Serendipity: The Hawking bets

This small piece appeared in The Ph-Word when it was a newsletter, back in April ’19. “Serendipity” is the category for articles that are not about recent physics news.

Do you wonder if scientists ever place bets on their favourite theories? Of course they do. A lot. Actually two types of bets have been so frequent that each deserves its own “serendipity”: bets about supersymmetry (see a next post) and bets placed by Stephen Hawking.

It all started in 1975, with Hawking betting against the other celebrated black holes expert, Kip Thorne, that the curious object Cygnus X-1, strong source of X-rays, is not a black hole. In 1990 it was generally established that it is, with the depressing outcome that one of today’s top scientists won a subscription to Penthouse (to his credit Hawking would have got an obscure satirical magazine instead, the Private Eye). This was a bet for safety, a small source of joy in case black holes turned out to not really exist.

In 1991 Hawking bet against Thorne and theorist John Preskill that “singularities”, the space-time anomalies that black holes are, cannot exist outside of the latter, aka be “naked”. In 1997 he agreed that “a technicality” permits this in special cases and the bet was rephrased to cover the general case.

In 1997 Hawking and Thorne now bet against Preskill that information is lost irretrievably in black holes, one of the main postulates that had made Hawking famous. In 2004 he accepted that a property of string theory would allow for the opposite and presented Preskill with a baseball encyclopedia. Thorne has not conceded the bet yet (buying himself some more integrity in this case, if you asked me, since string theory is only hypothetical so far).

It’s not known when the bet against the Higgs boson being discovered was made (but it wouldn’t be surprising if that was in 2005, seeing the pattern in the dates of the previous ones). In any case it was settled with its discovery in 2012, when Hawking lost an extra hundred dollars to theorist and low-hanging fruit harvester Gordon Kane.

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