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Physicists Making Bets

Updated on July 4, 2012

You know how friends sometimes casually make bets such as "I bet you Superman can run faster than Spiderman" or some such thing.

Do you think that physicists make bets with each other? I can imagine a couple of physicists sitting in a coffee house chatting about black holes, multiverse, mathematics, etc. One of them might say, "I bet you time travel is possible". And the other might counter, "I bet you it's not".

Well it turns out that physicists do make bets, some of which are formal in which the loser really did pay up. And some of them is made only in a joking fashion. And some become professional poker players who bets with real money.

Here are a couple of well documented bets made by physicists.

Hawkings, Thorne, and Preskill Wager

In 1997, Stephen Hawkings and Kip Thorne had made a bet with John Preskill. They were all theoretical physicist. Stephen Hawkings was from Cambridge University and Thorne and Preskill were from Caltech.

They were betting about the "information paradox" of black holes which was listed as one of the top 10 in unsolved problems in physics (at the time). The exact details of the bet is complicated to understand, but Dr. Rulison of Oglethorpe University writes ...

"Kip Thorne, John Preskill and Stephen Hawking have a standing bet: what would happen if you dropped a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica down a black hole? ... Dr. Hawking and Dr. Thorne believe the information would indeed disappear and that quantum mechanics will just have to deal with it. Dr. Preskill speculates that the information doesn't really vanish: it may be displayed somehow on the surface of the black hole, as on a cosmic movie screen."

Who won the bet?

According to Ohio State University article in Mar 2004, Preskill did. Article said ...

"Since Mathur’s conjecture suggests that strings continue to exist inside the black hole, and the nature of the strings depends on the particles that made up the original source material, then each black hole is as unique as are the stars, planets, or galaxy that formed it. The strings from any subsequent material that enters the black hole would remain traceable as well. That means a black hole can be traced back to its original conditions, and information survives."

What was the bet for? A set of encyclopedias.

In July 2004, Hawkings conceded and paid up by giving Preskill a copy of Total Baseball, The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia. Thorne was still not convinced and did not contribute to the award. But Hawkings did add that ''If Kip agrees to concede the bet later, he can pay me back later.'' [quoted from 2004 New York Times article]

This Wager was reported publicly in the media at the time and is documented on Wikipedia.

Bet involving multiple universes

Here is a bet that is said in a more jokingly fashion. As background is important to note that many physicists now believe that our universe is not the only universe that is out there. There is now a thing called a multiverse that contains a multitude of universes. Not proven yet, though.

But Martin Rees, Professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, is so confident in the the belief of the multiverse that he was willing to bet his dog's life on it.

Andrei Linde, professor at Stanford University who is into inflationary cosmology, is even more confident in that his is willing to bet his own life on it.

When Physics Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg heard about these two bets, he makes a bet of his own. He would be willing to bet both Ree's dog and Andre Linde's life that multiverse exists.

This was reported in the last chapter of Visions of the Multiverse by Steven Manly. Page 234:

Steven Weinberg tells the story of how he picked up an issue of astronomy magazine in the Austin airport and a story on multiverses caught his eye. Weinberg says, "Inside I found a report of a discussion at a conference at Stanford, at which Martin Rees said that he was sufficiently confident about the multiverse to bet his dog's life on, while Andrei Linde said he would bet his own life. As for me, I have just enough confidence about the multiverse to bet the lives of both Andre Linde and Martin Rees's dog."

The anecdote was also reported here.

Physicists Playing Poker

There are also reports of physicists becoming poker players. Here they make bets with real money (and some play professionally for a living). This does not seem implausible, because playing poker involves having good understanding of probability.

Liv Boeree is a physicist that turned professional poker player and won the 2010 European Poker Tour. He says in an interview on Institute of Physics that ...

"Poker is a very beautiful game because it encompasses so many different skills, including psychology, analysis, memory and mathematical ability – although the mathematics is not actually that hard, as it is really just some basic statistics."

and sees a poker tournament as a "high-risk form of investment".

Stephen Hawkings Lost Bet on Higgs Boson

Stephen Hawkings is making bets again. He bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle would not be found. On July 4th, 2012, the Large Hadron Collider discovered a new particle that was consistent with the Higgs Boson. Hence, Stephen Hawkings lost bet again. This time he lost a $100 bet. Reference:


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