Category Archives: Science

Losing the Nobel Prize

When Alfred Nobel stipulated the creation of the Nobel Prize in 1895, the inventor of dynamite could hardly have guessed that the award – considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious honor – would often come at the expense of the very careers and the disciplines Nobel sought to promote. Per Nobel’s will the Prize is ostensibly awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” but it has arguably fallen short of that commendable goal on several occasions.

In Losing the Nobel Prize, his provocative and incisive critique of the award, physicist and cosmologist Brian Keating addresses what he calls the Nobel’s “systematic biases,” noting that by its nature the Prize discourages communal efforts among scientists, and during its history has lauded such questionable pursuits as lobotomy and eugenics. Recipients have included Nazis and war criminals, but surprisingly few women. Upon reflection, perhaps not so surprising; Nobel’s will states that:

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not. [Emphasis added]

Since its inception, only two women have been awarded the physics prize, and none in over fifty years.

Keating is uniquely equipped to offer a perspective on the Nobel Prize. He is the inventor of BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), the most powerful cosmological telescope ever made, and co-leader of the team that conducted the BICEP2 experiments that lead to discovery of “the spark that ignited the Big Bang.” After much drama and debate that discovery was subsequently proven to be a cosmic mirage, but in the interim Keating found himself drawn into the headlong pursuit of the Nobel medal, encountering competitiveness, intrigue, and naked ambition along the way. The lessons Keating learned in losing the Nobel Prize serve as a cautionary tale about abandoning the collaborative spirit in pursuit of a near-unobtainable prize, but also as a prescription for radical, much-needed reform of the world’s most coveted award.

Following his talk Keating chats with David Brin, noted science fiction author and futurist, in a lively conversation about the nature of scientific enquiry, the merit of awarding scientific prizes, the importance of collaboration, the need for transparency, and the urgent need to improve communication between scientists, policy makers, and the general public. Above all, both men stress that those lessons learned by Keating and outlined in his book may ultimately prove to be more valuable than the prize itself.

Watch Losing the Nobel Prize with Brian Keating


NASA and International Cooperation

32822The 12th NASA Administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., shares how NASA’s programs and missions function as an instrument of international cooperation, demonstrating the steady guidance of the United States as the world’s leader.

Watch NASA International Cooperation – An Instrument of US Soft Power with Charles Bolden – 2017 Nierenberg Prize Lecture


New GRIT Talks from UCSB

842Get an up-close look at ground-breaking research and innovative technology from UCSB. Geared towards the community, these talks present the best minds from UCSB covering a wide-range of topics in science, medicine, technology and more. Check out these recent programs:

The Challenges That Society Brings to Engineering Designs
Understand the unique challenges that surface when seeking to design and control physical infrastructure such as transportation networks, power grids and data centers.

Why Antibiotics Fail – People Are Not Petri Plates
The standard antibiotic test used worldwide is based on how well drugs kill bacteria on petri plates — not in the body. Drugs that pass the standard test often fail to treat bacterial infections, whereas drugs identified by the “in vivo” test are very effective.

How Biology, Ecology, and Technology Balance Tradeoffs in an Uncertain World
Do complex systems exhibit fundamental properties? This talk looks at tradeoffs between robustness and fragility that occur in biological, ecological, and technological systems.

From Bitcoin to Central Bank Digital Currencies
Rod Garratt, UCSB Professor of Economics, describes his work on a project to build a proof of concept for a wholesale interbank payment system that facilitates payments of central bank digital currency using a distributed ledger.

Overcoming Climate Anxiety at a Time of Global Crisis
Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez discusses how humans can contribute to improving current ocean problems and eventually return the oceans to a more sustainable state.

The Remarkable Learning Abilities of the Human Brain
Greg Ashby studies how people learn new categories of objects. By mapping the neural networks, scientists have been able to identify many important and surprising differences in how we learn.

The Future of Computer Science: The Rock We Tricked Into Thinking
Explore the state of the art in computing and how the demands for energy efficient and intelligent systems is driving the creation of entirely new approaches to the problem.

The Math of Swarming Robots, Superconductors, and Slime Mold
Explore the mathematics underlying systems of interacting agents and how such systems can be analyzed using an age old scientific technique: what happens if we poke it?

Check out these programs and more on UCSB’s GRIT Talks.


More Dirt for Kids!

32822Rob Knight, the academic superstar who is leading the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego, says it’s important for kids to get dirty! He explains that exposing children to natural bacteria in the environment trains their immune systems how to respond to foreign threats. So, resist that urge to sterilize everything kids touch because you’re not helping. Instead, let them roll around in the grass, swim in rivers and the ocean, and cuddle with dogs. You might wince at the contact, but the germs they meet will make them stronger in the long run.

To learn more, check out Rob’s book, “Dirt is Good,” or watch him here:

Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs For Your Child’s Developing Immune System with Rob Knight


Superbugs and Antibiotics

32822We’ve all heard about superbugs, bacterial infections that don’t respond to antibiotic treatment and wondered what’s going on.

When someone falls ill with one of these infections doctors determine which antibiotic to use based on a standard test. But UC Santa Barbara biologist Michael Moore says we may be relying on the wrong test when identifying the antibiotic to treat an infected patient.

The current test was developed in 1961 and is used throughout the world but it’s based on how well drugs kill bacteria on petri plates — not how well they kill bacteria in the body. Moore’s lab has developed a new test that mimics conditions in the body, potentially transforming the way antibiotics are developed, tested and prescribed.

His lab has identified antibiotics that effectively treat infections caused by diverse bacteria, including MRSA, the cause of deadly Staphylococcal infections. These antibiotics are often not prescribed because they failed the standard tests, despite being inexpensive, nontoxic, widely available and often effective.

He is working to modify the existing test so that it can be widely adapted to give doctors better tools and information when battling superbugs.

Drugs that pass the standard test often fail to treat bacterial infections, whereas drugs identified by Moore’s test have been effective.

Learn more and watch Why Antibiotics Fail – People Are Not Petri Plates

For more talks in this series, click here.