A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor – Dr. Brian Keating

A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor – Dr. Brian Keating

A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor – Dr. Brian Keating

His loss was also his gain … When Dr. Brian Keating was 12 years old, he became entranced by our awe-inspiring universe. Since then, he’s become a distinguished professor, writer and cosmologist. And while he may have lost the Nobel Prize, he gained both knowledge and wisdom — a winning formula for a successful life on Earth. Dr. Keating discusses faith, the origin of the universe and his award-winning book with host Charles Mizrahi.

Topics Discussed:

  • • An Introduction to Brian Keating (00:00:00)
    • Replicating Discovery (00:04:41)
    • The Origins of the Universe (00:09:43)
    • Galileo’s Contribution (00:14:40)
    • The Big Bang (00:20:32)
    • Science and Faith (00:29:00)
    • History of the Nobel Prize (00:33:41)
    • Wrestling with God (00:42:44)
    • Pascal’s Wager (00:48:24)
    • Proof of God (00:57:10)

Guest Bio:

Dr. Brian Keating is a professor, podcaster, inventor and author. When he first peered into the cosmos through a $50-dollar telescope, he was completely blown away. And over the next 30 years, that wonder never faded. It drove him to begin a career in physics and cosmology — studying how and why our universe came to be. It even led him to develop the mother of all cosmology telescopes.

While Dr. Keating lost the Nobel Prize in 2014, he didn’t let that curb his curiosity and drive to understand our existence. Today, he’s a Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of physics at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UC San Diego. Dr. Keating’s incredible book is below…

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

BRIAN KEATING: I’ve basically come to see it as an idol — as a form of a gilded, graven idol with a picture of the patron saint of science, peace, economics and everything else — who is Alfred Nobel. It’s given out amid great fanfare on a holy day in Sweden, which is actually like a national holiday, and you have a feast. It’s not his birthday. It’s his death day. And it has all this regalia. You have to wear certain clothing. You have to bow down to the monarch — the god-king of Sweden. And it’s this eschatological ceremony.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Brian Keating. Brian is a Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of physics at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences in the Department of Physics at the University of California, San Diego.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: His latest book, Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor, reads like a novel. It gives a fascinating history of cosmology — how our universe came into being. Brian also writes about how Alfred Nobel came up with his prize and asks if the award is a good or bad thing for science.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Brian, and we talked about humanity’s fascination with the origins of the universe — and why scientists find it so difficult to believe in God.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Brian, thanks so much for being on the show. I was really anticipating it. I read most of your book. I didn’t get through all the science parts, but I thought it was a fascinating read. I learned so much, and I hope there’s no quiz on cosmology because I think I’ll probably get 20% right.

BRIAN KEATING: It’s OK, Charles. You’ll get some extra credit opportunities after the final exam.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. So, let’s get right into it. For average humans, what is a cosmologist?

BRIAN KEATING: People mistake me because of my beautiful appearance — you can probably tell that if you’re watching the YouTube video — with someone who does hair, nails and makeup. But actually, it shares the same prefix. Cosmology and cosmetology both have this prefix “cosm-,” and that stems from the Greek word for “beautiful” or “appearance.” Anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky realizes it’s beautiful. The stars, planets and moon … It appears as if the universe is kind of centered on and looking at us all the time.

BRIAN KEATING: Like the way a face, or something that’s beautiful in appearance, also appears specifically beautiful — it’s maybe made for our own visual delicacies, so to speak. When we look at the night sky, we’re magically transfixed by it. And since I was a young kid, I’ve been transfixed by the magical nature of looking up and wondering: “What does it all mean? What’s it all there for? Who put it there, if anyone? Could I contribute to the long string of knowledge that has been going on since time immemorial?”

BRIAN KEATING: So, the questions of ultimate importance — the meaning of existence — [are]: “Is there a purpose,” [and] “Is there a creator of the universe?” These are all things that are the purview of cosmology. My book is a memoir of what it feels like to do cosmology — and not to describe in breathless anticipation the whiz-bang features that you’ll never experience, such as wormholes, black holes, extra dimensions, and all sorts of really cool things to speculate about. But what does it feel like to build a telescope and take it down to the bottom of the world or launch it into outer space? What does it feel like to not only wonder about it but do it? That’s what I wanted to write about in my book.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Outstanding. We’ll talk about the telescope in a few minutes. But about 25 years ago, I bought a Celestron telescope. I’m in Brooklyn, and we have a lot of light pollution. There are lights all over the place. It’s really hard to see. So, I stopped trying to find all of the small stars. It was just ridiculous. And this was before computers. So, once you found it, and the Earth was hurling through space, you lost it. So, I said: “All right. The only time I’m going to go out there is when there’s at least a half-moon.” And I want to tell you, when I set it up on the sidewalk, people would walk by and ask: “Can I see?” And when they looked at it, not only their faces but their whole expressions — there were a lot of curse words. Amazement.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: For those of you who have never looked at the moon — not a full moon, but a half or quarter moon because you see the shadows — it is absolutely amazing. It’s awe-inspiring.

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah. One of the most famous astrophysicists and scientists in human history — living today — is one of your neighbors. He goes by the name of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I actually had him on my podcast: Into the Impossible With Brian Keating. He lives not far from you in the Bronx. He was from the Bronx. He’s the director of The Hayden Planetarium. He had a small telescope in the Bronx, which has no less light pollution than you did over in Flatbush. That telescope can reveal exactly the same craters on the moon — moons of Jupiter, phases of Venus and even things like sunspots. If you do it just right, [you can see] an eclipse of the sun. Depending on when you guys hear or watch this, it will have just taken place or may take place.

BRIAN KEATING: These are all things you can see that we’re seen in Galileo’s time — my hero, who plays a big role in my life and book. And this particular fellow was observing things that you can see to this very day. It’s not like you need a Hubble Space Telescope to see things — as you’ve proven, Charles. As Neil deGrasse Tyson describes it in his book, The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, you don’t need this.

BRIAN KEATING: That’s why I say that I’m a doctor but not a real doctor. I don’t help people with their medical issues. But my prescription for all parents is to go on Amazon — or wherever. You don’t need a big telescope to inspire the awe and wonder that I felt when I was a 12-year-old with a $50 telescope that was used to kindle a love of astronomy that I have maintained 40 years later as professional astronomer. As you’ve experienced, when you connect your eyes to a tube that transports you across space and time, your imagination is left completely blown away.

BRIAN KEATING: For some of us, it’ll inspire us to [start] a career. Why would you not want your children or grandchildren to have an experience that might lead them into a career in what’s called STEM — science, technology, engineering and math? Maybe it’s not a guarantee. But if you don’t expose them to it, who knows? You might be depriving them of an opportunity.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember that, at the time, I had little kids. They’d come out with me. The best time, of course, was in the winter months. Orion was right overhead. It was chilly. We’d bundle up. I remember the thrill of seeing the rings of Saturn.

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It was absolutely amazing. I thought it was a mistake, but it was so crystal clear. I said: “Oh my gosh!” I remember running inside, and said to my wife: “Ellen, you’ve got to come out here and see this.” And she said: “Wow, that’s something.”

BRIAN KEATING: It’s funny because when you do that, you’re replicating exactly what Galileo did. There’s no other science that I know about where you can replicate the discovery in a historical fashion — identically to the way that the scientists who discovered the phenomenon did. In other words: You can’t smash together two atoms in the way that Oppenheimer or Fermi did it. You don’t have a particle accelerator lying around. But I don’t know. That studio looks pretty fancy, Charles. Maybe you guys have it over there. But I don’t think you do.

BRIAN KEATING: But you can do exactly what Galileo did and get a taste — a thrill — of what it feels like to look at the moon. With your eye, it doesn’t look that way. But when you look and see a crater or mountain you’ll say: “Holy cow! This doesn’t look like a smooth bowling ball. It looks like it’s got mountains, craters and valleys. That looks just like Earth. It’s not supposed to be like that. Things in space are supposed to be perfect, unmoving and unchanging.” That really changed up the worldview that people had had for millennia.

BRIAN KEATING: Charles, you were replicating not only the optical discovery but also the emotional, visceral discovery. Nowhere else in science is that possible. So, everyone out there, take Dr. Keating’s advice, and get a small telescope. I should be smart, take some investment advice from you and figure out a way to make my own brand of Keating telescopes. But for now, find one on Amazon — a small refracting telescope — that’s under $50 and has a two-inch diameter. You’ll be just fine.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: But even if you get those $300 ones — which are so much better than what I had and a zillion times better than Galileo had. It has a stand. It’s easy. It’s simple. If you just buy it to look at the moon, I guarantee you’re going to get your money’s worth 100 times over.

BRIAN KEATING: You don’t even need that much. That’s overkill. Seriously. Go to my Twitter. Send me a DM on Twitter or Instagram. I’ll find you one that’s $99 or less.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know what, after this, send me that, and I’ll put it in the description so that people can go on there.

BRIAN KEATING: Absolutely.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And maybe we’ll brand it.

BRIAN KEATING: The Mizrahi-Keating Telescope.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, I like that. All right. I want to tell you. I read parts of your book, and I think it’s so amazing. The average person doesn’t think about the things you think about — like how the universe started. When was the Big Bang? How do we measure it? How were they so accurate? How do they know that it’s 13.8 billion and not 13.2 billion years old?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It opened up a whole thing. You know what I find interesting? You could go through your book on a superficial level and just read it as entertainment. And then, you can highlight some parts and say: “I want to learn about this — the red-blue spectrum in lights, Kelvin, and a whole bunch of other things.” But I don’t want to get into that because science is not on this test. I want to ask you this: As humans, why are we so focused or preoccupied with knowing the origins of our universe?

BRIAN KEATING: I think that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. We’re occupied with making a living — the quotidian or daily activities. We don’t have time. Maybe on the weekends we go to church, synagogue or whatever. We don’t get a chance to dwell on the ultimate issues because we’re busy making a living.

BRIAN KEATING: The Bible says: “Six days you shall labor.” It’s a commandment. It’s not optional. That means that, one day a week, you might get a chance to think about ultimate reality. And even on those days, you might have to think about your kids, getting back and forth and doing certain things. Where is the time? Where does it go? We don’t often get time to do that.

BRIAN KEATING: And look, I’m a professional cosmologist. I get paid to study the laws of nature. I get paid to study and teach the laws of nature, the origin of the universe and speculate on things. But most of my day is not about doing that. It’s figuring out: How do I get this graduate student to Chile to get her thesis data on time so that she can graduate and start her next job? Or, how do I teach my lecture on time? How do I get my own personal research grant funded?

BRIAN KEATING: It’s not the thinking about: “What happened during the first trillionth of a second of the universe’s history?” or, “How can we know whether there’s a rival alternative — whether there was a Big Bang or not?” There are some who say that there wasn’t a Big Bang. What would that mean for philosophy, theology, religion or science itself? These are fascinating questions.

BRIAN KEATING: So, as they normally say, man plans, God laughs. We like to think that we are these creatures that aspire to think about the ultimate meaning of life. But we also have to make sure that we get the dry cleaning. When you do have that opportunity, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say … Whenever you find yourself, Charles — or any of the audience out there — thinking about the ultimate meaning, stop for a second. Appreciate that you have the time. You have freedom in the greatest country in the world — protected by the bravest men and women in the world.

BRIAN KEATING: I never lose sight of that fact, by the way. I love that you have a flag in your studio. I have one in my office at UC San Diego. The veterans who served on our behalf — I thank them every day. Because if not, I would be conscripted. I’d be doing something, right? Whenever you get a chance to think about it — maybe you’re listening to me right now — thank somebody that you have the opportunity to do it, and say: “This is what life’s all about.” This — and love from people who you love — is what life is all about. This is what makes mankind different from other animals or individual creatures.

BRIAN KEATING: We have the capacity to consider our ultimate brevity of life and mortality and do something about it. We can understand why we might be here and appreciate the complexity, beauty and wonder of what it’s all about. I think that’s what’s so fascinating about astronomy.

BRIAN KEATING: There are other people who do interesting things in the building that I’m in. They do research in their laboratories and in their equations. They study properties of how different fluids or plasmas flow. Or, perhaps, they study electromagnetic waves and things like that. Those are all interesting. Those are all parts of physics. But they ultimately don’t have a bearing and impingement upon the meaning of reality and the origin of the universe. They don’t infringe upon notions of philosophy and theology.

BRIAN KEATING: So, it’s a very different type of subject to study. And not everyone’s interested in those things. Let’s be honest. For some people, it doesn’t move them. But for those who it does, appreciate that. Maybe it’s a sign that your curiosity is telling you something. I want to learn more about this. There are ample opportunities to do so.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, well said. What you talk about is the history of cosmology and what a wretched life Galileo eventually leads for his curiosity and discoveries. Could you touch upon them so someone like myself could really appreciate what he did, sacrificed and brought to the knowledge base of humanity?

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah. Galileo was superhuman in certain senses. He seemed to have this preternatural, supernatural ability to understand and make measurable things that were previously incomprehensible, unbelievable or impossible to understand. But he also had foibles and flaws like any other human being. He was driven by impulse, ego, fame, attention and even money.

BRIAN KEATING: Now, this will interest you and your listeners in the investment community. One of his books was effectively written about what’s called a slide rule. Remember slide rules from back in your earlier days, Charles? Before we had calculators, iPhones, etc., we used to have to use slide rules. I barely know how to use one. I could kind of get away with one if I had to. But these were calculational devices — a step above an abacus but really far behind a calculator.

BRIAN KEATING: He invented one that would allow you to do all sorts of amazing things in mathematical calculations, geometry and algebra. One thing it could do was it could actually do conversions between currencies. And he goes through this calculation in this book about the slide rule that he had perfected called: Operations of the Geometric and Military Compass, 1606. Don’t ask me why it was called that. Only about 10 or 20 of these original first editions exist.

BRIAN KEATING: He goes through a calculation. He says: “Let’s say you’re in Verona, and you’re going to Venice. You want to convert scudi to ducati. These are the different types of currency. Let’s say you want to convert euros to dollars or Bitcoin to Ethereum. So, here’s how you do it. And he goes through a calculation. He uses a slide rule to do it. Nowadays, you can do it in a millisecond on a computer.

BRIAN KEATING: He goes through and shows you how to do it. And I’m trying to go back in time. I’d say: “Galileo, Galileo.” I wish I could go back in time, Charles. If I could just tell him one thing, I would say: “Screw these ducati and scudi.”

BRIAN KEATING: Nowadays, if you have a thousand scudi — pieces of paper — it’s worth almost nothing. Maybe it’s worth $100 to some collector or historian. It’s almost like dollars will be worth nothing. Nobody uses scudi anymore. They’re pieces of paper or whatever. It doesn’t have any value because it’s a fiat currency of a long bygone age.

BRIAN KEATING: But the book that’s written about the compass — and how to use it — is worth millions of dollars today. Those are worth tremendous amounts of money. I wish I could say: “Galileo, put aside 10 copies of the book for your kids.” He didn’t realize that. He was so obsessed with selling the book and ideas to make money and fame for himself. So, he had all these ideas — and he was so brilliant — but like a lot of my colleagues, he was driven by ambition. And that’s the subtitle of my book: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Seeking Science’s Highest Honors.

BRIAN KEATING: He became world-famous. And that led to his downfall because he attracted the attention of the Catholic Church, which was a political organization. It was also a military organization. And, it was a scientific organization. They weren’t a bunch of rubes who didn’t know anything about science. It had the best scientists in the world, and Galileo was a devout Catholic. His daughters were nuns. And the reason why was because they were born illegitimately. But he had no problem believing. He was a devout Catholic. So, to think that he somehow was antagonistic toward God — nothing could be further from the truth.

BRIAN KEATING: However, he ultimately paid a great price — not the least of which because he didn’t recognize how the limits of his intelligence constrained him. He overestimated how much his intelligence could get him out of sticky situations.

BRIAN KEATING: In the end, he ended up writing a book called: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems — which was subsequent to books that I describe in Losing the Nobel Prize. In this book, he put the words of the Pope — which sort of supported the notion that Earth was at the center of the solar system and therefore the universe — in the mouth of somebody whose name is called: “the simpleton” in Italian. That was a mistake.

BRIAN KEATING: Imagine like putting Fauci or Biden [in there]. You have a guy whose name is “the idiot,” and you write: “Whatever the idiot speaks.” It’s like copying a transcript from our president or Anthony Facui. Some people would probably agree with that. But I’m not going to be political. I’m always apolitical. You know that.

BRIAN KEATING: But the point is: Politically, he was very ignorant and naive. And that was his downfall. He ended up in prison for the rest of his life. He wasn’t tortured. It wasn’t like the prison like Bernie Madoff or Epstein was in. It was actually pretty lavish. I actually had a party and festival in his house — his final resting place — in 2015. It’s a sumptuous villa overlooking the Duomo in Florence, Italy. Nevertheless, he suffered from a lack of political savvy that didn’t match his intellectual and scientific savviness.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, we go from Galileo — who points this out. And then, we go through our time where there are sea changes in thought. The Earth is the center of the universe. Then, it becomes: “Well, we’re not the center of the universe, but we could be the center of the galaxy.” And then we move to other things. I’m going to focus because I want to get to this one point, which is fascinating to me: The Big Bang. Everything about everything was compressed into the smallest dot possible. And, boom! Around 13.8 billion years ago, it exploded. For a layman, do I have that, more or less, right?

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah, for a layperson it’s more or less right. It wasn’t actually at a central point — like there’s some center of the universe. That’s part of the fallacy that human beings have had all along. We always think that we’re the center of the solar system, universe or galaxy.

BRIAN KEATING: Now, we have this theory of the multiverse, which is kind of an extension of that same line of thinking. Somehow, we’re either important in the large landscape of time, space, size or energy. But you’re right. The notion that we are somehow important in the universe’s organization seems to be a very common theme throughout history.

BRIAN KEATING: On one hand, it’s a very secular theme. In other words, we seem to just observe. And due to either illusions or actual fact, we seem to occupy this unquestionably central place — in a certain sense. We’re not too far from the sun. We’re not too close to the sun. We’re not too far from the center of the galaxy. We’re not too close to the center of the galaxy. There is no “center” of the universe. We’re not too close to the Big Bang in time. We’re not too far away.

BRIAN KEATING: We are, arguably, like this. But we also look around and see other forms of life that’s anything like us. We don’t know of any other conscious life like us. So, we’re kind of unique in that sense. We don’t look around on other planets in the solar system. We don’t see other forms of life like we have on Earth — even mold or bacteria — let alone human or technological life.

BRIAN KEATING: Then, we look outside of Earth. We don’t see massive communications or technology anywhere else outside of the Earth. We don’t see credible evidence of UFOs — past double-blind scientific studies. We don’t have samples that we can study in the scientific community. All of this points to an explanation, on one hand, that we’re special.

BRIAN KEATING: But that’s kind of also anathema to scientists. We don’t like to see, in the secular explanation, that we’re unique. We like to say that we’re the consequence of a deterministic process in science. Evolution is blind, penniless and indifferent — as Richard Dawkins said. We are just the evolution of chemicals and molecules that will somehow — given enough time, the right temperature and the right conditions — evolve to form under any circumstances. So, it was inevitable that we would come to exist.

BRIAN KEATING: And yet, we see no other examples of it. So, you have a paradox that you have to explain. One of the ways to explain it is that there are other universes in which there are other examples of planets, stars, galaxies and perhaps other sentient conscious beings [that are] not dissimilar to ourselves. This has become some of the de rigueur rage in scientific circles, such as those that I traffic.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Put that all aside for half a second. We have this moment. I can’t even say time because you’re probably going to correct me and say: “There’s no such thing as time.” But 13.8 billion years ago, something happens, and our universe is born. A cosmologist’s job is to try and figure out what happened in that nanosecond after or before?

BRIAN KEATING: Cosmology is concerned with the origin and evolution of the universe. It has less to say about what preceded the origin of the universe. Although, it is now becoming part of acceptable cosmology activity to speculate on scenarios prior to the origin of the universe.

BRIAN KEATING: It used to be ridiculed. Stephen Hawking used to say things like: “Asking what happened before the beginning of the universe is like asking what is north of the North Pole.” It’s a nonsensical question. You can’t go north of the North Pole, by definition. It’s as far north as north can be. By his point, he would say that the origin of time itself leaves no room for anything before time.

BRIAN KEATING: But now, cosmologists do and can speculate on scenarios that could have answered the question: “What happened on the Tuesday before the Big Bang?”

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Good. So, without getting into any more science — because it’s way out of my circle of competence — I have one thought that keeps bothering me. What I’m trying to understand is: It looks like, as humans, we’re never going to figure out what happened in the nanosecond before the Big Bang. Why is it so difficult for scientists to believe in a higher being or God?

BRIAN KEATING: That’s a complicated question. First of all, as a scientist, you should never give up on the question of initial conditions — what came before. You could ask the same question of a biologist. Someone who studies a chicken — the chicken or the egg. Why should you study what happens after the fertilization of the egg — the DNA, embryology and how it develops. Why should you study it?

BRIAN KEATING: If you have this chicken, and you can see how it grows, evolves and functions, then you can study its environment. How does it fit in? What does it eat? What’s its sociology like? What’s its pecking order? There’s very rich scientific subject matter that you could study. How does it fit into the animal or bird kingdom? How is it related to dinosaurs? It could go into vast scientific literature. Scientists are fascinated by that. “Stop there, scientist,” you might say. No! No scientist worth his or her salt is going to stop there.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me clarify. You’re right. Let me be more specific. Since we’re probably never going to have certainty of what happened a millisecond before the Big Bang — let’s assume that to be the case. Is that a fair assumption?

BRIAN KEATING: Well, no. You really can’t say that. If you had asked Einstein — exactly 100 years ago today — you would have gotten an answer. You would have asked: “Was there a Big Bang?” And he would have said: “Of course not.” This would be after all of his relativity equations and after he won the Nobel Prize. He would say: “Are you crazy? The universe is static.”

BRIAN KEATING: In fact, they didn’t know the universe was even evolving until 1929. So, you’re talking only 90 years ago. So, it’s very dangerous to say: “It’s safe to say, ‘X'” — as you just said. So, I wouldn’t agree with that. I don’t mean this as an insult, Charles. But that’s not a scientific approach to say: “We’re never going to know ‘X.’” As scientists, we don’t say that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. OK. I’m not going to rephrase this question because the more I do, the more trouble I get in. The thing that I want to try and understand is until we can figure out what happened in the nanosecond before the Big Bang, why is it difficult for many scientists to accept that there’s a higher being or God?

BRIAN KEATING: That’s a better question. We can even exclude the conditional aspect of “until we find out ‘X'” because they’ll always be people. For example, let me take you back to my field, specifically, which is called the cosmic microwave background. It’s this all-pervasive radiation field discovered in northern New Jersey in 1965 — not far from where you are. It was the best thing that ever happened to New Jersey. No, just kidding. I love New Jersey.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s Holmdel, New Jersey, right?

BRIAN KEATING: Yes. Holmdel, New Jersey.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: [It’s] right off the Garden State Parkway.

BRIAN KEATING: Yep. It’s great.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s a national historic site.

BRIAN KEATING: It is! I visited there. I have a picture with a good friend of mine, Fred Carl. He helped me visit there. It’s a wonderful place. It’s now owned by Nokia — that wonderful facility.

BRIAN KEATING: Before that discovery, people thought that the universe was essentially static — or could have been assumed to be unchanging. It didn’t have a singular origin. You could have made your living as a cosmologist forever. In fact, some of the most vehement vocal opponents of the Big Bang had a model called the “steady state,” which held that the universe was effectively unchanging over any normal, modest timescales that you could think about.

BRIAN KEATING: So, the Big Bang, which was ushered in through observations by Edwin Hubble — they made fun of it. In fact, the phrase “Big Bang” is an insult — allegedly — in British English. I don’t know how old your audience is, but you can look up what it means in British English. It’s apparently a euphemism for something that shall not be mentioned on polite company radio. The point is that it was an insult. It was preposterous. It was a big bang. It’s a joke. It was mocked.

BRIAN KEATING: Now, we don’t think of it as a mockery. In fact, we think of it as the standard model of how the universe began. Everybody knows. But when this was discovered, people could have said: “Well, why don’t all scientists believe in Genesis 1:1 — The Beginning? Now, we know there was a beginning, right?”

BRIAN KEATING: Well, no. You can’t be so clear. Was there a beginning? Were there multiple beginnings? Are there parallel universes — each undergoing their own beginnings? So, it’s very dangerous to pick and choose. I think a scientist could legitimately say things like that, but I don’t personally.

BRIAN KEATING: Why do you choose a particular God? In other words, a scientist will say: “I’m an atheist, and you’re an atheist, too, Charles. Except, you believe in one more God than I do.” In other words, you’ve ruled out infinite or pantheistic gods — the God of Jupiter or Mars. You only believe in one God. I just take it one more step. That’s one argument that I’ve heard.

BRIAN KEATING: Or, they say that there’s a deistic approach. God created the universe, but then he disappeared. So, God instantiated the laws of physics. God instantiated the universe before that. And then, he’s gone.

BRIAN KEATING: Can you prove that God didn’t set all the laws of the universe into motion? The laws of the Torah, the Book of Genesis, Exodus — maybe that’s an alternative. I think that requiring scientists believe in God because we have a model of cosmology — or questioning them — might be asking too much of a theory of physics.

BRIAN KEATING: [Take] the word “science.” I did a Prager U video about this. The word “science” means knowledge. It doesn’t mean wisdom. And the word for the Bible in the original Hebrew is “Torah.” And “Torah” equates to wisdom. It doesn’t mean knowledge. In other words, I don’t teach my kids calculus using the Torah, and I don’t teach them wisdom using Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s astrophysics books or even Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize. They’re very different modalities of thinking. I think we have to be very careful when we try to translate one branch of knowledge and convert it into wisdom. That’s very difficult and perilous to do.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s very fair. You were pretty close to winning a Nobel Prize for your invention — which we’ll talk about in a second. It was for what you discovered. Was that only you or several other people? I’m not sure.

BRIAN KEATING: The idea was mine — with some colleagues. And then, we upgraded it to a new experiment — like the way we upgrade iPhones. It went from what I called BICEP to BICEP2. And BICEP2 made the announcement that the team had discovered unequivocal evidence. Essentially, if you think of the Big Bang as a sort of explosion, we discovered the spark that ignited it. That was sort of the analogy that we mentioned. It was called inflation.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, right. Oh, that was inflation! I kept looking at that. You described it as a spark, but I probably saw “inflation” and thought about business, money and finance.

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah, that’s right. I quote one of the first winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics. It went to Milton Friedman for the theory of monetary inflation. I make a couple of jokes about that in the book.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, so when you didn’t win the Nobel Prize, you started to take a hard look at what it was originally developed for, where it is today and the law of unintended consequences. Is the Nobel Prize helping or hurting science? Could you touch on that?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I didn’t get the sense that this is sour grapes. I lost it. Let me just piss all over the Nobel Prize. You didn’t do that. I was listening to one of your talks — Talks at Google. You basically spoke about the origin of the Nobel Prize and the whole point of it. It could be the greatest discovery. You can never get a Nobel Prize. I think there was a handful of women — three or four — who had gotten the Nobel Prize.

BRIAN KEATING: There were only two when I wrote it. Now, it has doubled. Now, it’s four.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Due to anti-Semitism, Einstein didn’t get the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity. So, you’re seeing all of these things. Briefly, Brian — because I’d love to have a show just about the Nobel Prize — share with us what Alfred Nobel originally intended for the prize to be and what it has become.

BRIAN KEATING: Alfred Nobel was a bachelor for his whole life. He had no children or wife. He wanted the prize to be his legacy to redeem the fact that he had become one of the world’s richest men by inventing one of its most deadly explosives: dynamite. That was one of his most lucrative patents in history up until that time.

BRIAN KEATING: He became so wealthy, and he had no heirs. He wanted to rehabilitate the Nobel name. He created this prize to — in his words — reward the person who had, “during the preceding year, conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” through an invention or discovery in physics.

BRIAN KEATING: This became a mission statement when I was asked to nominate the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize. [It was] soon after a humiliating defeat and [we] had to retract the discovery that our team made — as being attributed not to the origin and the birth pangs of the universe but rather what’s known as “cosmic dust” and interstellar planetary dust floating around in our universe, which masqueraded as the signals we were seeking. That was an example that I had of comfort.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me just interrupt. Throughout your book, a lot of greater scientists than yourself have been fooled by dust.

BRIAN KEATING: Yes.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It seems that dust is the bane of every great scientist in a discovery.

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It totally throws everything off. You’re in good company. You’re in great company.

BRIAN KEATING: Luckily, my favorite Peanuts characters is Pigpen — not Charlie Brown. Dust is this mercurial character in the book who’s the villain — in some sense — but also the hero. Without dust, we would not be here. We actually have cosmic dust in the hemoglobin molecule in our blood — as I describe in the book.

BRIAN KEATING: But more to the point, Alfred Nobel wanted to reward the scientist who made the greatest invention or discovery. And it was right around the turn of the century when he died — in 1896. That was right when the X-ray machine was invented by Wilhelm Röntgen — in 1895. In 1896, this award first got started. The award was given for the first time in 1901. It was immediately for making the world better.

BRIAN KEATING: This discovery enabled people to see broken bones, tooth problems and so forth. That was the paradigm for an invention that made the world immediately better. A single person invented it in the preceding year. That became my paradigm to look for. Well, how is it being given out today?

BRIAN KEATING: I found that, in contrast, the award is now being given to three people for discoveries made decades ago that have essentially no bearing on their daily human life. So, I started to think of myself. In Judaism, the highest mitzvah that you can do is to take care of the needs of the dead because they can’t repay you. So, it’s a totally selfless mitzvah.

BRIAN KEATING: I started to think: Who’s going to advocate for Alfred Nobel? He has no kids, family or heirs. Not to be too grandiose, but I started to look at it from that perspective. All the while, I’m dealing with my own father’s untimely passing — thinking about his wishes and how to honor him. And I was asked by the Nobel committee to nominate the winner. So, I started to go through this exercise.

BRIAN KEATING: At any rate, I found that the Nobel committee had a different optimization that it was working toward — which was to maximize its attention, fame, credibility and power. As a power broker, it is essentially a monopoly. There’s no other award on the surface of the Earth that confers the instantaneous celebrity, power or authority as the Nobel Prize. There’s no other brand. It has the strongest brand recognition.

BRIAN KEATING: You may have heard rumors. I read in the newspaper recently that Bill and Melinda Gates believed that they were in the short running for the Nobel Peace Prize. More power to them for all the great work that they do. This is all alleged, but part of the divorce … According to The New York Post — so take it with a grain of salt — that went into some of the timing. They announced this divorce after the Nobel Prize nomination deadline, which occurred in January. So, they just announced it in May.

BRIAN KEATING: Some say that was part of it. Again, this all anonymous, so take it with a grain of salt. But it’s the world’s richest man and woman. That they are concerned with this shows you its power. That’s the only reason I bring it up. I don’t take any pleasure in any of the personal struggles that they’re going through. This is just to illustrate that this is the most coveted of all things. I started to look at it from my perspective. Why did I want it so much? I go through that in the book.

BRIAN KEATING: I’ve basically come to see it as an idol — as a form of a gilded, graven idol with a picture of the patron saint of science, peace, economics and everything else — who is Alfred Nobel. It’s given out amid great fanfare on a holy day in Sweden, which is actually like a national holiday, and you have a feast. It’s not his birthday. It’s his death day. And it has all this regalia. You have to wear certain clothing. You have to bow down to the monarch — the god-king of Sweden. And it’s this eschatological ceremony.

BRIAN KEATING: I started to think: “If I can fall victim to it — as a practicing Jew — and worship a gilded graven image, how about the people who are secular and not as rooted in the existence of a higher power as I am?” If I can be swayed by its illustrious, idolatrous powers, maybe that’s some service that I can do — not to diminish it or take it down but to use the power of the prize to reform it so that I can have some of the luster that it could have to agitate for betterment of the planet — as Alfred Nobel so nobly wanted for this prize.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think that the price of the book is worth it just for the Nobel Prize story. His family, dynamite, glycerin, nitroglycerin — phenomenal stuff. I really enjoyed that. So, you mentioned that you’re an observant Jew.

BRIAN KEATING: Yes.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Is that how you were raised?

BRIAN KEATING: No, I was raised a devout Catholic. Both of my parents were biological Jews, which makes you Jewish. We would go to synagogue maybe twice a year on Christmas and Easter. We’d celebrate Christmas and Easter with the religious tradition of Chinese food. We were not observant at all. We’d want to assimilate as much as we were.

BRIAN KEATING: My parents got divorced, unfortunately, and my mother remarried an Irish Catholic man by the name of Keating. And his family was quite large. He had nine brothers and sisters — an Irish Catholic family from the Bronx. And I fell in love with that tradition.

BRIAN KEATING: My mother, older brother and I were confirmed and baptized. I actually became an altar boy in the church of St. John and St. Mary in Chappaqua, New York. I served as an altar boy under Monsignor Robert Skelly, who is one of my closest mentors and friends. He’s a wonderful man with a sense of humor, warmth and gregariousness. I used to pass the collection basket, pass out the communion wafers and have the Kiddush wine. I would do it all. And I learned so much about the New Testament for many years.

BRIAN KEATING: Then, when I was 12 years old — Jewish boys, at that time, would be preparing for their bar mitzvahs — I got my first telescope. And my telescope took me in a different direction. It led me to learn about Galileo. It led me to learn about science and mathematics. I became entranced — especially about Galileo. I learned how he was treated by the Catholic Church. This was in the late 1980s.

BRIAN KEATING: At that time, and even to this day, Galileo has not been pardoned by the Catholic Church for his statement on heliocentrism — the notion that the sun is the center of the solar system. Pope John Paul II did rule that Galileo was right, but he was never formally pardoned. That was issued in 1992. But certainly, in the mid-1980s, when I was becoming fascinated by Galileo, the case had not been adjourned yet. So, I was quite disillusioned. I fell out of becoming a practicing Catholic. I stopped going to church. I lost my religion.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: How old were you then?

BRIAN KEATING: I was 13.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: At 13, you came to these kinds of big questions? That’s a big theological question.

BRIAN KEATING: Well, I have to say that there was one other motive, Charles. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this. I wanted to become a priest in the Catholic Church. At the same time, as a 13-year-old boy, I was developing some other things — some hormones and other interests besides the night sky. I started to think: “Do I really want to go all the way as a Catholic priest? No, maybe not.”

BRIAN KEATING: That was not an insignificant component to my motivation to be honest with you, Charles. It wasn’t all the purity of secular thinking and humanism. But rather, it partially had to do with the disillusionment about the prospect of and taking a vow of celibacy. Then, throughout high school, science was my religion. I became seriously committed to science. I went to college.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: How did your stepfather deal with that?

BRIAN KEATING: At that time, they were struggling financially. Marriage eventually ended in divorce for them as well. So, I think they had other issues. I don’t remember going to church very much. Money was very tight for me growing up — for them, too. I almost had to leave college for lack of funds at the end of my freshman year.

BRIAN KEATING: Thank goodness my university, Case Western — shout out to them — provided funds for me. I did well on my SAT’s and everything. So, I was able to stay in school. And thank God because I wouldn’t be talking to you now as a professor at the University of California, San Diego if I was kicked out for lack of funds. Things worked out.

BRIAN KEATING: Eventually, after September 11, I started to pick my head up. I was flying on that day. I was supposed to fly to Chicago from Los Angeles, where I was at Caltech — building BICEP and getting all of that together. I started to realize: “Wait a second. I know so much more about Catholicism, atheism, humanism and even Islam because of these events.” I knew nothing about Judaism. I didn’t know Hebrew. I never had a bar mitzvah.

BRIAN KEATING: I wanted to learn more about the religion of my birth. I started to study with some rabbis in Los Angeles, which is the second biggest community outside of New York. I fell in love with the community and rituals. I started to teach myself Hebrew. I read the Torah for the first time in English. I slowly learned Hebrew — very slowly. I’m still learning it.

BRIAN KEATING: Then, I resolved that I wanted to get married to someone who was Jewish. I was dating someone who was Catholic at the time. And that was a challenge to separate from someone I cared about to find somebody I felt would continue the tradition. My girlfriend was a very serious Catholic and not interested in converted to Judaism. I wasn’t going to stay converted to Catholicism after going back to Judaism. That was a tough decision to make. But I did it.

BRIAN KEATING: I have nothing but good experiences to say for it. It’s been a challenge. Learning Hebrew at age 28 or 29, trying to raise a family, being a part of a community, continuing to learn as a practicing scientist and trying to keep that separate…

BRIAN KEATING: I never proselytize. It’s not part of who I am. I try to set an example. If people are interested in the example, I can debate. I have had many debates lately with so-called “intelligent design” proponents — with Christians from places like the Discovery Institute. Stephen Meyer.

BRIAN KEATING: I’m looking forward to having folks like William Lane Craig — these are prominent Christians — on my podcast, Into the Impossible, which is on YouTube and iTunes. I love talking about the big-picture issues because like I said, life gets in the way. But this is the length and life of your days. They are why we are here. This is what separates us from those who sweat and toil by the sweat of their brows. They shall live. We need to recognize what makes us uniquely human.

BRIAN KEATING: When you have that experience — when you stop and think: “Wow, I just thought about the ultimate meaning of life” — stop for a second. Think: “I am a human being.” I don’t care if you believe in anything or nothing at all. But you just did something amazing that no other creature we know about in the known universe can do. It’s an amazing thing, and we should do it more often.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you are kind of a rarity — a scientist who has a firm and serious belief in God. Would you say that’s a rarity? Is that commonplace, or what?

BRIAN KEATING: It’s definitely a rarity. I think for me the question comes down to one of practice versus belief. Scientists have problems with pure belief without evidence. So, I hear a lot of things like: “If I had evidence — if God comes down and speaks to me…”

BRIAN KEATING: A friend of mine is coming on my podcast — Lawrence Krauss. He’s ethnically Jewish. He wrote a book called: A Universe from Nothing. He had Woody Allen on — another Jew. Again, these are Jews. I’ve had on Noam Chomsky. Bernie Sanders — I don’t consider these people particularly exemplary of Jewish [faith]. Maybe they had their bar mitzvahs. Maybe they’re more Jewish, in that sense, than me. But I can hold my own with any of them in terms of my knowledge of the Talmud, Torah or even the New Testament.

BRIAN KEATING: Typically, what they’ll do is they will stop their Jewish education at age 13. I didn’t even start my Jewish education until age 28. So, I came to it with the maturity, intellect, swagger or whatever of a mature, Ph.D. scientist. But I can look critically. I can talk about my qualms with it with anybody. And that’s OK.

BRIAN KEATING: What does the word “Israel” mean in Hebrew? You know this, but for the benefit of some listeners who don’t, it means “struggle with God.” It means “wrestle” or “fight” with God. It doesn’t mean intentionally being a jerk and picking everything apart for your own self-aggrandizement — as some militant atheists like Dawkins does.

BRIAN KEATING: But the point is that you should struggle with it. You should wrestle with it and not be complacent. When you do, it’s just like building a muscle or working out. If you don’t work out — if you don’t struggle with the weights — you’re never going to develop anything. I want to develop those mental muscles that cause me to get stronger as a scientist and know how to talk to people — the public that pays my salary.

BRIAN KEATING: That’s part of my mission on my YouTube channel. I digest scientific findings in my field so that a layperson can understand and appreciate them because they pay my salary — and also with religion as well.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Did you come to God the way Pascal came to him — with Pascal’s Wager? Was it that kind of thought process?

BRIAN KEATING: In my book, I describe Pascal’s Wager. For your listeners who may not know, Pascal’s Wager is essentially saying that you should live as if God exists. If you live as if he doesn’t, and he does, the punishment is infinite damnation. Whereas, if you live as if he does, and he doesn’t, then you might have wasted some time or money going to church or synagogue. But you won’t be punished because he doesn’t exist. If you live as if he does, and he does, then you’ll be rewarded by the infinite bliss of the afterlife.

BRIAN KEATING: It a game-theory approach to things. I approached my father’s final months with a Pascal’s Wager approach. As I describe in the book, I had a difficult relationship with my father after being abandoned by him as a young, seven-year-old. I had a great challenge wrestling with the notion of the Fifth Commandment — honoring him despite the damage that he did to me personally and psychologically — but also the damage that he could have done to my career as a 25-, 26-, or 27-year-old.

BRIAN KEATING: At the height of my career, I had to honor and take care of him — the man who had not taken care of me. But I abided by the practice of the Fifth Commandment — looking at it like a checklist and knowing that the Torah and Talmud don’t care why you give Tzedakah or charity. It doesn’t care if you wanted to do it. Who wants to give 10%? Do I really want to give away all this money? No, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to pay my taxes, but I do it because I have to. I felt that I had to do this. So, that was part of the Pascal’s Wager approach.

BRIAN KEATING: And it was unique. The Fifth Commandment is the only commandment that gives a reward. It says: “Honor thy mother and thy father, and your days will be lengthened on the Earth.” What does that mean? Does that mean I’m going to live longer? Does that mean that I’m going to be safe? I didn’t know what that meant. I still don’t know what it means. But I know that the life of my days was lengthened.

BRIAN KEATING: My life is better because of it. I know that my relationship with my kids and spouse is better because of it. So, it’s already been borne out to be true. And in that sense, Pascal’s Wager has paid off. I like to say, as I’ve heard it said: “The question is not ‘Do I believe in God?’ You should live as if there’s a question of if God believes in you.”

BRIAN KEATING: You can never prove that God exists. You can say that you have evidence. Some people have personal experiences. I’m not here to dispute that. They don’t necessarily play out in the scientific realm with a double-blind study and a peer-reviewed journal like Science and Nature. You can’t imagine that occurring — not to deny people’s experiences.

BRIAN KEATING: But by the same token, that’s not the role of religion and faith. That’s the whole notion of faith versus evidence. They’re different things. I think that a balanced person should strive to have both.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: By the way — because you schooled me on the on the Big Bang and a whole bunch of other things — there is only one other place in the Torah — the five books Moses — where it gives a reward. And that’s in Deuteronomy 22 — the mother bird.

BRIAN KEATING: That’s right. You know what I use that for? I use that as a Shabbat speech. I use that on Mother’s Day because the mothers are more important than the fathers, Charles. I hate to break it to you. The mothers are one of the two parents that’s mentioned twice for awards. They’re mentioned in the Fifth Commandment and the mother bird. The father is mentioned once.

BRIAN KEATING: People out there: You only get one mother and father. But take care of your mother. Thank God my mother is still alive and well. I love her to pieces. We’re going to be celebrating her 80th birthday soon. I can’t believe it. I love you, Mom. Hopefully, she’ll see this before her 80th birthday.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s great. I have a last question for you, Brian. We spoke a couple of weeks ago. I asked you: Knowing what you know about science, cosmology, and everything that, in a hundred lifetimes, I’m never going to figure out, but this is your field of study…

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I asked: “When you think of God, what do you think of? You said: “Charles, that’s a little complicated for now.” But I said: “Give me proof that God exists.” And you said: “Extravagance.” I thought about that over the past few days, and I really liked your definition. Before we go, could you share with us what you mean by that?

BRIAN KEATING: Yeah. Of course, I would never say that there’s proof. Because if there’s proof, then you wouldn’t get credit for believing in God. I have proof that gravity exists. I have evidence that gravity exists. It’s different.

BRIAN KEATING: Now, is there evidence that God exists? We look around, and we know that there’s only one human being. There are many types of monkeys. There are many types of birds. One of my daughters is fascinated by reptiles. She has a book that’s very thick. It’s 800 pages. It’s like 0.05% of all the reptiles on Earth. I don’t know how she knows them all. I don’t know where the heck they get these things from. Anyway, she knows them all. I don’t know any of them. And I’m like: “But why is there only one human being?”

BRIAN KEATING: Homo sapiens sapiens means: “man who knows that he knows.” What does he know? He knows that he’s going to die. No other animal knows that they’re going to die. You know what else we know? We know that we have extravagance. There’s more than one taste. There’s more than one color.

BRIAN KEATING: And you know what else I’ve been thinking about since I told you that? There’s even more extravagance, Charles. You and I see colors. I see the red, white and blue of the Old Glory behind you. But when I see that red color, I have no idea if I see the same red that you call “red.”

BRIAN KEATING: In other words, there’s extravagance upon extravagance. God, if you will, implanted upon us the ability to experience extravagance upon a spectrum of possibilities. Each one of us has a spectrum. And just imagine: When you fly in a plane, or you look down from a building in a city, each light that you see is perceived differently by every human being. We all see each color and taste each taste. We all see it, but we all experience it differently.

BRIAN KEATING: It could be that we all experience just one color — black, white or no colors. Or, each taste — it’s just like salty and sweet. There are four different dimensions on the tongue. Salty, sweet, bitter and heat. That’s all God could have done. And yet, there’s “crème fraiche” and “Texas barbecue.” There’s an infinite palate. Why is that? There’s no need for that. There is an infinite number of musical notes. There could be two.

BRIAN KEATING: You could encode all of human information with what’s called the binary code. Zero and one. That means you could encode all this information right now. I’m seeing the color red in your flag because of zeros and ones. That’s proof. Now, if I’m there in person, it’s slightly different. It’s analog. It’s not digitized. But it’s amazing. It’s beautiful that we have this ability to not only see a spectrum but also see this spectrum uniquely and individually.

BRIAN KEATING: The candle flame that you see is different from my candle flame. The taste of a delicious vegetable is different for you and a sweet for me. It’s different. We’ll never know it. We can only try to explain it in words — and we can’t capture in words. I call that: extravagance to the infinite power. I find that beautiful and delightful.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Outstanding. [We have] Brian Keating with Losing the Nobel Prize. Thanks so much. You have to come back on the show another time.

BRIAN KEATING: I would love it.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: We have so many more things to talk about. I really enjoyed it. If you get this book, you’ll have a history of the story of cosmology. You’ll learn about the Nobel Prize. You’ll learn about Brian getting a telescope at 12 years old. What I found interesting — and I won’t even go on there — were the pictures, in Galileo’s own hand, of what he saw. I said: “Holy smokes! It makes all the sense in the world.” For those of you who look at the stars and planets, it’s absolutely amazing. Brian, thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

BRIAN KEATING: Thank you, Charles. It’s been a real pleasure for me as well.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.

 

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