I came upon the floor which housed the particle physicists. These are the folks that study the realm of the subatomic, the nucleus, the quantum, and so forth. And they were the most depressed people you've ever seen in your life.
It looked like a fast day up there, rabbi. It was so depressing. And the reason was that they had decided that it was over budget and they needed to cut this phenomenal waste of money called the superconducting super collider, and it would probably not have any major benefits. Anyway, lo and behold, 20 years later, the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of the Higgs Boson and many other phenomena, but the argument was made well, we cut this massive expenditure, which back then was, I think it was about 2 billion. So you see the type of inflation that's occurred over just 30 years. But they said, oh, well, this will allow us to spend more on astronomy and cosmology and what's called condensed matter or solid-state physics, and it'll read down to the benefit of physics and science. It didn't do a single thing. There was no direct fungibility, even within physics.
So as you would say, there's no chance that cutting an expenditure from outside or inside of physics will redown to the benefit of some massive and worthwhile endeavor in ending hunger. I mean, we spend trillions of dollars in the past decade on cancer research. Have we cured cancer? No. Does that mean we can't spend on other diseases and ending hunger, and which is a bigger priority? Of course, you can always say that the budgets for these things are really off the charts, but then it's always relative to something else. And in this case, we need only look at, say, the NASA budget. The NASA budget is only twice the budget of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It's about the same as what people spend on lipstick every year, just in America, it's 20 billion or so. So these are large amounts by any normal human being’s conception, but I think there's a mistake to think that cutting here is going to benefit there.
Adam Jacobs: Okay, that makes sense. Let me reframe it slightly outside of, and I'm asking this question as someone who is absolutely fascinated with the origins of the universe and particle physics, and I thoroughly appreciate the import of some of the discoveries, but outside of simply knowing more about the early universe and the way that the universe operates, what would you say are the practical benefits to humanity about knowing more about those things?
Brian Keating: I'll be a little cheeky, and I'll say none, and that shouldn't matter one bit. What are the practical benefits of studying the decomposition into multi-dimensional coordinate systems of higher-dimensional mathematical spaces that exist in 10 or more dimensions? It has zero relevance and can do nothing for us. So I'll stipulate that it does not produce technology, and I think there's a problem that people conflate partially because of their own ignorance about science but partially because of the incapacity of my fellow colleagues, and I'm sure to me as well to some extent of our abject inability to communicate the true revolutionary excitement and awesomeness of pure scientific research, not applied, not practical without any benefit. And it's a problem because we are given the greatest script known to humanity, this story of science, which is a story of truth and practical magic, magic that's real. And we can invoke, as Arthur C. Clark said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Well, you don't get technology without basic fundamental research. We only have the ability to talk on this amazing platform, which is unfathomable even five years ago that we would be able to do this. Yes, it's just sort of propitious that it came about during the time of Covid 19, but this is enabled by breakthroughs in quantum mechanics, communication, technology, all of which had their origin, their genesis in blue sky, or impractical research. So the point of doing research is that is not to only come up with technology, and that's the realm of engineering, and that's a great thing to do, the practical application of it. But to say that we should abandon pure science is looking at a baby and saying, what good is it? It can't do anything for me. So the problem is that sometimes pure science produces technology, and then people in the lay realm become inured to the fact that they came about from pure scientific research without any goal of application whatsoever. And to stifle that would be stifling a baby long before you have a chance to see what it could become.
Adam Jacobs: Very thorough and very good answer, I would say, and hopefully satisfies a lot of people out there who might've had that question. But let's get into the science for a moment. And when I ask you these questions, I'm speaking as a layperson, a layperson who has, like I said, a great interest in these matters for my own purposes, but there's something called the standard model in cosmology. A lot of people at this point are familiar with the concept of the Big Bang. They have a certain idea of what it means that there was some kind of massive explosion 13.8 billion years ago, and the universe has been expanding at some rate ever since. In your book, you outline sort of the ping pong back and forth between different models and how we came out to believe that the standard model is the one. But recently, it seems like that's come under fire. I've heard from philosophers and from scientists and physicists that we're not so sure anymore. What is the state of play of the standard model, and what are the implications if it's on the outs?
Brian Keating: Yeah, so the so-called standard model typically refers to not a cosmological paradigm but really to the elementary particle physics, the realm of the protons, neutrons, subatomic particles, Quarks, et cetera. So typically, we call that the standard model. You are correct that the Big Bang theory is not just an ultra-popular hit TV show, but it is the dominating model of the early origin, early evolution of the universe. Unfortunately, in most people's minds, it becomes sort of conflated with the origin of time or even the origin of the universe, which may require, by necessity, the origin of time. We can get into that later, but it's a mistake. It's a mistake to think that cosmology is concerned with the actual origin of the universe, the instantiation, the beginning itself, or time equals zero any more than biology is concerned with the origin of life itself. So when I was a failing freshman in college, and we had to dissect a frog in biology class, I was really bad at it.
I mean, sometimes the frog would live; I mean, this is not a good biologist, you don't want me operating on you, but when you do this thing, you don't say, let me start with the synthesis of inorganic compounds into organic compounds. No, you don't. We are so far advanced beyond that. And it happens to be that what we do as professional cosmologists is not only perhaps excluded from observing the actual origin of the universe itself by what's called an event horizon. That may be true; we don't know. And that's part of my research is to endeavor, define if there was an actual beginning, a singularity which would then perforce have an event horizon shielding its origin from our view, that is an open question, and that is how I butter the bread in this household. But on the other hand, we can't expect it to necessarily be the case that we have to understand how the universe came to be to understand how it's evolved.
Now putting that aside, once you stipulate that there is a universe, which some people actually and believe it or not deny, but that there is a reality, there is a universe, there are objects in the universe, we can then ask questions about the observations that we make with telescopes today, noting the fact that light travels a finite distance in a finite time that makes telescopes into effectively time machines and allows us by looking out at great distances to view objects at earlier and earlier times and all the evidence that we have, there's not a single reputable cosmologist who does not believe that in the distant past 13.8 billion years ago, there was an extremely different environment that pervaded throughout the observable universe, and this was one that was incredibly hot, incredibly dense as the Big Bang theme song connotes. So we all agree on that. Now the question is if you take out, to my wife's dismay, decided I would make this breakfast souffle this morning, and I made it with eggs, and I whipped up the eggs, and I put some other stuff in it, and then I cooked it, and it started to expand, and I used the wrong temperature.
Rabbi, this is embarrassing. The A recipe called for 300, and I was lazy. I put it on 350, but I figured, oh, I'll just cook it for shorter. Brilliant scientist, as you could tell. And so I came back in, and it was almost about to be burned, and this thing had expanded. It was like bigger than my ego. This thing had puffed up so much. When I looked at it, I said, this is interesting. Depending on the temperature and the time, the product of those two things determined how much it expanded. So all the more so, you could run that movie backward, and you can infer that it was denser. In this case, it was colder, but that's irrelevant. And so you can look at the expansion of something and infer in the past, as long as the underlying base level of reality hasn't changed, in other words, the speed of light hasn't changed, the electrical constants haven't changed, that the universe was extremely hot, extremely dense, and it was essentially a nuclear fusion reactor.
And the question is, what came before that? And as the Talmud quotes in Chagiga, page 11, it says, you may speculate what came in the early days, but what became before that you may not speculate. Now my job is to actually violate what Rabbi Akiva and what those guys were talking about back then and really asked the question is what happened before there was a nuclear fusion reactor? Yeah, what happened before the universe was this enormous, violent, reactive place? Was it even more violent, or was it perhaps indicative and inconclusive of a preexisting cosmos? And these are the most exciting questions I can think to answer with the limited amount of time, energy, and attention that I have to devote to them.
Adam Jacobs: I agree. And those are concepts that have potential ramifications and implications for the nature of reality. And as such, I think there are quite a few people who are very interested to know those answers and to answer our earlier question; maybe that's reason enough just to satisfy this primal human desire to know our origins to do this kind of research. But one of the models talks about an infinite universe. Another one talks about one that oscillates, meaning explosion, contraction back and forth. And I've read various things trying to understand what those mean. A question is when I consider the possibility of the universe being truly infinite, and you'll correct me, I'm sure if I'm wrong, but I would think it would've reached a state of maximum entropy since it's been around for an eternal period of time and would just be absolutely lifeless, cold and expanded beyond imagination. Doesn't the simple fact of this state of entropy that we're in now imply that there had to have been a beginning and that we can't be living in an internal universe?
Brian Keating: So people, as I said, we're not really concerned with the notion of what came before. We'll get into that later as an explanation of how things came to be right now any more than we can claim to know that there was a singularity, a beginning of time. But what I think what you're talking about is the notion that the universe could be infinite in size. We know it's not the observable universe that is the maximum radial distance from which today we can receive information, whatever that is in the form of neutrinos, protons, neutrons, croutons, my favorite particle, or light. That is what the definition of the observable universe is. It's a very large volume. It corresponds to something much lar three times larger than the age of the universe, times the speed of light that would naively give you about 13.8 billion light years. It turns out that the radius is more like 45 billion light years for technical reasons.
But it doesn't change the nature of the claim that the universe is infinite. It's not infinite in time. Therefore it can't because it's not traveling. As we can understand, things are not moving faster than the speed of light locally. Then the universe is a finite universe. It may be embedded in a greater, more barren, empty space that it is sort of expanding into in a way that I will have to refer you to a little bit higher mathematics than I cover in my book. But the point is we don't believe the universe is infinitely old. So it hasn't had enough time to get to this point of sterility, barrenness, and awful solitude that you described, rightfully so. Now, there are theories that say that it will not only get to that point of awful sterility, but it will get so in a finite amount of time, not an infinite amount of time.
The human mind has difficulties with infinity. Funny, computers can do almost every math problem better than any human being, but they really can't process what it means to be infinite. We can deal with infinities, but we can't visualize them. We have trouble manipulating them. We have trouble. We take something that's infinite and multiply it by something that's zero, and it brings up all sorts of paradoxes and conundrums. So I would say, first of all, no, the universe is not infinite in size as far as we can tell, but it may be we just can only access information over a finite volume. And in that volume, the universe is highly entropic. It is highly disordered. And the second law of thermodynamics being what it is, an inviolable law of physics, as inviable as the 10 commandments are to you, this behavior of the universe is inexorably proceeding from lower entropy to higher entropy.
So all we can say is that the universe was very low entropy in its earlier state, and how the universe got to that very early entropy state is, of course, the notion, the basis for the research that I do. And it may be that it was instantiated by an omnipotent being. It may be that we have to stipulate that it began with low entropy as possible, but this caused a lot of problems for people, which perforce caused them to reject the notion of a singularity in the early universe's beginning and, therefore, to come up with a reason and a mechanism to explain a low entropy condition that doesn't require a singularity.
Adam Jacobs: But that's a logical possibility that there could be one. Right. Okay, good. So then, in summation, it seems like it's still in flux. We don't have ultimate answers just yet.
Brian Keating: We can only say that as I say that the universe was extremely unlike what it is today, that it was extremely hot, extremely dense, and there are many possibilities, but two of the most popular ones or that there was a singularity, in which case there was an origin in a certain sense that begs the question of where, how that origin get started. How does the clock start ticking when no time exists before its creation? And then there's another notion then parallel and a very controversial one in some sense and very much opposed by other people in the former camp. And that's that the universe had a preexisting cosmos from which it formed. And those models are kind of resurging, and it's interesting to see these battles. But look, you may come away, or your audience may be coming away with the impression we don't know what the hell we're talking about.
We're just kind of arguing about angels on the head of a pin, and this is all nonsense. No, a hundred years ago, the greatest scientist arguably who ever lived was Albert Einstein, and he had his own theological ramifications and belief systems. But one thing he held onto for sure was that the universe was static, and it was eternally old. And so we know we've ruled that out with conclusive evidence. There's nobody who believes the universe is purely static, and they haven't for 50 years or more, but there are those that claim in two different camps. The universe had a beginning, or it's part of a single cycle or perhaps an infinite number of cycles. And so both have their problems, and both have their attractors.
Adam Jacobs: Okay, we'll all going to stay tuned, and I hope you come up with the answer soon, actually. We'll see. Okay, let me ask you about a concept called the Axis of Evil in cosmology from which I understand that it's like the location of Earth is supposed to be very unimportant, very random, and for reasons I will not claim to fully understand that this axis of evil seems to imply a greater significance than we would expect. And I saw this quote from Lawrence Kraus, which says: “The new results are either telling us that all of science is wrong and we are the center of the universe. Or maybe the data is simply incorrect, or maybe it's telling us that there's something weird about the microwave background results and that maybe there's something wrong with our theories on larger scales.” What can you tell us about this concept?
Brian Keating: So Lawrence is a friend of mine. I've had him on my podcast. He's had me on his podcast. I like to call him out. I use him as a punching bag for a variety of different purposes, including his utter lack of knowledge of his birth religion’s main tenants and other things. But we have a friendly kind of debate about that. I would say that this is a little bit overblown. It's not that the earth's place is sort of unimportant, and the earth it would be very surprising to find the earth in a very different location than where it is. I mean that we're on the earth, that we're around a certain type of star. That's not too violent, that's not too cold, that's not too hot. We're in this Goldilocks zone, to be expected that we're in a galaxy.
The galaxy could be interchangeable. We could move everything transported 3 million light years away to Andromeda, and we probably wouldn't notice a difference. There's really almost nothing about the galactic environment. And that portrays what's called the cosmological principle, which is a generalization of what's called the Copernican principle, which was sort of this ultimate statement that the earth is not special or a place in the universe is not special. Back then, Copernicus was arguing that the sun is the center of the cosmos in contradistinction to Aristotle and thousands of years of history before him, and took Galileo and others to finally prove that we weren't at the center of the solar system. And then a debate shifted to, while the sun could be at the center of the galaxy and then the galaxy could be the center of the universe and then the universe, now we're talking about, well, where are we in the multiverse if there is such a concept.
So the “Axis of Evil” suggests that there is a particular direction when you look in it, that there are phenomena that aren't in variant, that aren't symmetric with respect to where you're looking throughout the rest of the cosmos. So that the Copernican principle applied to the universe as a whole should mean that no matter where you look, which direction you look, the universe should be isotropic. Obviously, it's not on the scales of your room or the solar system even, or even our galaxy. But on scales of thousands and millions of galaxies, it is obeyed, and there is a slight deviation in one form of light, the light that I study called the cosmic microwave background radiation.
And that seems to indicate a direction that is an axis of broken symmetry, and that may be significant. And fortunately, with tools like the Simons Observatory and other projects that my colleagues and I work on, we will be able to glean more information and see if it's actually honest to goodness truly there or if it's a statistical fluctuation, which happens more than most scientists want to recognize. And this has become part of what's called the replication crisis and other branches of science. But we have our own problems because we can't do dissections of thousands of frogs throughout history. We only have one universe. We only have one planet where we know there's life. So it's very difficult to do statistically significant sample sizes on a topic that only has a sample size of one. So that makes it more challenging, but I wouldn't start betting on a true violation of this principle just yet.
Adam Jacobs: Okay. Okay, fair enough. Interesting. I got two more science questions for you, and then I'll get into a little bit of a character ethics kind of question. So here's something that's been bothering me for forever, and you are the exact right guy to explain it to me. We learn about the concept of space and time getting curved by mass gravity. And the thing that I've never been able to wrap my head around is what is the thing that's getting curved?
Brian Keating: What is the thing that's getting curved? So I think that is, it is kind of a challenge for the human being to imagine what is curved without making use of some analogy, which by nature will have its limitations. And those limitations are due to the fact that we exist and have evolved in a world of three spatial dimensions and one time dimension. We talk about curvature. We have to make an analogy. We have to either restrict the number of space and time dimensions or freeze time and just look at fixed spatial sections. So we typically will do that by envisioning the four-dimensional world that we live in as some three-dimensional shape. And there are only three different possibilities for a three-dimensional shape. One is flat, and you could think about a three-dimensional set of monkey bars extending in all directions to infinity. And you could also think about those monkey bars now, but imagine they're warped like a Pringle chip or like a saddle somehow, they're displaced in some way.
So the three-dimensional relationship is different, the links are different. The angles between different objects and their isotropic or anisotropic properties are different. And then there's a third possibility. They could be spherically curved, okay? Could be like a ball on which the trajectories of objects, including people, rockets, and beams of light, can only travel along those curved sections. So we say that the universe is curved. What we mean is that all three of these different geometries have different curvature values. So one is called positive curvature, that's a sphere. One is called negative curvature, that's a Pringles chip or a saddle. And one is called flat, and that has zero curvature. So we look at these curvature possibilities. We can ask, well, how can we measure if we live in a universe that's curved? And it's exactly like measuring that the earth was curved.
So you could go out and sail around the universe, sail around the earth, and see if you come back to where you were. Well, that could take a while, or you could do what they used to do. And they used to used to do it with shadows of light at different locations and the projection of the shadow on different locations separated by some known distance in feet or miles, which would be indicative. The angle at the shadow cast would be different at different locations implying, unlike the flat earth theory, that the universe earth was curved. And so you can imagine extending this out, you can say, imagine you live on a flat piece of paper. You make a triangle between three points. You pick any three points; hopefully, they're pretty far apart. So you can actually truly test this in an accurate way. So imagine you pick three points on the earth, you can pick Boston, you can pick San Diego, and you can pick Seattle.
There's that forms a triangle on the surface of the earth. If you go out and make the measurement of the angles of each of those three angles and then you add them up, they'll be slightly greater than 180 degrees, and they'll prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that you live on a positively curved spherical surface. And that's the surface of the earth. Now, it won't be perfectly spherical. We can get into all the deviations, but it'll be very different than if we lived on a Pringle chip or if we lived on a flat surface. And so each of those can be defined. Now, how do we know the universe is not curved? It means that we go out, we take three stars, we start with our, and not, we're not waiting for Shabbat to be over. We hypothesize; actually, we only need two stars.
So you go out, you set the earth as one of your points, your vertices on your triangle, and you measure two really distant stars, and you measure the angles between those two stars and the earth, and it comes out that that's 180 degrees. Great, that's awesome. Now you go out and say, well, maybe that's just like when I measure the three points in San Diego, I'll get 180 degrees even though I live on the surface of a curved earth. That's because the earth is curved with a large radius of curvature compared to the size of San Diego or Boston, or wherever. So now let me go out to galaxies. Well turns out if I do the exact same thing, pick the Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, and the triangular galaxy, and put those together, make a triangle. No, same thing, 180 degrees when you sum up the angles of the triangle, do that for any objects, the most distant quasars in the universe, and even the CMB, and has the exact same phenomena. So we know the universe is flat, so it saves us a mental headache. So I don't even teach starting teaching next week. I don't even teach that. It could be that we live in a curved universe because it's so improbable. First, we don't know exactly. Nothing in science is known with a hundred percent certainty. Even that statement is not known with a hundred percent certainty. But nevertheless, we have no need to teach about that any more than we teach that the earth could be flat in geography clubs.
Adam Jacobs: So that I understand that the dimensions of the universe could be these different shapes, so to speak. And you use different analogies like paper and the earth, and I understand what paper and the earth are so on and so forth. But there is this concept that if this is a giant mass out in space, that there will be curvature around it because it affects the way that space is. Yeah. Am I right about that?
Brian Keating: Yes, locally space can be curved.
Adam Jacobs: True. So I still don't understand what is being curved. I understand that within space, there are stars and quasars and dust, which you talk a lot about in your book and many other things, but in between all that stuff is a vacuum, as far as I know. So, okay, so what is the thing that's getting curved if it's not those things that already exist in the universe? What curves?
Brian Keating: So imagine, look at the earth. Okay, so if you look at the earth, there could be, in fact, there are craters on the earth that are roughly Pringle shaped depressions. There are mountains that look like mounds on the Earth. There are things, and there are buildings that have very different shapes that curve. And actually, the Earth is not a perfect sphere, but it's much more close to a sphere than it is to being flat. So we always deal with what is called the bulk properties of a manifold, or space-time is called a manifold. It's a large scale. Obviously, it extends to great distances, and we can measure how far out we can see light towards, and that can allow us to construct these things. But absolutely right; there are deviations on local scales. And that's, in fact, what allowed us to verify Einstein's theory of general relativity in 1919 because of the fact that the sun was eclipsed by the moon, which indicated there were stars behind the moon, behind the sun, and their light trajectories.
The positions of those stars were warped and squished and squashed by the intervening amount of matter, which was the mass of the sun. And depending on the mass of the object that's in the foreground, that's called gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing is the bending of space-time trajectories of light and deviations of them, and we call those perturbations. So locally, there are perturbations in the curvature of space-time, and that's very fortunate, and that allows things for orbital mechanics, for planets to orbit around stars. But it also allowed the seeds to form in the early universe for how the universe would; it creates structure in certain places rather than others. Because if there were no perturbations, if there was complete symmetry, isotropy, and perfect cosmological principle, we would not be here according to our understanding of structure formation because there'd be no place for a condensation of matter that would later become a star and a galaxy and a planet and so forth to occur. Perfect symmetry is deadly. Perfect symmetry is actually the height of entropy. So it's completely improbable for there to be a fluctuation that would then lead to a galaxy that could harbor a star, which could harbor a planet that could harbor life.
Adam Jacobs: You explained this stuff very well. I appreciate you're very articulate about it. And by the way, your book is very accessible for a science book, very, very accessible…
Brian Keating: Say to you because the Talmud says also that the easily embarrassed do not learn. So the fact that you can learn means that you don't have a compunction about seeming to be embarrassed, but you should have no fear of being embarrassed because your questions are quite good. Normally people ask, they'll say, Brian, Professor Keating, I’d love to ask you, how did the universe begin? I have a simple question, but I think you're far beyond that, and it's important to approach these questions with humility. As Einstein said, people used to come up to him and like, oh, Professor Einstein, I'd love to learn your theory, but I'm not good at math. And he'd say, you think you're not good in math? I have my own troubles with Math. So I commend you for that ability that you have.
Adam Jacobs: Well, thank you. And I wanted to ask the second to the last question real fast. But speaking of humility, your book is focused around the Nobel Prize, which it seems produces could produce humility, but sometimes it seems it produces the opposite of that, and you actually liken it towards the end of the book to the golden calf of biblical fame. And I want to read a quote that you wrote, which I'd like very much. You said, “They fawned over the gilded medallion.” You're talking about people who gathered around to see the prize itself, “pushing past one another just to get a glimpse of it. No one actually bound down to it, but some did kiss it, some tried to sneak off with it. I'm ashamed to say I was among the worshipers unable to resist posing for a picture with the medallion.” So we have this, I think, mistaken notion that scientists are sort of like Spock, that all you're interested in is knowledge. And no matter what it is, you'll be happy with it. And you sit in your labs, and you just do pure thinking, and that's it. But I guess your experience is not quite like that. And my ultimate question is, at this point, do you think that the Nobel Prize is ultimately good or bad for scientific discovery, or is it good or bad for scientists?
Brian Keating: I'll say, yes, I do believe it's good or bad. I think it's a superposition. And there's ambiguity. There're good aspects of it that I try to preserve. Most people think of this first book, my first book, as kind of a teardown, a takedown trolling, the Nobel Prize. There's some of that in it, but it's mostly a memoir. It's an autobiography of a scientist as a young man trying to wrestle with personal demons and ambition and wanting to have some rarefied company to inhabit because of a competition that I had with my now deceased father, who is also a great scientist but never won a Nobel Prize. But we were very competitive, and in fact, he abandoned me. And I talk about that in the book. But the ultimate accolade, not just in science, but and then not just in the five other categories, physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, and peace and literature.
So not just in those six categories but in all of society. I mean, you see this every couple of months; you'll see how many Nobel Prize winners are coming out to protest Iran, some treaty, or some war in Ukraine or this and that. You'll hear it every four years reliably. The 70 Nobel Prize winners will tell you which Democrat you should vote for. And it's become almost silly because you'll have a Nobel prize-winning physicist who discovered some acceleration of the universe, and then they'll be talking about nuclear war treaties with Iran. It's like they have no subject matter expertise whatsoever. You shouldn't listen to them at all. You shouldn't listen to me about that. And so we have what are called political scientists, scientists that then weighed into it. So it's impossible not to stress the impact that the Nobel Prize has. Now, that said, I believe its good qualities could be used for reformation in order to reform it, to restore it, to do back what it was.
When Alfred Nobel wrote it in his ethical will in 1895, and he was interesting. He adheres to the Talmudic dictum that you should write your will the day before you die. I mean, he wrote it the year before he died. He's pretty lucky. And it said very clearly that he wanted it to read down to the benefit of mankind, and it didn't say anything about it, had to then be used to advocate for GMOs or some treaty with some kind. It didn't have anything to do with that, but it was for discoveries or inventions in the preceding year to a single person. And it's gotten very bastardized from that. It's incredibly deformed and corrupted in many ways to suit the needs of these 400 mostly male scientists in Sweden. And it's incredible to think about how much impact they have on young people's lives and also on the media and culture.
It's incredible. There are 400 people in Sweden of all places, so it really has strayed. And as the highest thing you could do, though, one of the greatest mitzvahs you can do is to honor the wishes of the dead because they can't repay you. So you're doing it purely selflessly. And I felt, in my small way, maybe I could help to restore the Nobel Prize to what Alfred so nobly believed, no pun intended, wanted to do with it. And so it's a good blessing, and it's a curse. It's a double-edged so sword. It has very beneficial prospects that it encouraged people to do science and, in some ways and can produce funding and so forth. But it also brings out jealousy, subterfuge, and egos, almost nothing. You almost couldn't design a machine to potentially undermine the scientific process more efficient than the Nobel Prize.
Adam Jacobs: That's a big statement. And I think an important one, as you outline that, that's why I asked the question is ultimately, is it helpful or it's not helpful? And you're saying it's both, which I understand, but people should check out the book and decide for themselves whether the Nobel Prize is ultimately a good thing or not, which, and this is the first time I've ever considered that. Maybe it's not. But last question is if, from you're sitting at your vantage point right now, if you were a betting man, are you betting on the singularity model, or do you think it's going to turn out to be something else?
Brian Keating: So that's a very dangerous question to ask a scientist. Not only is it dangerous for any scientist, but especially for an experimentalist and especially one who's been through this kind of ringer of the perils of what's called confirmation bias. Yes. So when you assume to the conclusion that you're going to find something or expect to see something or want to see something, then you're more likely to accept evidence that seems confirmatory and exclude evidence. That seems disco, disco confirmatory, and it's a very perilous thing. Now, I'm a human being. I'm not Spock as much as my wife sometimes might think I am. But the ultimate goal should be that I want to see I do the best experiment possible and not be tricked and deceived into following after what my heart and my eyes lead me to prostitute myself to do. Right? So I have to be very careful about that.
And I mean, admit, I was careless in some ways, and I let the team, the exuberance of it, carry me away even when I knew I wouldn't win a Nobel Prize, even when I was sure that even if we were right, which would turn out to be wrong, but even if we were, I wouldn't win it. I still felt like I wanted it to be true. And I didn't, of course, hurt, either way, to not win the Nobel Prize, but it would hurt less if somebody else on this team, on this experiment that I created, was sort of my baby, had been successful because it would've meant we did the right thing and we achieved this goal that I set 20 years ago. But it's not to say that we did it fraudulently. I mean, there are scientists that do this. There's a huge tumult back and forth in places where the stakes are much higher.
I mean, you were talking about technology. So there's no technology that can possibly come from knowing if there's a singularity, as you're asking me to wager on. But just in the last three months, there's been two remarkable breakthroughs in nuclear fusion technology and in claims about the discovery of superconductivity at room temperature. Both of these will revolutionize not just climate change and everything else, they'll revolutionize technology and is multiple trillions of dollars, and both of them have seed capital and investors and Series A and all this stuff behind them. It's incredible.
So think about the potential, not just for the Nobel Prize, which would guarantee if these things hold up and are replicating in the case of the superconductor, but these are tremendous breakthroughs with the potential to revolutionize technology and, of course, to bring untold remuneration to their discoverers. So think about the temptation there that's very distraught. So part of the goal of the book was to give a Jeremiah to a young scientist wrestling with these ethical issues, perhaps, and really try to connote the fact that at the end of the day, you're going to be most proud of yourself for doing extremely accurate, extremely precise science. And wherever the chips fall, whether it's a singularity or not, I'll hope I'll be happy.
Adam Jacobs: Me too. Dr. Keating, thank you so much for being here today and taking the time. It was really a pleasure to get to know you for an hour, and your work is really exciting, and I wish you a lot of luck going forward. And for our audience, please take a moment to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Please visit beyond belief.blog and check out all the amazing stuff we have going on there, and comment and share to help spread the word. Thank you all for being here.