the scientist and the sociopath

My Unpublished Interview with Astronomer Vera Rubin


In 1999, I wrote an article for Discover magazine about Ralph Alpher, one of a trio of scientists responsible for conceiving the Big Bang Theory. During the course of reporting that article,* I had occasion to interview Vera Rubin, the celebrated dark matter astronomer who died at the age of 88 on December 25, 2016. Articles (like these here and here and here) covering her passing noted that she ought to have received the Nobel Prize but never did, no doubt because she was a woman working in a field at a time when men dominated.

As it happens, my interview with Dr. Rubin touched on the painful topic of those who deserve but do not win Nobels. We were talking not about her work per se, but about Alpher and other male colleagues of hers. Her comments were insightful but I didn’t have room in the final story to share everything she told me. I’m releasing the brief transcript now because I think they shed light on Rubin's thinking on the matter, and because she and the three cosmologists at the center of the Big Bang story are no longer with us. (Gamow died in 1968, Herman in 1997, and Alpher in 2007.)

Back in the 1940s, along with his thesis advisor, George Gamow, Ralph Alpher wrote the first paper on the origin of elements in the universe. Later, he wrote a second paper with his colleague Robert Herman that theorized that the radiation of that first bang should still be bathing the universe. The men actually predicted how that 14 billion-year-old relic—called cosmic background radiation—could be found. At the time, radio astronomy was in its infancy and Alpher and Herman could not find scientists willing to gamble on their idea. But in the 1960s, they were proved right when a team at Princeton found proof of the Big Bang in exactly the way Apher and Herman had predicted.

The Princeton team received the Nobel Prize in 1978 for their work, yet the work of the earlier scientists was seemingly ignored. To make matters worse, later books and academic journal articles perpetuated the error by either incorrectly attributing Gamow, Alpher and Herman’s work, or ignoring it entirely. By then Gamow had died, but Alpher and Herman, who had left academic for industry during much of the ensuing years, devoted nearly 30 years of their lives trying to set the record straight.

Here’s what Dr. Rubin told me about how that miscarriage of scientific justice impacted the lives of the two men she called friends.

How were they affected by the whole thing?

I don’t think either of them put it behind them. It was a major factor in their lives. I think they both felt that they had been unfairly treated by the entire field. [My husband mathematician-physicist] Bob [Rubin] and I used to tell Bob Herman that we really thought they should just forget about it.

The fact that neither one of them were doing a lot of cosmology or astronomy really meant that their work just wasn’t in the forefront of astronomy. One way people learn about what you’re doing is by your continuing to do it. Your current work is always kind of a reference to your past work. But in their case, they both went off and did something very different, so there was no one to bring their early work to the attention of the community except them themselves. It was just an unfortunate circumstance, I guess.

But I think it bothered [and] continues to bother Ralph. I think it bothered Bob [Herman] too. There were constantly books written about the history that they didn’t think was correct, and they continued to write authors to make corrections. That’s probably what they should have done, but it meant it wouldn’t be something they could really put behind them. So I think these things were always continually being in the forefront. It’s been 33, 34 years.


Dr. Alpher says he’s writing a book to set the record straight once and for all.

I suspect that it will be a very bitter book. He and Bob Herman are very, very dear to us and it was a horrible injustice, but I don’t know what you do in such a circumstance. It would have been nice if he had had a happier life. They could have known that they did something very, very valuable and they could have been happy with this. I think perhaps injustices are in the eye of the beholder, unfortunately. But they were still the first people to do it and they did get a wide variety of enormously prestigious awards. Perhaps they could have asked themselves the alternative. It could have not been discovered during their lifetime. Wouldn’t that have maybe been worse? There’s no doubt that they could have been and should have been treated nicer by the community. They really do have a legitimate complaint. But they could have responded a little differently.

I think the truth is that in science, when I was very young a very wise man said to me, “In science most of your satisfactions have to be internal ones.” I think that that in a sense is correct; you have to be happy. They should have been exuberant with the work that they did. It was rediscovered. It was great. They had not gotten the recognition they deserved, but if their personalities had been different they could have been happy with the knowledge of this great thing they had figured out. And they perhaps could have even been treated better by the community if they had not just been so obviously angry.

I think they are remarkable, wonderful people, and they did something that was wonderful. It would have been very nice if that could have been such a joy that they could have embraced the community and which in turn might have embraced them. But none of that happened. 

They never forgot it, in ways that I can’t even repeat. But they could tell you who said something a little bit better and who said something a little bit worse. Sentences were examined in a way that I think the poor authors never intended them to be.

Bob [Herman] and Ralph have been very dear friends for a long time. With Bob [Herman] I or my husband have actually said, “Why don’t you, you know, talk him out of going on with this?” It never worked. It really affected them.

I don’t know if the Nobel Prize complicated things. If Penzias and Wilson had not gotten the Nobel Prize… But there too, and now I will say some things that are truly awful but this is how the establishment behaves. Someone has to nominate you for the Nobel Prize.


I didn’t know that.

Yes, yes, yes. [Nobel Prize-winning chemist] Harold Urey used to brag—I knew him and he used to brag that that 11 of the people he’d nominated had gotten Nobel Prizes. If you’re outside the establishment, you stand a much poorer chance of having these good things happen to you. If they really had not left the academic world, things may have been different. I really think there lies the explanation. Their lives might have been very different if they had remained in the academic world.

* The article is collected in my book, The Scientist and the Sociopath.

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Letter From Home

A quick update on a couple of things:

* Big Weed, the marijuana book I ghosted, landed two sweet reviews this week, one from Publishers Weekly, the other from Kirkus. The PW review is a starred review, which is quite nice. The author is happy, so are the publishers. The book is out in April.

* I'm driving home Friday to interview mystery writer Jamie Mason this Friday at our local bookstore, Malaprop's, for the launch of Mason’s second book, Monday’s Lie. I liked her first book, Three Graves Full, but Monday’s Lie is something special. The main character was raised by a mom who was a covert ops asset, and who taught her a variety of cool skills. Years later, Mom’s long gone, and our protag must call upon those skills to confront something terrible that’s cropped up in her life. Mason has a beautiful way with the language. A true stylist. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll come check out our “In Conversation With.”

* I just put up a new website. I hope you’ll stop by to look it over, and more importantly, shoot me a note if you spot any embarrassing bugs. From now on, my blog posts will originate at the new site, and be pushed out to Tumblr and Twitter. If you’re already following me on Tumblr, there’s no need to migrate over. The pushes are nearly instantaneous.

* * *  

Thanks for the kind response to my last post. Yes, our family is still hunkered down in Denise’s mom’s condo, acting as her daily caregivers. I don’t think this little apartment was made for five adults and a dog, but we’re determined to wait out this disease to its inevitable, sad conclusion. We are grateful for the friends who’ve stopped by to cheer us (and mom) up. We’ve left up the Christmas tree, thinking it makes nice touch to see those lights from time to time. But since the the holiday season is long gone, it’s a little hard to use that annual break as an excuse for procrastinating on our work. So we’ve staked out the corners of the condo that feel quiet enough to work, and started plugging away again. The nearby university has a great library; we escaped there for a few hours this week and it was awesome. Hope to go again if we can manage it.

As this horror progresses, I’ve been reminded of one of the doctors I once profiled. His story is told in the The Scientist and the Sociopath, but you can read it free here. The doc became closer with his mom following the death of his father and other family members, all in a single year, when he was a child. I was touched that the doc trusted me enough to report how he felt back then:

The mother did not know, and the boy did not tell her, that at night in his bed he bargained with God. He had attended five funerals in little more than a year, and they had terrified him. Over the graves of his loved ones he learned the words of the Lord’s Prayer for the first time. At night, he prayed: Please, God, don’t let my mom die. Please don’t take her from me.

His prayers were answered. She lived long and prospered. When she died four years ago at the age of sixty-nine, she was a wealthy woman. When she took sick with lung cancer, he gave her the greatest gift he could. He shut down his practice and cared for her 24/7 for the last seven months of her life. “It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

Summer Book Updates

Signing Their Rights Away book by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese

We just sent around our semi-annual note letting people know all the stuff we have going on. I’m posting it here for our friends at large. If you want to get on the real list, sign-up below. We only do about two of these letters a year, so I promise you will not be deluged.

Creative Freelancer Conference: 

We'll be speaking about our book, THE MONEY BOOK FOR FREELANCERS, at the Creative Freelancer Conference in Chicago, June 24.

Signings for Signers:

We're doing our annual drive up the east coast, visiting sites associated with the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, to promote our book, SIGNING THEIR LIVES AWAY. If you're in any of these cities on these days, please stop by to say hi. More details at this BookTour link.

June 30: National Archives, Washington, DC (where Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are preserved.)

July 1: Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA

July 2: Independence Hall Visitor Center, Philadelphia, PA.

July 3: Old State House, Boston, MA

July 4: Old State House, Boston, MA

New Signers Book coming Sept 6!

In September, Quirk/Random House will release SIGNING THEIR RIGHTS AWAY, our new book about the 39 men who signed the U.S. Constitution. Some online bookstores allow you to pre-order now. If you want to pre-order or get an autographed copy, consider ordering from one of the indie bookstores in our neighborhood. They're listed here.


Yes, we have still have the geekiest Signer T-shirts available, via our DOI Store

Joe's Science Book:

As an experiment in self-publishing, Joe released a collection of his best nonfiction science journalism articles as an eBook. You can download a copy of THE SCIENTIST AND THE SOCIOPATH for the ridiculous price of 99 cents, if you have a KindleNookiPad or any other device.

Girls of Atomic City

Denise is hard at work on a nonfiction book about the women who unknowingly made the fuel for the world's first atomic bomb. That book is due out from Simon & Schuster next fall, 2012. You can follow Denise's progress here and sign up for her list here.

As always, if you're a member of the media or a book buyer, let us know if you need a review copy of any of these books. If you'd like us to do an event at your shop or site, also let us know.

Thanks all, and enjoy the summer.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!

New book: The Scientist & the Sociopath is out!

The Scientist and the Sociopath by Joseph D'Agnese

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, The Scientist and the Sociopath, a collection of some of my best science writing.

At least two of the articles in this collection have already appeared in the prestigious Best American Science Writing anthologies, but it’s nice to have one volume collecting my pieces from Discover, Wired and Seed.

The book, which features a cover by awesome artist Jeroen ten Berge, is something of a milestone: it marks my foray into digital publishing. The title is available immediately as an eBook on Amazon and Smashwords. In the weeks to come, B&N, Apple iPad, Sony, and all the rest will be next. You can download a free sample from all of these sites onto your digital device. You can always find more details on the book page of this website. But for now, here’s the pitch:


A modern-day computer scientist struggles to unlock the secrets of a mysterious book apparently written in a secret code, matching wits with a sociopathic con man who died 400 years ago.


A humble cosmologist conceives one of the biggest theories of the universe—and watches helplessly as the Nobel Prize goes to someone else.


A maverick doctor investigates bizarre ailments using a method that seems shockingly radical in modern medicine: befriending patients and asking them how they feel.

THE SCIENTIST AND THE SOCIOPATH presents remarkable nonfiction stories, some of real-life scientists tackling theories and discoveries that will change our world, others of laymen grappling with some aspect of science in their lives.

Along the way, there are smashed ancient skulls, dead chimps in the back of pickup trucks, flying snakes, lordly windmills, haunted warriors, and beautiful, geeky kids building us a new world, one Lego at a time. 

These all-too-human players overcome their own foibles to make sense of the unknown, touching on everything from the Big Bang theory to tissue engineering, human evolution to cryptography, strange animals, robots, and the secret of human ingenuity. 

Culled from the author’s extensive reporting for magazines such as Discover, Wired and Seed, these tales are bundled together for the very first time. This collection includes two bonus stories on green energy and two never-before-seen stories.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!