The Joy of x

Brian Keating’s Quest for the Origin of the Universe

The astrophysicist Brian Keating talks to host Steven Strogatz about chasing the universe’s greatest mysteries — and what it’s like to have a major discovery slip through his fingers.

Imagine knowing that a discovery you’ve made will bring you a Nobel Prize … only to suddenly learn that it was based on an error. In 2014, Brian Keating, a professor at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, led a team that reported finding one of cosmology’s most treasured secrets: proof of the theory of cosmic inflation. But a few months later, they had to withdraw their claim as flawed. Keating talked to host Steven Strogatz about why he chases the universe’s greatest mysteries and what it was like to have a major discovery slip out of his grasp. This episode was produced by Camille Peterson. Read more at Production and original music by Story Mechanics.

Listen on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAndroidTuneInStitcherGoogle Podcasts, or your favorite podcasting app, or you can stream it from Quanta.


Steven Strogatz: I wondered about your [book’s] title. I mean, Losing the Nobel Prize, to someone who doesn’t know you — and, honestly, we’ve never met. I mean, we’re only just talking over the airwaves, here.

Brian Keating: Yeah.

Strogatz: But Losing — I mean, it comes across as a very presumptuous title, like everybody could say — well, except for a handful of people, everybody has lost the Nobel Prize. Like, it was never yours to lose, right?

Keating: Well, it is in the sense that, like… But can everybody say they lost the World Series? Like, you don’t own the World Series.

Strogatz: It seems about as ridiculous.

Keating: Yeah.

Strogatz: Except you say, no, it’s not ridiculous, ’cause your thing, if it had panned out, it was a Nobel Prize-winning discovery.

Keating: Yeah. And actually as I point out, you know, it’s really a double entendre, in that it really reflects two things. One is how I knew, the day that we made the announcement, I would not win the Nobel Prize.

Strogatz [narration]: From Quanta Magazine, this is “The Joy of x.” I’m Steve Strogatz. In this episode, Brian Keating.


Keating: I knew I had lost it by either being a part of an experiment that was a competitor or viewed as a competitor by these other leaders of the BICEP2 experiment. Or that we were wrong and none of us was going to win a Nobel Prize, even though everyone had predicted it from the get-go. And then, two, the second double meaning aspect is that there are aspects of the Nobel Prize which need to be done away with, they need to get lost. And so that’s really the essence of the title and where it comes from.

Strogatz: Brian Keating is a cosmologist who went on a very dramatic journey of, as he puts it, losing the Nobel Prize. He’s also one of the scientists who is fascinated by one of the deepest questions in all of science today, which is, “What happened at the beginning?” And I mean the very beginning, the beginning of time, the beginning of the universe. What’s the spark that set off the Big Bang? And what happened in those very, very first moments of the universe?

Strogatz: Why not start at the beginning, since so much of what your story is concerned with is the mystery of the beginning.

Keating: You know, I have mixed feelings about the Nobel Prize, as you know, but the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman once said that no one ever did something because of a number. They need a story. And I think the story of the universe is so much more panoramic, it’s so much more beautiful and deep than the numbers that we’ve come to find with such accuracy and precision, that describe its composition and evolution, that I thought, you know, we can start at the very beginning of the universe, if you like, as the story that started everything. And for me, the desire to want to understand the universe at as deep a level as possible was always the motivating factor. I was always fascinated by the night sky, even as a very young kid at, you know, age five years old, driving with my parents and looking out the window and seeing the moon. And noticing, as we all have, that the moon is following me.

Strogatz: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Keating: It started the process of inflating my already-nascent ego, back then. “Yeah, look, the moon is following me.” So I’ve always been fascinated by the most awesome awe-inspiring questions that could possibly be asked, and I always felt that that quest and the question to understand what happened at the moment the universe came into existence was the absolute biggest question that could ever be asked.

Strogatz: Ah, perfect, that’s it. That is a very big question, right? [LAUGHTER]

Keating: Yeah.

Strogatz: What could be bigger?

Strogatz: Well, to get at that very big question, Brian zooms in on a particular cosmological puzzle. Scientists in his field give it different names: They call it the Horizon Problem, the Homogeneity Problem.

But here’s what it really means: It’s when cosmologists look at extremely distant parts of the universe, very far apart, like, they sometimes talk about them being 90 billion lightyears apart from each other. Farther apart than light can travel in the whole duration of the universe up till now. We think the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. So it’s hard to even think about how something could be as far apart as 90 billion light years away, but that’s what they tell us. And here’s the spooky thing: when the cosmologists and astronomers look at those remote parts of the universe, they appear to be virtually identical in all their properties. If they look at their temperature, if they look at their density of photons, anything that they care to look at, they’re sort of almost exactly equal. They only vary by 1 part in about 100,000.

Now, how can that be? That is really strange, because they’re so far apart that they could never have been in communication with each other, they could’ve never influenced each other by sending any kind of signal. There’s no physical process that we know of that could’ve enforced this homogeneity, and yet, there it is.

Strogatz: This raises a real mystery.

Keating: It’s a huge mystery.

Strogatz: The far side of the universe can’t know a thing about the other far side of the universe; they’ve never had any way to send a signal between them, right? Because the fastest the signal could go is the speed of light, and there’s no way — they were never in communication, yet you’re telling me they look —

Keating: They look identical.

Strogatz: — statistically speaking, identical.

Keating: Every single pair of patches that are actually farther apart than a few degrees — you don’t have to go 180 degrees, but just for, you know, kind of just rubbing in the mystery, a little bit — that is what we see. And yet it’s impossible. In the original Big Bang model of Hubble and LeMaitre and others, to have such coincidences is incredibly improbable. And it must imply, or did imply to Alan Guth and others, that the universe could be made such that these regions that we now see to be what’s called “out of causal contact,” in other words, they can’t influence, they can’t communicate. “Set your oven to 2.726 degrees Kelvin,” “Okay, I’ll do that!” They can’t do that now.

But if they were initially touching and then there was essentially a magic trick played where the universe expanded faster than the speed of light for a brief period of time, maybe trillionths of a second, that that period of time is just enough for them to get far enough out at the end of that period such that, today, they look like they’re completely identical.

Strogatz: What Brian’s describing here is the theory known as cosmic inflation. It’s the idea that in the very first moments of the universe, all these identical patches of the universe were very, very close together, they were just all part of this tiny speck at the beginning of creation. And then they whooshed apart exponentially fast, in an extremely, unbelievably rapid moment of expansion that would’ve taken, you know, a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. And so this is thought to be a possible explanation for why they look identical now, because they were once very close together, so close that they could’ve communicated, they would’ve had enough time to interact and essentially iron out and even out all their different properties. Those then got locked in, so that today when we look at them, they still seem nearly identical, even though they’re halfway across the universe from each other.

Keating: I started to become infatuated with the idea that one could potentially prove that inflation took place if one detected these waves of gravity called gravitational radiation or gravitational waves. These waves of gravity would be present, perhaps, at this mysterious epoch, and they may be the only things that would persist after or during the inflationary period of time. Whenever two things are in motion that have mass, whenever they’re orbiting around each other or whenever they’re moving in a certain way — I could be shaking my first at a driver, you know, here in southern California — I am generating a change in the local gravitational field. And if I do so periodically, or even if I don’t, you could expand the motion of my arm shaking into a Fourier series, a harmonic series, and there will be terms at which the matter in my arm is generating ripples in spacetime itself. These are completely imperceptible. But now you imagine you increase the size —

Strogatz: I’m just chuckling at this image of you shaking your fist at somebody on the highway, and sending ripples in spacetime over to his car. Talk about road rage.


Keating: Yeah, exactly, right?

Strogatz: Fortunately, imperceptible.

Keating: Right, yeah, we don’t normally think about those waves, here in southern California, but that’s actually what happens. And now scale up the size of my arm — now scale it up to the mass of a black hole, and then make that black hole the mass of 30 solar masses, 30 times the mass of our sun. And then have another friend of it nearby that I’m shaking my arm at, and he also has an arm, or she has an arm, that’s a 30 solar mass black hole. And as they move together, in the last moments before they kiss or collide with each other, in however way you want to visualize it, they’re emitting tremendous amounts of energy in the form of reverberations in spacetime itself. And spacetime is very stiff. It has a high, you know, coefficient of restitution.

This medium of spacetime, it’s very difficult to compress it and expand it, so to do so in any way requires a violent motion of matter. Imagine all the matter in the universe exploding forth, if you will, in a timescale of about 10-36 seconds, not over, you know, one second to shake your fist back and forth, or one half a second, or a couple hundred milliseconds in the case of the blackholes colliding with one another. So, this was the most violent motion of matter and in the shortest possible period of time ever imaginable. So, in that sense, it will generate copious amounts of gravitational waves. So the virtue of these waves of gravity is, like waves of light, they travel at the speed of light and they also have no lifetime, they have an infinite lifetime, if you will. So they can persist, from the very Big Bang — and gravity goes through everything.

So on the other side of the dark, you know, soundproof room that I’m in right now, if somebody brought up a black hole, I couldn’t see it [LAUGHTER] but I’d be sucked into it, right? Because gravity goes through matter. That’s how the tide works on the earth, right? The moon pulls, you know, the Earth, and it pulls the oceans differently, depending on what side of the earth they’re on. So gravity goes through matter —

Strogatz: Interesting, so there’s no gravity shields, we don’t have a gravity screen.

Keating: Yeah, that’s right, exactly, there’s no way to screen gravity. And so we realized, and the other cosmologists realized this as well, that you could use these infinite lifetime, you know, all-penetrating objects as sort of the earliest fossils of the inflationary epoch. So like the light that we see in the cosmic microwave background, that’s predominantly the leftover heat fossil relic of the formation of the nuclei.

Strogatz: So it turns out that when the universe was very young, it was sort of white-hot and opaque; light could not get out of it. The light would try to get out, but it would bounce off of all the little particles, the protons and electrons that hadn’t yet formed atoms. And so for the first about 300,000 years of the universe, it was dark.

But you know, there’s a time when the protons and electrons start to bind together to make the primordial hydrogen, the first elements in the universe, and when that starts to happen, the light can escape. And so when Brian and I talk about the cosmic microwave background, that’s what we’re referring to, the time about (I think he tells me) 380,000 years after the Big Bang, that light starts to escape.

Keating: So the analog for the inflation epoch, which occurred many trillionths of a second, trillionths of trillionths of trillionths of seconds before that process would be revealed by waves of gravity.

Strogatz: So, Brian and his team decided they would try to detect these gravitational waves, these primordial relics, these remnants of inflation, with a kind of new-fangled telescope, an apparatus that he pioneered, called BICEP.

Keating: Essentially, what I designed BICEP to do was to use the light waves of the Big Bang as a type of film, and this film is made of light. So what we were looking for is perturbation in the light waves themselves that would come in this twisting, curling, swirling pattern that cosmologists call B-mode polarization, and that BICEP only had to do — well, all it had to do on a grand scheme, at least, was detect this swirling, twisting pattern of microwave polarization. And if it did detect that, it would mean that the universe was suffused with gravitational energy, just like it’s suffused with light energy, and it happened to have… The gravitational energy was in the form of these waves of gravity. Well, where did they come from? Well, they would’ve come from inflation. And the interesting thing about inflation is that it is the unique prediction of inflation. In other words, other models of cosmology, of cosmogenesis, of the origin of the universe have models that predict no twisting pattern of polarization because they have no gravitational wave energy at the very beginning.

And that became a crisp test that really was the thing that most fascinated me about the chance to build a tiny (equals cheap) telescope to detect this pattern of the aftershocks, the gravitational aftermath of inflation.

Strogatz: The BICEP2 team thought that it saw a fantastically strong signal of the B-mode polarization, meaning, the signature they were looking for, of inflation. You know, basically, they thought, “Voilà, we’ve got it.” [BACKGROUND AUDIO DRAMATIZATION] You know, they held a press conference, you know, lots of reporters were there. It was a big deal. Because the team knew that this was likely to be, if not one, maybe several Nobel Prizes’ worth. So it was, to great fanfare, announced; I think it was on maybe the front page of The New York Times. Anyway, it was a very incautious announcement. I mean, there might’ve been some caveats thrown in like, “Well, you know, this has to be checked, and we’re not totally positive, but if it all checks out, we have seen the beginning of the universe.”

Keating: But almost immediately thereafter, as we expected, people started to ask questions. You know, “Did you consider this?” “Did you leave the lens cap on?” “Did you make a blunder?” And we completely just decimated those arguments, we said, “No, we actually are 100% confident in the integrity of our results.”

Strogatz: Mm-hmm, but the whole time, there was a villain lurking in the background of the experiment. Dun-dun-dun. [LAUGHS] It’s a villain that’s easy enough to overlook because it’s ubiquitous, it’s right under your nose: It’s dust, cosmic dust, swirling around in the universe, interstellar dust. Brian and his team knew that there would be interstellar dust, and that it could create an imposter signal, a pattern that looked just like the B-mode pattern of polarization in the gravitational waves that he was looking for. And it’s such a villain because it can masquerade as the real signal of interest, so Brian and his team knew that they would somehow have to pick out the real signal from this imposter, from this dusty noise.

Keating: What ended up happening, and part of this was raised by Quanta Magazine, by Natalie Wolchover. She did a bunch of interviews with folks over the summer of 2014, and including a scientist at Princeton University, including a man who is my current close collaborator, David Spergel, and one of my closest collaborators at UC San Diego now, Raphael Flauger. And they basically raised the objection that, in their opinion, we were almost as likely to have seen this cosmic schmutz, this dust, as we had seen the imprimatur, the signature of inflation. And through a series of painstaking analyses, they were able to make this claim that put a lot of doubt on our results. So that summer was really challenging.

In September, Quanta had this piece that came out that described the kind of overwhelming evidence for our discovery and against our discovery, and saying we would need to wait for another confirmation experiment or a refutation experiment. And that did come, about four or five months later, with the Planck experiment.

Strogatz: I guess I need you to tell me who Planck is — not Max Planck, but what’s this other team? All we need to know is they’re competitors, right?

Keating: Yeah, so, Planck was a satellite launched by the European space agency in 2009 that had been, really, the horse to bet on to detect these waves of gravity. At least everybody thought so, that they would be the first to detect it from their clean perch high above the Earth’s surface, a million miles away from the Earth. And with €1 billion backing them, more or less, and thousands of the world’s brightest people. And so they actually had kept their cards close to the vest, in that they never really let us know whether or not they had seen either evidence for the Big Bang — for this gravitational wave radiation, rather. Or they had seen enough dust-contaminating signal to overwhelm the signal that we said we saw.

Now, remember, we all knew that dust could cause the signal, but we didn’t know that it did cause the signal, because we didn’t have access to their data. So we needed, desperately, an image that they had produced, that we had found surreptitiously on the Web. And I said — we tried to, you know, we begged for it, we hoped to borrow it, and then, you know, sometimes you have to go to great lengths to get data. ’Cause we didn’t want to make a mistake. We knew it would be an incredibly important discovery. So, what I described in the book is, what ended up happening at the very end of a period of time, when … we were in limbo. In other words, we didn’t know if we detected the birth pangs of the Big Bang, or if we had detected the dust that floats around the interstellar medium. And it was finally resolved in early 2015, as I describe here —

Strogatz: Okay, so, let’s hear it. Please open your reader to page 244.

Keating: Yeah, 244?

Strogatz: Yes.

Keating: All right, you want me to start the — “Later, the Planck team…”?

Strogatz: Yeah, “Later, the Planck team…,” so, yeah, hm.

Keating: All right. “Later, the Planck team produced an image of the Milky Way’s dust polarization, finally including the BICEP patch of sky, the Southern Hull, as we called it. It was mesmerizing: Large swaths of sky festooned with azure streamers, whirls of ochre, and swaths of amber garland. Dust was showing off in all its Van Gogh vainglory. ‘Visible certainty,’ Galileo would’ve likely opined, as he had with the Pleiades hypothesis. But this time, he’d be devastatingly right. It was over. Eden had sunk to grief. Our Nobel gold couldn’t stay. BICEP2 turned out to be a very precise dust detector.”

Strogatz: Well, let’s just leave it there. I mean, that’s it, right? Your experiment had turned out to be a very precise dust detector, and the dreamed-of Nobel Prize was not to be.

Keating: Disappeared.

Strogatz: Yeah, disappeared. So then, please go on, where you say, “Myself…” I mean, you tell about your own reaction to this.

Keating: Okay, yeah. “Myself, I felt both embarrassment and guilt. Although I had voiced my concerns about dust, eventually, I gave in. I should’ve stood my ground. But like so many of us on the team, I saw what I wanted to see, committing cosmology’s cardinal sin: confirmation bias. In the end, I was Feynman’s fool, and that is a role I vowed never to play again.”

Strogatz: All right, so, we should discuss “Feynman’s fool,” what do you mean by that?

Keating: So there’s an old saying. You know, if you can’t — if you’re at a poker table and you don’t know who is the sucker after five minutes, you’re the sucker. And Feynman, Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate at Caltech, had a similar quote and advice that he gave to graduating seniors, many decades ago at Caltech. And he said, “The first principle is not to fool yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.” In other words, he was talking about confirmation bias.

When you want to see something, because you’re going to get tenure or you’re going to get a graduate fellowship, or you’re going to do anything, you know, get some political office [LAUGHS], oftentimes, you’ll accept information that comports with your hypothesis and discard data that’s discrepant. Or, you know, you’ll just completely ignore any other alternative to the one that you’re going down the path of. And it’s sort of a version of, you know, sunk cost, where you just have so much of your soul as a scientist invested in something, that it’s very hard to do away with it. And what Feynman’s admonishing people to do is to look critically at themselves, and realize that they’re subject to these biases no matter how smart you are, and you may think you are as a scientist. And even he himself would say of himself, that he is the easiest person to fool, because it’s something that he wants to believe is true.

Strogatz: Coming up, we’ll go deeper into Brian’s own origin story, and find out what it was about his early life that set him on a path to questing for a Nobel Prize.


Keating: For me, a large part of my motivation was to kind of exceed the accomplishments of my father. My father had been a great mathematician, taught at Cornell, and then later at Stony Brook, named James Ax. And he was a phenomenal scientist and mathematician, but he was also — we were very competitive with each other [LAUGHS] as strange as that sounds, and certainly not the way I am with my children. But nevertheless, you know, as some fathers and sons compete over, you know, football or, you know, “You think you can wrestle me to the —.” You know, with us it was, like, scientific knowledge and math and so forth. So I knew I couldn’t compete with him in math, and he was extremely successful, but I thought I could win something that he never won, and many prizes didn’t include a Nobel Prize.

Strogatz: Huh. In terms of background here, your father wasn’t living with you at that point?

Keating: No, unfortunately, yeah, my father was a… He was a difficult man. He and I, you know, had an on-again, off-again relationship when my… He was divorced from my mother when I was about seven. And then, from that time forward, when she remarried a man with the last name Keating, I took on his last name Keating. And then I lost complete contact with him for about 15 years, until I became a graduate student. And when I became a graduate —

Strogatz: So, like, no phone calls, no letters, nothing.

Keating: No calls. No, I didn’t even know if he was alive.

Strogatz: Really?

Keating: Yeah, for 15 years. He, essentially, you know… As I talk about, it’s a form of abandonment, and essentially, a lot of men in the ’70s felt this way, you know, that they would be alienated from their children and — you know, I deny that actually took place in our case. I mean, there were legitimate things that we — that he was just not a great father. And he always used to joke, you know, “I don’t really care about kids until they learn algebra,” you know, and I didn’t really — [LAUGHTER] — I was not good at algebra at age six.

Strogatz: What a thing to say.

Keating: One of my many, many failings. [LAUGHTER] And I think, you know, he wanted to start a new life, and so he moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, and started a new life, got remarried himself. And so, yeah, we lost contact for about 15 years, and then, I started to get very curious about him when I was basically, unwittingly, you know, following in his footsteps of going to, you know, going to graduate school, getting a Ph.D. in science, and being so fascinated with mathematics.

You know, back then, the internet, the arXiv and things like that didn’t really exist. And so I had to go to the math library at Brown University and looked up his papers, and all of his papers, until he kind of quit academia, were about physics and relativity and all the same things that interested me. And I felt like, “How could it be that someone I hadn’t seen since I was 6 had an influence on me at age 22?” It was just very strange and —

Strogatz: Did you have happy memories of him at any time? I mean, ’cause it sounds like you were quite young when he left.

Keating: Yeah, I did, and I have an older brother, too. Kevin is three years older than me. And we had great memories, you know, we’d go do father-son… You know, back then, it was more common to have, you know, weekend visitation and things like that, so, we would do that. And I even remember encounters with my dad’s good friend Jim Simons in the math department. So Jim Simons had recruited my father from your university, Cornell, to work at Stony Brook. My father was the youngest full professor at Cornell — I think it was 27 — he was a full professor. He used to rub that in my face, believe me. [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: I don’t get it, why would a guy… It’s so weird to me, as a dad, to be competitive with your own kid.

Keating: Yeah, I know. Well, like I said, I mean, guys do this… I have, you know, my brother-in-law is a phenomenal guy; he’s a marine, tough guy, and all of his daughters are — you know, he’s got three beautiful princesses as daughters. And they’re all, like, your friendly competition, I mean, they compete in skiing, like, who can be faster. My father was just not in a healthy way, the way, say, my brother-in-law is. And so, I felt like it was probably, you know, his insecurities but — which he shouldn’t have really had, I mean, he was extremely accomplished, as you can probably tell, but this was just something in his psyche. And I think he also had a difficult relationship with his father.


Strogatz: I don’t know what it’s — like, I mean, I had a very sweet dad, it was very easy for me with my dad. And to hear about someone with a dad who was competitive with him, who, you know, was absent so — I mean, like, aggressively absent is the way Brian tells it, it’s alien to me and so very interesting. And it makes me feel sad for him — him, Brian, but I suppose also sad for his dad, because think of what the dad missed out on.


It was very interesting for me also to talk to Brian about religion. Partly, I’d say, because we have something in common: We’re both Jewish now. But I’ve always been Jewish, except kind of atheist, whereas, he began as a Catholic, then an atheist, and only now, quite an observant Jew. So he’s had quite the journey.

The other thing is that his cosmological work has a lot of religious implications and overlap with things like creation myths, questions about how the universe began. So there’s this whole theological dimension to his work, and I really wanted to explore that with him. How does his science interact with his religious feeling?

Keating: So I call myself a practicing devout agnostic, in that I do observe certain rituals, in my case, Judaism. On the other hand, you know, obviously, forms of scientific evidence that I would, you know, not accept in my day job as a scientist are really, you know, not even approachable in a theological sense, certainly, for the Old Testament, or even the New Testament. You could do science and you could do religion, and in some sense, I find them equally pleasurable to think about. In other words, the deepest puzzle of all is perhaps this notion of existence and how did we get here.

Is there a purpose? Is there a moral lawgiver? And then, but then there are the questions of, you know, how did the actual physics of the universe take place? And why can’t I do both? And why can’t I explore two puzzles at once? I mean, I do crossword puzzles and I like to do Rubik’s cubes, you know, they’re different, you know, and no one would say just ’cause they have cubes on them or [LAUGHS] — you know, that they’re the same thing. The Bible, if you will, the Old Testament has exactly 35 verses about, you know, what could plausibly be called cosmology, out of a total of 35,000 verses, you know, so .1%. It’s obviously not a science book, and it’s not meant to be taken as such.

So, my question is, the word, you know, kind of, “science,” which as I understand it means “knowledge,” it doesn’t mean “wisdom.” You know, Stephen Hawking wrote a wonderful book, A Brief History of Time. If that book is still read in 100 years, I think he would be depressed, right? Because, I mean, we have relatively little progress if it’s relevant in 100 years.

Whereas, you know, things like the ancient books of wisdom — the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah — if these books have relevance, they’ve been relevant for thousands of years. And so to dismiss them when they might contain potential wisdom, I think, would be a foolish thing to do. And so, for those reasons, I think it’s possible to be, for a scientist, as I say, a practicing agnostic.

Strogatz: I see, I see. This is — I want to mention something — I’d been thinking about saying this to you, as I was preparing for our discussion, and I have a feeling you already know this, but maybe not everyone will. So I’m not very observant of my Judaism, but I am culturally interested in it. And at one time, I took a class about Jewish stories, where we were meeting with the rabbi at Hillel here at Cornell, and just talking about — honestly, it was for me to meet a woman is what I was hoping was going to happen. [LAUGHTER] It was when I first got here, but okay, but leaving that aside. So we were talking about all kinds of different things, and he pointed out that, in the Torah’s story of Genesis, of the beginning of everything, that the Hebrew word is “bereshit,” for “the beginning.”

You know, and that’s — so, when we talk about “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” “in the beginning” is “bereshit.” And he pointed out that the rabbis, over the centuries, have asked the question, “If we’re talking about the beginning, why does the story begin with the second letter and not the first letter?” Because the bet — you know, aleph, bet; bet is the second letter. Why not start the beginning with the beginning? Why didn’t it start with aleph? And I just think it’s a very… I love the ingenuity of these thinkers, over the years, that they said, “Look at bereshit. First of all, it’s an admonition to not ask what happened before the beginning. Because you…” And even the shape of the letter, they say, the geometry of the symbol in the bet is a sort of —

Keating: Correct, open.

Strogatz: — curve that points you to the future. It’s a curve that says, “Don’t look backwards. Look forwards. Think about what you can do starting now.”


Strogatz: After the break, some words of wisdom, a golden calf, and I get a really odd gift from Brian. We’ll be right back.


Strogatz: I love that sentence in your book — I’m going to find it here — about shabbat, the Sabbath, for those not speaking Hebrew.

Keating: Mm-hmm, yeah, that’s right. [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: That — I just liked this — I hadn’t heard this. It’s a quote from a rabbi: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time. To turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation, to the creation of the world.” What does that mean to you? What do you make of all that?

Keating: Well, the next sentence, I say, “If there was ever a religious duty for a cosmologist to practice, this was it.”

Strogatz: Yeah, how so?

Keating: So I find that myself, my colleagues — a big part of unspoken, you know, part of being a cosmologist is the mental toll that it takes on people. Both the competitive aspect and also the pressure that we put on ourselves to achieve what, you know, people would only say 50 years ago would be magic — you know, trying to do magic, basically.

And we neglect ourselves and selfcare and our mental health at our own peril. And in the old testament, the Sabbath is the day that God rested after, arguably, the Big Bang or [LAUGHS] if you want to be licentious about it or whatever, creating the universe. So, in other words, you have to work six days a week, but you cannot work seven days a week. And if you do, you’re really — you might be a workaholic. You could be a slave to your job, but it’s not good for your mental health. And it’s not good for your family-life balance.

Strogatz: Huh, yeah, well, I was — you know, this distinction of space and time really did hit me, and that’s why I wanted you to read — I ended up reading it myself, but — that little section about —

Keating: The creation of the world.

Strogatz: — Sabbath as a special — yeah, a special — a reverence for a certain patch of time. Yeah, I don’t just — it’s a cool idea. And I think we all, as you say, whether secular or religious, a lot of us come to it just as a way of giving ourselves a break, to recharge, to appreciate the wonders of our lives and our kids and our, you know, surroundings, our neighbors, our friends. And you can — yeah, I mean, oh, I have to admit, this past weekend, I had… My wife was out of town, I was with my younger daughter, my other daughter is away at college, my dog is at home as he always is. And I thought, “Wow, I have two whole days. I could work so much.” [LAUGHTER] And I didn’t, I didn’t work a damn bit.

Keating: Good for you. [LAUGHTER]

Strogatz: It felt really good. I just took it so easy this weekend. It felt very good.

Keating: And now you’re recharged, and now — yeah. So, the meaning of the word “shabbat” is basically “rest,” but it’s not… In Hebrew, I believe it connotes “active rest,” which sounds weird, but it’s like a rejuvenation, it’s a sitting-down, it’s a… And it has to be joyful, and you’re forbidden to mourn on the shabbat, which is just weird.

Strogatz: Oh, I had forgotten that point — really?

Keating: Yeah, you’re not allowed, during the period of shiva, when somebody dies, the seven days of sitting and mourning for… On a Sabbath, you’re not permitted to mourn, and it’s a day —

Strogatz: You don’t mourn on the Sabbath, I had —

Keating: That’s right.

Strogatz: You see, you could see I’m not very observant, here — I’d forgotten that. And that’s a beautiful thought, what a nice idea, that’s very, very good.

Keating: Yes, I think it is, and you know —

Strogatz: Everything needs a rest, huh, even mourning, wow.

Keating: Exactly. And just to look at, you know, how the universe… You know, if you want, it was created by God, if you don’t — I don’t really care. I think it’s important to realize that we are more than just our work.

Strogatz: So it sounds like, then, your quest ended up — I mean, is this part of your life’s journey, your transformation? Do you feel like what you’re calling “losing the Nobel Prize” has made you — I don’t know, is it some epiphany for you? Have you become a better person, as a result of this trip? Is that too — maybe too pat to put it like this.

Keating: No, I don’t think so. I mean, for a long time, I felt like there were many stories in the Bible, you know, that made no sense to me. And the most illustrative of those was the episode of the golden calf. The Israelites were led out of Egypt with wonders, the whole Passover, you know, theme is about these miracles that God performed, allegedly, for the Jewish people to be led out of slavery — you know, were not meant to be slaves — into freedom. And then 40 days or so after being led to freedom by these miraculous apparitions and acts, they worshipped the golden calf. They made a calf out of gold, and they bowed down and worshipped it. I thought, “This is so ridiculous,” until May of 2017, while I was deep in the throes of writing this polemic about the problems of the Nobel Prize and my own personal story and cosmology. And Duncan Haldane, the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize, he came and he brought his Nobel Prize to UCSD for the colloquium he was going to give. And afterwards, I was aghast about how many people were, you know, kissing it, taking pictures of it… You know, they were ignoring him, but they were, like, coveting this golden graven image. And then, I found —

Strogatz: The golden calf, wow, huh.

Keating: — all of a sudden, my iPhone was in my hands, and I took a selfie with it. [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: Oh, no. [LAUGHS]

Keating: And I say in the book, you know, it’s me holding the last Nobel Prize I’ll ever hold.


Strogatz: The journey he describes in the book is a classic mythological journey, if you think of Icarus flying too close to the sun, you know, I mean, it’s a standard tale of hubris, right? That science comes from the spirit, the human spirit to be curious, to be almost godlike, to want to know — you know, it’s such an ancient myth: This is the Tree of Knowledge, this is Adam and Eve and the snake. That we’ve always had this temptation… This is the animating spirit of science: You have to have the nerve to ask the big questions. And anyone who’s going to try to ask what happened at the beginning of the universe has to have an enormous ego. You would — how could you — how dare you ask that question, you know? Yet, what could be a more interesting question? I mean, I think we see all of those tensions in Brian’s story, that he has that big ego, and he’s not alone. This is what all scientists have who are going for big game like that, you know, for the big hunt, and yet sometimes it’s not pretty to look at that. And I think he’s very honest in the way he describes the petty jealousies, the rivalry, the sneaking around, you know, the ambition, all of that. These are all part of the human spirit. And it’s what it takes, I think, sometimes, to do great science, so it doesn’t turn me off. Some people may be repulsed by it, but I — I think it’s the spirit of an explorer.

Strogatz: Well, let me just — so we should close. I just want to say thank you for one thing that you did, that I thought was very thoughtful. Which was, when you sent me a copy of your book — you know what I’m thinking?

Keating: [LAUGHS] Yes.

Strogatz: You included some dust. You included some cosmic dust.

Keating: Yes.

Strogatz: It was — at first, I didn’t really know what it was. It’s a tiny little piece — asteroid, I suppose — is that what it is? I mean, it’s a little piece of metal.

Keating: Yeah, yeah.

Strogatz: But it’s all, you know, jagged-looking and it doesn’t… I don’t know how to even describe it, but it’s a little —

Keating: It’s a meteorite, yeah, it’s a piece of ancient pre-Earth solar system that’s about four billion-plus years old, that traveled through space and time, eventually ended up in Argentina, and then was sent all the way to Ithaca, from San Diego. And it’s been tested by friends of mine at State University of New York and Farmingdale, and they verified its composition is exactly like the type of space dust that vexed the BICEP2 experiment.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS] Well, I love your sense of humor, and it’s very profound, you know, this old thing about ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, and —

Keating: That’s right.

Strogatz: And also, the idea that we are stardust, right? That when the stars explode and spew out their elements, that’s — we’re all made of those atoms. We were born, as Carl Sagan used to like to say, right, we were cooked in the interiors of stars.

Keating: Yeah, we are stardust.

Strogatz: So we really are stardust, and —

Keating: Yeah, hemoglobin, that’s right.

Strogatz: But I thought it was very touching and — so thank you for the, or as we would say in Yiddish, the schmutz that you —

Keating: The schmutz, that’s right! [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: Yeah, that cosmic schmutz. Very nice.


Next time on “The Joy of x,” Moon Duchin applies the most abstract math to one of the biggest threats to our democracy.


“The Joy of x” is a podcast project of Quanta Magazine. We’re produced by Story Mechanics. Our producers are Dana Bialek and Camille Petersen. Our music is composed by Yuri Weber and Charles Michelet. Ellen Horne is our executive producer. From Quanta Magazine, our editorial advisors are Thomas Lin and John Rennie. Our sound engineers are Charles Michelet, and at the Cornell University Broadcast Studio, Glen Palmer and Bertrand Odom-Reed, though I know him as Bert. I’m Steve Strogatz. Thanks for listening.


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