Former Alter Boy Turned Orthodox Jewish Astrophysicist Smashes Science’s Golden Calf

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp April 25, 2018


keating-at-the-south-poleTo suggest that UC San Diego Professor Brian Keating has lived many different lives is an understatement.  When he decided to write a tell-all exposé on humanity’s most coveted prize, it marked just the latest chapter of his fascinating life.

Keating was born to two Jewish, albeit non-practicing, parents.  Following his parent’s divorce and remarriage, he adopted the religion of his stepfather, a practicing Roman Catholic.  And then things got really interesting. At the age of thirteen, when most Jewish boys begin preparing for their Bar Mitzvahs, Brian became an altar boy.

For his birthday that year, he received his first telescope, a gift that would change his life. Peering into the night sky, Brian was hooked. He became a “celestial evangelist,” learning everything he could about astronomy and trying to share his love of the night with everyone he knew. Along the way, the budding scientist became enthralled with the life of the great Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. But the way the Vatican had treated his hero deeply disappointed Brian. After all, as Galileo once said, “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” When he learned that as of 1986, the Church hadn’t pardoned the great man, Brian became incensed and disillusioned with Catholicism. Brian’s estrangement from organized religion persisted throughout his teenage years.

In college, he had become a devout atheist, determined that science and the laws of nature were the only higher powers he needed.  Brian’s academic career quickly took off; he obtained his B.S. from Case Western Reserve University in 1993, his M.S. from Brown University in 1995, and his Ph.D. from Brown University in 2000.  He was a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech from 2000 until he became a professor of physics at UCSD in 2004.

Brian began working with and learning from the leading cosmologists in the field, eventually focusing his studying on the universe’s oldest light, known as the cosmic microwave background, using it to glean information about the origin and evolution of the universe. Keating was a pioneer in the search for the earliest physical evidence of the inflationary epoch, the theorized period of expansion of space in the early universe immediately after the Big Bang.

Keating soon learned that building a research group of young scientists at UC San Diego was nearly as difficult as building a massive telescope in Antarctica. But build he did and he and his team of UC San Diego students would eventually take the telescope, which Keating named BICEP, to the South Pole. There, from the very bottom of the world, they studied the earliest moments of cosmic history. Brian seemed hot on the trail of the Big Bang, a sure ticket to winning the Nobel Prize. The discoveries he and his colleagues made about the origins of the universe made headlines around the world and put him at the top of the world of academia.  Yet, his studies would lead him to two unexpected places; one in the world of science, the other in the world of religion.

Scientifically, Brian’s Nobel dreams evaporated, as described in the central narrative of his new book. Nevertheless in 2016, he was called upon by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, to nominate others for the prize. As he researched the original intent of Alfred Nobel, and the process of selecting the winners, he discovered a sinister reality lurking at the heart of science’s highest honor.  He discovered that the prize had morphed from Alfred’s noble vision into a religion of its own.  The faithful of the religion Keating calls “Nobelism” are often the scientists who pride themselves as the great rationalists of our times. Yet, they seemed to be more similar to fervent practitioners of a strange cult worshipping golden images, partaking in ritual feasts, observing numerous holidays, and presided over by a unique clerical body.

A more troubling realization about the prize, Keating discovered, was how it actually impedes scientific progress rather than pushing it forward. He recognized that the body that awards the prize are a group of gender and racially homogeneous scientists (primarily white, European men) and the recipients nowadays do not reflect the broad diversity of the modern scientific community. Because so many young scientists aspire to win the prize, the lack of true representation stifles creativity, motivation and discovery.

Parallel to Brian’s disillusionment with the prize came his return to the religion of his birth. In the firestorm that followed September 11, 2001, Brian noticed how Israel, Judaism, Christianity and America were so central to many of the world’s most important events. He couldn’t help but admit that his knowledge of the religion of his birth was sorely lacking. His passion for learning eventually brought him to a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He became Jewishly observant, joined an Orthodox synagogue, and along with his wife, are raising their children to practice Judaism.

Brian Keating’s spiritual journey and his crusade to return the Nobel Prize to the original vision of the founder are captured in his upcoming book, “Losing the Nobel Prize,” recently voted one of Amazon’s ten best nonfiction books of the month.  Professor Keating speaks extensively all around the world, and looks to profoundly elevate the conversation around science, religion, and how we value scientific contribution.  Brian Keating will be reading from his book at the Dove Library in Carlsbad on Thursday, June 7


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