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.

Providing Hope

“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope. Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, exhorted Jesuits to strive to find God in all things while actively engaging the world, and to focus on cultivating the whole person. Put another way, faith must be expressed through positive works in order to serve the common good. After years of giving the final benediction for victims of gang carnage, Father Gregory J. “Greg” Boyle, SJ, put those principles into practice by founding Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation program in the world. Homeboy’s mission is to provide the means for men and women to break the inter-generational cycle of gang violence through therapy, education, practical services, and vocational training. Homeboy’s various businesses – Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery, and others – focus on job training to provide healthy alternatives to gang life. The benefits extend well beyond the ten thousand former gang members served yearly and into the wider community.

8232As evinced by his quote above, Father Greg believes that the single greatest motivator for gang membership is the lack of hope for a better life. His remedy, treating gang members with compassion while offering a holistic and pragmatic “exit ramp,” was considered radical at a time when law enforcement relied on harsh suppression and mass incarceration to confront the growing problem of gang violence. Despite widespread skepticism from police and prosecutors time has proven the value of the Homeboy model, and it has spawned imitators across the globe. At the root of Father Greg’s philosophy is the importance of empathetic relationships in breaking the destructive mindset of “us vs. them.” As he notes, “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

Watch: Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship with Father Gregory Boyle – Burke Lectureship

Behind “Farm to Table:” The Labor of Farming

32822Did you know that the median age of US farmers is now is 58? And that the number of people actually farming now equals just one percent of the population? As farmers, chefs, food vendors and policymakers gathered by the Berry Good Food Foundation explain, those trends are not sustainable. So what to do? How do you make agriculture attractive to young people? What will bring them back to the land? And how do you connect the rest of the community to their sources of food? Watch as these experts make the whole process of growing, harvesting, selling and serving food sound incredibly, what’s the word they used? Oh yes, sexy!

Learn more: Behind “Farm to Table:” The Labor of Farming — Future Thought Leaders Series Presented by the Berry Good Food Foundation

Rising Inequality: Trends, Explanations and Solutions

32822Income inequality refers to the unequal distribution of income among a population. In the United States, income inequality, or the gap between the rich and everyone else, has been growing for the last several decades.

Economist Valerie Ramey of UC San Diego gives an insightful talk charting the rise, fall and rise again of income inequality in America over the last century. She highlights the special circumstances that created a “Golden Age” for the average worker in the 1950s and 1960s and then follows with the economic changes that led to today’s extreme disparity where the top 1 percent of US households earn nearly 20 percent of the nation’s income.

Watch: The Past, Present and Future of US Income Inequality with Valerie Ramey – Osher UC San Diego

Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

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F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus