~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Once you have a big enough welfare state you have to centrally plan the middle class economy as well?


“Of course US birth rates are falling – this is a harsh place to have a family” (Guardian, Amy Westervelt):

The reality is, for all its pro-family rhetoric, the US is a remarkably harsh place for families, and particularly for mothers. It’s a well-known fact, but one that bears repeating in this context, that the US is one of only four countries in the world with no government-subsidized maternity leave

Have we really built a “harsh place … for mothers”? A mother who has never worked can get a free apartment in San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston, or Cambridge, free health care for herself and her children, free food (SNAP), and a free phone. This could be regarded as a “government-subsidized maternity leave” of at least 18 years and, in most cases, a lifetime (since the entitlement to public housing doesn’t go away once the kids are grown up). See Book Review: The Redistribution Recession for how eagerly Americans have adjustd their behavior to qualify for this government offer.

I think what Ms. Westervelt means is that the U.S. is a harsh place for mothers who work at middle-income jobs. The definition of “harsh” is that their incomes may yield a spending power and lifestyle that is actually inferior to what welfare mothers obtain (see Table 4 in The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off for a calculation by state; here in Massachusetts welfare pays 118 percent of the median salary, whereas in New York it is 110 percent and in California only 96.5 percent).

(Americans who choose their sex partners and sex location carefully can do a lot better than what the government provides. See “Child Support Litigation without a Marriage” for the cash flow that can result from having sex with higher-than-median earners. Also the Massachusetts chapter for the example of a custody and child support plaintiff with an Ivy League degree who out-earns Penn classmates by 3.2X via providing part-time care for one child.)

A friend’s wife is the author of “Paying Nannies Under the Table Is the Norm” (Slate):

After I interviewed over 60 potential nannies, and despite my offering paid benefits and overtime, a surprising number declined because being paid ‘over the table’ would affect their ability to qualify for government subsidies.

(i.e., she is surprised that in a country running a $1 trillion welfare state, some people want to keep receiving welfare benefits.)

Tax supports to help families pay for this child care are woefully inadequate, and caregivers’ pay seldom reflects their vital role in our economy. Yet the costs of child care, housing, and healthcare have risen sharply for both parties.

We need to recognize and cultivate talented professional caregivers, by transforming care into a financially viable, long-term career option for the millions of women who choose it.

“We have both devalued work that is historically associated with women, and continue to devalue the lives of the women of color who do the work. Until we as a society value care work, and make sure that all workers are protected by our laws, we will continue to see inequities and crises in the industry as a whole,” said Poo.

The husband proudly posted this article as a Facebook status. Some responses:

Me: What would be awesome is if every childless American would work 90 hours/week to subsidize those of us who have chosen to have kids, but don’t want to take care of them personally.

The author: Women are sole, primary or co-breadwinners in 2/3 of American households. The overwhelming majority of our workforce, that fuels and drives our economy that benefits all who live here, have the need for childcare to be able to work. It’s an economic imperative to make childcare affordable and accessible. … And 80% of women have children.

The author: There’s another side to this argument, it’s not just about the working families but the caregivers that are currently relying on subsidies in many cases to afford basic life-support (housing, healthcare, etc.) Those subsidies come from tax dollars. Nearly half of the domestic workers are immigrants, and working under the table perpetuates the generational cycle of poverty. When domestic workers age and don’t have enough savings in their elder years nor have they amassed social security benefits (despite how small that is) to qualify for social security offsets to medicare plans, their adult children (whether or not they have children of their own) and/or other social safety nets (i.e. welfare) pick up the tab to support their need to live.

Me: I am sure that you are right, but if people with children overall pay less for something, doesn’t that mean people without children will be the ones who have to subsidize them? Where else does money come from ?

The author: … As a whole, our society needs high rates of employment to function. High rates of employment are threatened when the population can’t afford childcare which enables them to work – or if caregivers can’t afford to be caregivers if that makes sense. This disproportionately affects women’s ability to succeed and ascend in the workforce and also on the caregiver side disproportionately affects women and minorities. …

Deplorable: [gently suggests that maybe the real problem is that not working in Massachusetts can pay up to $100,000 per year, tax-free]

The author: Although I understand your point, I don’t believe that the government is doing a ‘good job’ of subsidizing the needy. And frankly, people who work demanding full-time jobs plus overtime hours, should be able to afford to live in or near the cities they work in. The market rates for childcare givers, like jobs in almost every other industry, haven’t moved up to address inflation. Many of us (myself included) make salaries that haven’t changed much while the cost of living has gone up dramatically. This makes the availability of a subsidy not just attractive for some but essential (especially if they have themselves or a family member with a serious illness/requiring heavy health care needs.) It’s complicated, messy & really not serving anyone (or society for that matter) the way it exists today.

The part that I put into bold face ties into the recent Seattle homeless housing plan posting. As the U.S. heads for a population of 400 million and does not build any new cities where people want to live, there has to be a lot of competition for apartments located in walkable pleasant neighborhoods. If government central planners fill up one third of these apartments with people who don’t work then the remaining supply is going to be out of reach for workers like the journalist (since those apartments will be snapped up by people who work in more lucrative fields, such as health care and finance).

The Europeans have dealt with this by limiting housing subsidies for welfare recipients. The result is that they can afford apartments only in undesirable suburbs. Anyone who wants to live in a prime center-city neighborhood in Europe has to work or be married to someone who works (the UK is an exception; a brief marriage or having sex with a high-income partner can lead to child support and/or divorce profits that will enable a non-working citizen to enjoy central London; see this chapter on International family law).

I’m wondering if this drumbeat of articles about how working mothers don’t get enough government cash is an example of how the middle-class portion of the U.S. economy needs to be centrally planned as well. The focus seems to be on “mothers” rather than “women”. This would make sense if the above hypothesis is true because it is “mothers” who can most easily benefit from welfare programs. For example, a woman with no children who applies for a free government-provided house may be placed on a 10-year waiting list.

So if we accept the following assumptions:

  • a woman, regardless of income, wealth, or any other factors, should be able to have as many children as she desires
  • no child should live in poverty
  • every child should live with his or her mother
  • people on welfare as equally entitled to live in America’s most sought-after neighborhoods

then a woman will derive essentially no economic benefit from working at a medium-income job. All that she will do is suffer a loss of leisure time. Therefore, though she would likely never phrase it this way, she will demand to have a spending power and quality of life that exceeds what her non-working welfare counterpart enjoys. Because she is competing with the government to buy or rent an apartment in a desirable neighborhood, the only way that “fairness” can be restored is if the government somehow gives her extra cash. Because it is primarily women with children who can get welfare, the extra government cash should somehow be tied to her status as having custody of children.

Readers: What do you think? Is this a middle-class anti-welfare rebellion in disguise? Instead of the expected revolt against paying higher taxes to fund more lavish welfare, though, what we’re seeing is middle-class Americans saying “I also want to be on welfare”?

[Separately, maybe the observed decline in birth rate is due to the higher population density of the U.S.? “Population Density Key Factor in Declining Human Fertility” says “we find a consistent and significant negative relationship between human fertility and population density. Moreover, we find that individual fertility preferences also decline with population density”]

Teenage Cocktail plot acted out in real life


Gulled by Rotten Tomatoes, I recently watched a movie that started with teenagers using the Internet to turn their bodies into cash that ultimately ending up in violence (see Teenage Cocktail movie proves that “and they’re gay” is to plots as “in bed” is to fortunes?).

“Girl, 15, shoots would-be Beaverton sugar daddy, authorities say” (The Oregonian) is almost the same story, minus the same-sex romance:

A Vancouver teen is suspected of shooting a Beaverton man she targeted on a dating website where “sugar daddies” lavish young love interests with cash and other gifts in exchange for companionship, according to Washington County authorities.

Raelyn Domingo, 15, faces first-degree assault and robbery charges after investigators say she arrived at Thomas Licata’s suburban home last week, got high with her host and then fired a single bullet into his belly.

Licata, a married 56-year-old, said he recently met the teen on the Seeking Arrangement website, which boasts its “Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies … both get what they want, when they want it,” according to a probable cause affidavit.

What if the 15-year-old had gotten pregnant with a high-income user of SeekingArrangement.com?

The (two-week) sexless marriage


We were asked for opinions regarding a friend of a friend’s situation.

Background on the friend of friend and his wife:

  • 40ish (both)
  • fancy degrees (both)
  • married with kids
  • wife earns more than 2X what the husband earns
  • living under California family law (so if one sues the other the likely result is a 50 percent parenting time schedule for the kids plus child support and alimony profits for the man (with his Ivy League professional degree and way-above-median-income he will be the “dependent spouse”))

The husband was incompetently managing some home renovations and cost the family unit a little less than a week of after-tax (don’t forgot those 50 percent total tax rates in California!) income.

From the friend (edited to remove, um, some color):

His punishment will be two weeks of no sex. Apparently his wife uses that as means of control. I was wondering how common is the witholding as a training approach. For me this is so non-negotiable that I didn’t even know about it until like 10 years ago when my buddies began to get married.

A married-with-kids female’s answer:

He shouldn’t do anything. That would escalate the situation. He might end up divorced and that would be bad for the kids.

A married-for-decades man’s answer:

He should divorce her. If she doesn’t want to have sex, she’s a friend without benefits, not a wife.

I pointed out that she wasn’t refusing to have sex ever again and therefore the divorce lawsuit wouldn’t be proportional. Wouldn’t a proportional reponse be the following: move into a nearby hotel room in a fun neighborhood for two weeks and enjoy a bachelor’s carefree existence (perhaps punctuated with some kid sports events)? He eventually agreed that this would be a reasonable alternative.

I tested this independently with another married-for-decades man:

He should divorce her immediately. It is only going to get worse if this is the kind of thing that she does.

What if she just lost interest in sex for two weeks?

That’s different. That wouldn’t be an affirmative policy decision by the wife.

A divorced female physician:

You know it isn’t really about the money. This sounds like good material for counseling, but nobody ever goes until it is too late.

(I.e., consistent with her peers in medicine, she was curious to find out how the situation had developed, but had no actionable advice.)

We tested the physician’s it-is-all-about-the-feelings hypothesis by asking if the husband would object to the no-sex-with-wife plan if he could be sleeping with a friendly 22-year-old to whom he had no serious intellectual or emotional connection. Based on the friend’s discussions with the husband, the answer turned out to be “no objection in that case.”

Readers: What do you think?


Tesla has designed the perfect car for California


Consumer Reports has tested the Tesla 3 and the results sound pretty bad at first:

The Tesla’s stopping distance of 152 feet from 60 mph was far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested and about 7 feet longer than the stopping distance of a Ford F-150 full-sized pickup.

Another major factor that compromised the Model 3’s road-test score was its controls. This car places almost all its controls and displays on a center touch screen, with no gauges on the dash, and few buttons inside the car.

This layout forces drivers to take multiple steps to accomplish simple tasks. Our testers found that everything from adjusting the mirrors to changing the direction of the airflow from the air-conditioning vents required using the touch screen.

The Model 3’s stiff ride, unsupportive rear seat and excessive wind noise at highway speeds also hurt its road-test score. In the compact luxury sedan class, most competitors deliver a more comfortable ride and rear seat.

Let’s think about Tesla’s home in the Bay Area, though. Population and accompanying traffic congestion have grown to the point where exceeding a speed of 20 mph is usually only a dream for Silicon Valley or Bay Bridge commuters. Why over-build the brakes to sports sedan standards when the car will usually be driven so slowly that the driver could simply drag a sneaker on the ground to stop?


  • Honda Clarity versus Accord test drive (the painful annoyance of one missing knob)
  • Business Insider piece comparing Tesla with the Reslas: “The four old-school companies I follow closely — General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and Ferrari — are awash in cash and profits and have been raking it in for literally years. One salient statistic: GM and Tesla staged initial public offerings in 2010, but since then Tesla has never posted an annual profit, while GM has made over $70 billion.” (what a beautiful thing it is to have taxpayers fund all prior pension commitments!)

Europeans are serious about electric-powered airplanes (news from AERO)


Some excerpts from the AOPA coverage of AERO, the big European aviation event:

Magnus Aircraft eFusion: This is a joint effort between Hungarian airframer Magnus Aircraft Corp. and Germany’s industrial giant Siemens, which provides its SSP-55D, 75-horsepower electric motor. The eFusion’s lithium-ion battery can power the airplane for 40 minutes of flight and needs an hour to fully recharge. This experimental, 110-knot two-seat design—which made its first public flight at AERO—is but one offering on display.

ΦNIX: This Czech-built motorglider uses a 60-kilowatt/80-hp electric motor for self-launches as well as other phases of flight, and under power can cruise at 108 knots and fly as long as 2.5 hours on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery. Maximum glide ratio is 1:32. It can be ordered with wingspans of 11 or 15 meters.

Antares E2: This is not a true general aviation airplane, but its features are noteworthy. Built by Germany’s Lange Research GmbH, this six-motor design has a 75-foot wingspan, can cruise at 135 knots, and has a 40-hour endurance. Intended for use in surveillance roles, the E2 uses six methanol-powered fuel cells and dual batteries in a hybrid propulsion setup that generates enough power to provide ice protection of leading edges and enough energy to drive radars and other high-end surveillance gear. It has a 3,638-lb max takeoff weight, can hold 660 pounds of methanol in two underwing pods, and carry a payload of 440 pounds.

(The last one would be an awesome replacement for the Predator; see “The Predator drone is not an ambi-turner” for how the lack of anti-icing was one reason that the U.S. military abandoned the machine.)

Of course the least exciting news is always about aircraft that are real and flying:

Pipistrel Alpha Electro: This two-seat trainer is powered by a 60 kW/80-hp electric motor and can fly for an hour on a single charge of its lithium ion battery. Six airplanes have recently been exported to the United States. Four of these will serve as trainers under the CALSTART program for disadvantaged and unemployed youth at the Mendota and Reedley, California airports, and the other two are owned by Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum in Los Angeles. … these Alpha Electros have been signed off to legally fly, even though the FAA’s light sport airplane (LSA) rules don’t quite yet endorse electrically powered flight. “Procedural changes to LSA rules allowing electrically powered aircraft have already been made internally by the FAA,” Coates said. “And now the new rules are on the way to being published.” Coates says 50 percent of the cost of the CALSTART airplanes is being funded by pollution penalties paid to the California government by Volkswagen. The terms of a Volkswagen illegal-emissions settlement require that more than $1 billion be invested in a California “green fund” to benefit environmentally friendly projects. Price of the Alpha Electro is $118,000, which includes a charger. Six more are on the way to California customers.

The students flying these world’s-most-advanced training aircraft are currently “unemployed.” In other words, they are young Americans who can’t get organized, in one of the tightest labor markets in U.S. history, to walk down to McDonald’s at 3 pm and start an evening shift. The California officials, however, have decided to train them for a job that requires getting up at 4:30 am.

Another interesting bit of news is that Piper will be making a diesel-powered version of its venerable Seminole twin trainer. These will be powered by an engine design that started life as a Mercedes car engine and was adapted for aviation by Thielert, which was bought out of bankruptcy by Continental. It is an obviously great idea that has never made any money. Keep this in mind (and your checkbook closed) if you ever hear an aviation business idea pitch!

New Age Exploitation


“Do You Know Where Your Healing Crystals Come From?” (New Republic):

After three record-breaking hurricanes hammered America last year, the influential spiritual healer Heather Askinosie wrote a blog post for the Earth. “The recent barrage of megastorms we’ve witnessed has inspired some sobering reflections on the effects we are having on our planet,” she wrote on Mindbodygreen.com, a lifestyle site with millions of followers. “So what can we do to show our love and appreciation for the role that Earth plays in our lives?”

The answer, she wrote, can be found in healing crystals.

Askinosie cited three naturally occurring minerals to help readers “connect to the Earth you’re fighting to protect.” Jasper can “help you gain a broader awareness of your personal impact.” Clear quartz is a “perfect crystal for plotting out new beginnings.” And bloodstone—which is a dark green with red splatters—“helps you to see how essential the fate of the earth is, and take your intention seriously.”

I tried to track down the sources of crystals sold on popular websites. I found that some were mined in countries with notoriously lax labor and environmental regulations, and some came from large-scale U.S. mines that have contaminated ecosystems and drinking water.

Crystal sellers don’t want to talk about where their products come from. Goop, actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, didn’t respond to requests for comment about the eight small healing crystals in its $85 “medicine bag” or its $84 water bottle containing “an obelisk-like amethyst crystal to infuse water with positive energy.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, children as young as seven work the mines, and cobalt and copper mines in the country’s Katanga region are rich in minerals like tourmaline, amethyst, citrine, blue and smoky quartz—all coveted by healing crystal sellers.


Economics lesson from McKinsey regarding the homeless in Seattle


From the Seattle Times:

Seattle and King County could make the homelessness services system run like a fined-tuned machine, but without dramatically increasing the region’s supply of affordable housing options, solving the region’s homelessness crisis is all but impossible.

That is the central finding of a new, independent analysis of King County’s homelessness crisis by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which produced the report pro bono for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

The report estimates King County is short up to 14,000 units affordable for people experiencing homelessness. Because of the gap, and the rising numbers of people who are homeless, annual spending — public, private or both — needs to double to $410 million if the problem is to be solved, according to the report.

And that’s only if the annual rate of people becoming homeless doesn’t increase.

“This is a supply-side issue,” said Dilip Wagle, a McKinsey senior partner based in Seattle. “We are just running out of affordable housing units.”

So the great minds behind Enron have come up with a system in which they will offer free housing in one of the world’s most desirable places to live. World and U.S. population will continue to boom, yet the $410 million per year in free housing isn’t likely to be oversubscribed:

Some corporations keen to alleviate homelessness in their local communities already fund emergency shelters. These are crucial. But they are not a long-term solution. Affordable housing is.

The McKinsey geniuses don’t answer the question that always strikes me when I’m in Seattle and I see homeless folks camping in the cold rain: Since these unfortunate souls don’t have a job or a house, why don’t most of them move to Santa Monica and camp in a warm dry climate?

(I don’t think the answer is “Washington State provides more generous welfare benefits than California”; CATO Institute’s Work v. Welfare analysis in 2013 found that collecting welfare in California was worth 96.5 percent of the state’s median salary while in Washington State it was worth only 72 percent (see Table 4).)

Seattle does have a new “head tax” on companies such as Amazon that use office buildings within the city limits. This is supposed to be what funds the new construction of apartments for the currently “homeless.” Most of heads being taxed, presumably, commute in from the suburbs because they can’t afford prime urban residential real estate in a walkable neighborhood. This commute will have them spending 1-2 hours every day in some of the nation’s worst traffic. By contrast, people who haven’t worked for years or decades will be living in the desirable central city. Once this situation is fully developed, I would love to see the commuting suburban wage slaves call themselves smarter than the newly-housed urban “homeless”!

Who watched the royal wedding?


Readers whose TV choices are not constrained by the viewing demands of toddlers: Did you watch the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? If so, what happened?

The Wikipedia page on Ms. Markle is revealing of American attitudes. Regarding Ms. Markle’s first marriage, it says “[she and Trevor Engelson] divorced in August 2013,” implying that it was a mutual decision and action. Or perhaps it was a natural phenomenon, like a rain shower, that affected them both. Here’s a Reuters/nytimes example: “In 2011, she married film producer Trevor Engelson but they divorced two years later.”  Buzzfeed: They filed for divorce citing ‘irreconcilable differences’ in August 2013.”

In fact, it seems that Ms. Markle sued her husband. See, for example, “Is THIS the real reason Meghan Markle divorced her first husband Trevor Engelson?” (Express):

MEGHAN Markle became so addicted to fame that when she finally hit the big time as an actress on Suits, she divorced her first husband and sent him the wedding ring back in the post, according to a bombshell report.

Mr Engelson’s uncle, Mickey Miles Felton, 73, said the family knows the reason behind her decision to divorce Mr Engelson, but they do not want to disclose it.

The bombshell story paints Meghan, 36, as a social climber determined to get to the top no matter what.

When the royal bride-to-be met Mr Engelson, the then 28-year-old was already a film producer and agent while she was a 23-year-old actress fresh out of theatre school. … They quickly moved in together in Los Angeles and she started getting more parts and auditions.

At the time of the lawsuit it seems that Ms. Markle was more successful financially than her husband/defendant. Thus the divorce petition (a “complaint” in more traditional states) does not ask for alimony (see RADAR and also California family law). Had the decision been mutual, presumably the not-so-happy couple would have filed a California form FL-800, Joint Petition for Summary Dissolution.

What can we make of this choice of bride? The Prince is 33 and presumably will want to have children. The American divorce court veteran is 36, nearing the end of her fertility. Let’s say that the newlyweds enjoy a two-year infant-free honeymoon. Now the Princess is 38. Will my jet-owning fertility doctor friends be practicing the London City Airport steep approach in the sim and then flying over to practice their trade?

Folks expect the marriage to endure under the theory that “She sued the first husband so she would never do that again to a second husband”? Both Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are children of divorced parents and, statistically, such children are at least 1.5X more likely to get divorced than children from intact homes (PyschCentral).


  • Real World Divorce on UK law, which does not enforce prenuptial agreements and allows a plaintiff to collect a 50 percent share of premarital property after only a year or two of marriage

Metropolitan Opera is finished financially?


“Met Opera Accuses James Levine of Decades of Sexual Misconduct” (nytimes) is a twist on the usual sex-at-work litigation:

Two months ago, the conductor James Levine, having been fired by the Metropolitan Opera for sexual misconduct, sued the company for breach of contract and defamation. Now the Met is suing him back, arguing in court papers filed on Friday that Mr. Levine harmed the company, and detailing previously unreported accusations of sexual harassment and abuse against him.

The filing paints the clearest picture yet of the investigation that led the Met to dismiss Mr. Levine, its longtime music director and its artistic backbone for more than four decades. The company says it found credible evidence that Mr. Levine had “used his reputation and position of power to prey upon and abuse artists,” citing examples of sexual misconduct that it says occurred from the 1970s through 1999, but does not name the victims.

The Met’s suit says that the company “has and will continue to incur significant reputational and economic harm as a result of the publicity associated with Levine’s misconduct.” The company was already in a difficult financial position before the scandal broke, battling the high costs of putting on grand opera amid a box office slump.

On Friday, Moody’s Investors Service Inc., the credit rating agency, downgraded the Met’s bonds to Baa2 from Baa1, citing its “thin liquidity and the fact that it has not yet been able to reach its endowment fund-raising targets combined with ongoing labor costs pressures and capital needs.” One of the Met’s strengths, it noted, was its strong donor support, which the company relies on.

Why would anyone give the Met money now? If Michigan State had to pay out $500 million recently (see Michigan State settlement means that we will start to see inflation from #MeToo?) and the Met has only $200 million in net assets, isn’t the enterprise already insolvent? A donation today will simply go to a plaintiff who says that he was abused by James Levine and the management knew or should have known about it. (Or maybe the management is being careful not to investigate anything that happened unless the statute of limitations has run?)

Is it possible that this opera company will actually die before its audience does? Or can they go Chapter 11 and ditch their pension obligations (pension for a $310,000/year stagehand cannot be cheap!) as well as the long tail of sex-related liability?


Losing the Nobel Prize


This will be the first of a few posts about Losing the Nobel Prize by Brian Keating, a cosmology professor at UCSD.

Let me urge readers to download the Kindle version and read the book so that the discussion will be more lively on future postings!

The book has the following components, mixed together to some extent:

  • a readable tutorial on the history of experimental cosmology (augmented by Shaffer Grubb’s superb illustrations)
  • a detailed history of the BICEP project, envisioned by Brian Keating and supported by Andrew Lange, which looks for inflation-induced gravitational waves
  • a career guide for would-be physicists
  • the personal history of the author
  • statements that physicists who have identified as “female” have not been given sufficient credit for their work
  • an analysis of the effects of the Nobel Prize, as currently structured, on physics

A sample on the genesis of the BICEP project:

Life in Palo Alto in September 1999 was miserable for a postdoc making $35,000 per year with college loans to pay off. My mood moved inversely with the late 1990s’ NASDAQ. The booming stock market severely limited my housing options. The only apartment I could afford was miles off campus, located on the major Caltrain artery connecting the Valley to the City, at the precise location where the train conductors were required to blow a 150-decibel horn to warn would-be rail-jumpers of impending doom. The horns began blaring at 5 a.m.

On a good night, I would accumulate about five hours of sleep. I was exhausted and depressed. My postdoc advisor, Sarah [Church, physicist turned fellow at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research and now a bureaucrat], could sense it. When I’d doze off at work, I’d dream about a new type of telescope, which would later become BICEP. In my mind’s eye, it was a telescope that could see all the way back to the Big Bang.

For the first few months of my time at Stanford, I was completely absorbed by a new paper called “Polarization Pursuers’ Guide,” written by cosmologists Andrew Jaffe, Marc Kamionkowski, and Limin Wang. … It was the first time I heard anyone say it was possible to experimentally probe the first instants of cosmic history, that mysterious epoch called inflation,

Not only was it possible to see whether inflation had really happened, but, according to these cosmologists, it would require only a modest-sized telescope. I had worked on just such a small telescope for my PhD project.4 I knew that tiny telescopes come with big bonuses: they are simpler, more efficient, and less expensive than their bigger brothers. A small telescope that could capture microwaves, rather than optical light like Galileo’s, could probe the inflationary epoch just as well as a telescope many times its size and cost.

After his talk, Lange agreed to chat with me for a few minutes. I had heard so much about him I felt like I knew him. He was forty-two years old and had been at Caltech since 1993, after a meteoric rise from freshly minted PhD in 1987 to professor, both at UC Berkeley. Caltech had been courting him for a while, betting that his stock would continue to rise. BOOMERanG proved they were right. By the time I met him, he was rumored to be the most popular professor at Caltech; the lecture I’d just heard confirmed those rumors.

Lange hosted social events at his house and clearly enjoyed his role as both a mentor and a friend. Soon, he and I developed a close bond. Often, he’d give me nuggets of what he called “fatherly advice”: words of wisdom about science, academia, and occasionally even about actual, biological fatherhood. The latter information, while not immediately relevant, made a deep impression on me nonetheless. He worshipped his three young sons. His office was a museum of their artwork. On the shelves he’d placed their science projects right next to his own award plaques and pieces of the actual rockets he’d launched into space. Most Mondays, he’d regale me with tales of his weekend exploits with his sons, camping out or launching model rockets in the Mojave Desert. It was clear that they were his world, a refreshing revelation to me: you could be one of the world’s most brilliant scientists and still make fatherhood your top priority.

BICEP took five years and two million dollars to build. You can, however, build a polarimeter simply by donning polarized sunglasses, looking at the zenith at sunset, and spinning around in place. Because light is polarized when it scatters off air molecules, you’ll notice the brightness of the sky varies twice, from bright to dark to bright to dark, every time you spin a full circle. This twofold brightness variation is the signature of polarization.

Like your sunglasses polarimeter, all polarimeters have four features in common: optics (for you, the lenses of your eyes), a polarizing filter (the sunglasses) to separate vertically polarized light from horizontally polarized light, detectors (your retinas), and a polarization modulator (your legs keeping you spinning) that causes the intensity of the light through each of the polarizing filters to vary predictably. So too did BICEP feature these same four essential polarimeter elements. BICEP’s optics were 30 cm (1-foot) diameter lenses made of high-density polyethylene, the same material used in milk jugs. Though these containers appear opaque to the eye, they transmit microwaves almost perfectly. The two lenses produced clear vision over a huge field of view nearly twenty degrees wide—equivalent to two fists held at arm’s length.

Compared to the retina or even a smartphone camera, BICEP’s detector count—98—seems pitiful. But if we were lucky, our pixels would capture waves of gravity coursing through the oldest light there is. No phone, no matter how smart, could even come close to taking that picture.

To detect the faint CMB heat at all, the detectors needed to be cooled to just a quarter of a degree Celsius above absolute zero. Here, once again, BICEP’s Lilliputian size was its biggest asset. Since it was small, barely 1.5 m (5 feet) long, the entire BICEP telescope—optics, polarizing filters/detectors—could be put inside what was essentially a giant thermos. BICEP’s thermos was a cylindrical vessel just large enough to contain all the optical elements and hold them at a pressure less than a millionth of what you feel at sea level. Keeping the pressure inside low was crucial; if there were too many air molecules inside the cryostat they’d quickly rob heat from the walls of the thermos, bringing unwanted heat into the detectors and rendering them useless. The thermos had two chambers within it filled with liquid helium. A dedicated refrigerator held a liquid form of an isotope of helium, called liquid helium-3. Ordinary liquid helium got BICEP to about 3 kelvin, and helium-3 helped it reach 0.25 kelvin. For the first time in human history, we had cooled an entire telescope to the temperature of interstellar space.

It gets exciting when the new refractor is parked down at the South Pole. Unfortunately, one of the parents does not survive to see the scientific child grow to adulthood:

[Andrew Lange] called me to say he was separated from his wife … He sounded so sad, so uncharacteristically down. I was crushed that my fatherly mentor wouldn’t be there for me, but even more than that, I felt awful for his three sons.

Four weeks after BICEP2 began observing, on January 22, 2010, I was in the middle of a POLARBEAR collaboration meeting at UC Berkeley when Paul Richards, Andrew Lange’s thesis advisor, burst into the conference room. Two decades earlier, he had supervised Andrew in that very room. “Andrew is dead,” Paul cried out. “He committed suicide.”

A few years later, I went back to where Andrew’s remarkable life came to an end: a seedy motel, so utterly unworthy of containing the greatness of this sweet man. When I interviewed at Caltech a decade earlier, I had stayed in this very motel. The beginning of my life inextricably entwined with the end of his, at a crappy motel near the campus where he had once had it all: National Academy member, California Scientist of the Year, seemingly certain Nobel laureate.

[See “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” for statistics on the tendency of American men to commit suicide after an encounter with the local family court.]

Professor Keating chronicles how the Nobel Prize was set up to reward lone geniuses and then expanded to permit recognizing up to three scientists per year/discovery. If you’re a listed author on a Nobel-winning physics paper, what are your statistical chances of being a personal Nobel-winner? Perhaps 1 in 1000:

FIGURE 55. Number of credited collaborators on Nobel Prize–winning experiments in physics, plotted on a logarithmic scale. Four particularly large values stand out: 385 authors on the discovery of the W and Z bosons in 1984, 6,225 authors on the two Higgs boson discovery papers in 2013, 342 authors on the neutrino oscillation discovery paper in 2015, and 1,004 authors on the LIGO gravitational-wave detection paper in 2016. Gaps represent years with no prize or prizes given for theoretical discoveries.

Some have complained that giving a share in the physics prize to every scientist involved would devalue the award, decreasing the well-earned attention that the originators of the project deserve. Yet awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to groups has in no way decreased its prominence. The peace price can be awarded to groups, individuals, or groups and individuals (as was the case, for example, with the 2007 prize, half of which was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the other half to former U.S. vice president Al Gore. Especially in experimental science, where collaboration is essential, expanding recognition would help convince young people to take more risks in the ideas and projects they pursue. For me personally, the most rewarding aspect of my job is working with scientists from all over the world, from Uganda to the Ukraine, from Thailand to Texas, on every continent including Antarctica. It’s high time the Nobel Prize reflects the true reality of modern physics: the best science of all is the most collaborative.

What if you are lucky enough to win this lottery?

After winning the ultimate accolade, laureates benefit from the “rich get richer” phenomenon that historian and sociologist Robert Merton called the Matthew effect, in which a greater proportion of scientific resources becomes concentrated in the hands of a smaller group of (mostly male) scientists. Laureates receive resources unavailable to their colleagues, and these come not only in the form of research funding and lab space. Papers by Nobel Prize winners garner more citations. Laureates attract the best graduate students and postdocs. It’s not that other great scientists can’t attract funding, lab space, and graduate students—it’s just that our society gives laureates a gilded stamp of approval that makes them even more desirable to funding agencies, universities, and prospective students. And, since past Nobel Prize winners are automatically invited to nominate future winners, their protégés receive the ultimate job perk: they are far more likely to become laureates than those who were not mentored by laureates.10 There’s one last, if little-known perk: according to a recent study, Nobel laureates enjoy an extra year of longevity compared to nominated scientists who didn’t win.

How does it compare to Olympic gold?

Olympic competition stresses athletes with pressures similar to those that dog scientists aspiring to win Nobel gold: grueling work done in isolation, over many years, for low wages. The costs required to train, travel, and compete to win an Olympic medal are astronomical: as high as seven million dollars per gold medal, according to a recent study.16 Is there sufficient return on investment for national Olympic committees? The same could be asked of universities, where the financial packages used to lure Nobel laureates sometimes exceed Olympic medal amounts. Institutions, and the donors they must make proud, clearly feel the answer is yes. There’s one price tag for each Olympic gold medal that far exceeds that of Nobel gold. In the mid-1990s, the sports psychologist Robert Goldman posed “Goldman’s dilemma” to elite athletes, asking if they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them in five years. Approximately half of the elite athletes surveyed said they would take it. One hopes that no young scientist would trade years of his or her life to win Nobel gold. But the pressures on young scientists are greater than at any time in the past. Many young scientists feel the ladder has been pulled up behind their senior colleagues. The reason for this, once again, comes down to the scarcity of resources.

More: Read Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize.

Readers: I hope that you’ll join me in chewing on the material in this book!


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