Science & Technology

7 Times People Made Bets on Science

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Science is our best way of knowing what's real, beyond the desires and biases of fallible humans. At least, it should be. But scientists are humans too, and they can sometimes become as enamored with a pet theory as a football fan is with a favorite team. They're also like sports fans in another way: they're known to make wagers on the outcome. Here are seven times scientists made bets on science — and what happened next.

7. The time a computer scientist bet against a chess champion

In 1968, John McCarthy, the computer scientist who coined the term "artificial intelligence," bet chess champion David Levy £500 (about £8,000/$10,500 in today's money) that a computer would beat him at a chess game within 10 years. Levy went on to beat computers in every match he played for 21 years — until he was finally defeated by a computer called Deep Thought, which went on to become the first computer to beat a chess grandmaster. Still, the bet was that it would happen within 10 years, and Levy won.

6. The time Stephen Hawking bet against black holes

One weird prediction made by Einstein's general theory of relativity is that if you compress a star's mass into a small enough space, the laws of physics break down and you get what's known as a singularity — the seed of what we now know as a black hole. We hadn't yet found evidence of black holes in 1975 when scientists discovered an object called Cygnus X-1 that looked an awful lot like it could be the first. Despite being one of the foremost authorities on black hole theory, Stephen Hawking bet fellow black-hole expert Kip Thorne an adult magazine that Cygnus X-1 wasn't a black hole. The evidence that it was became incontrovertible in 1990 and Hawking conceded the bet.

5. The time Stephen Hawking bet black holes could destroy information

You know that part in the action movie where two former rivals team up to fight the big boss and emerge victorious? Well, it was nothing like that when Hawking and Thorne bet Thorne's colleague John Preskill that black holes destroyed anything that goes into them — despite the fact that quantum mechanics says information can neither be created nor destroyed. Hawking finally saw the writing on the wall in 2004 when he announced that he had solved the so-called black hole information paradox, and he gave Preskill the wager: an encyclopedia "from which information can be recovered with ease." In this case, it was a baseball encyclopedia.

4. The time Stephen Hawking bet against the Higgs Boson

While it might seem like Hawking is just an overconfident gambler, he hinted at the method behind his madness for this one. This time, the legendary physicist bet physics professor Gordon Kane $100 that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which switched on in 2008, wouldn't find the Higgs boson, the particle that gives mass to every other particle. At the time, he explained that his bet was more about the hope that the universe was extra interesting than it was about the actual chances. "I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs," he told the BBC. "That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again."

Hawking lost his bet when the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012.

3. The time solar scientists bet against human-caused global warming

In 2005, solar physicists Galina Mashnich and Vladimir Bashkirtsev had an intriguing idea: the sun goes through cycles of increasing and decreasing activity, and it was possible that the planet was warming not because of human activity, but because the sun was just more active. Even better, they forecasted a period of reduced solar activity in the coming years. U.K. climate researcher James Annan thought that idea was ridiculous, and he bet them (and anyone else willing to take the bet) $10,000 that the six years between 2012 and 2017 would be warmer than the six years between 1998 and 2003. Annan won the bet, but the physicists won't pay. Instead, Bashkirtsev wants another bet on the next eight years — even though research literally says betting against a warming climate "is no longer a rational proposition."

2. The time a SETI scientist bet that we'd discover alien life

In a 2012 TEDx talk, SETI Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak bet everyone — everyone — a cup of coffee if we don't find extraterrestrial life "in the next two dozen years." That is a lot of java. He's keeping up his end of the bargain, too: four years later, his promise to Futurism was 20 years. He's got 19 years left, so in the meantime, we'll keep our eyes to the skies and make sure there's enough creamer.

1. The times physicists bet we'd find a companion to every quantum particle

The Higgs boson may have been the first time the LHC found itself in a bet, but it wasn't the last. It's also at the center of many wagers on supersymmetry, the theory that every tiny particle that makes up our universe has an opposing partner, which would answer many frustrating questions in physics and cosmology. In 2000, when construction began on the LHC, seven physicists bet that at least one supersymmetric particle would be discovered within 10 years. The LHC's construction took a bit longer than anticipated, so the wager was extended in 2011, and the number of physicists betting on supersymmetry increased to 20. In 2016, the deadline passed, and the losers had to buy the 24 winners "a bottle of good cognac" to be shared. They weren't the only ones to lose a bet on supersymmetry: That same year, physicist Garret Lisi won $1,000 from Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek on a similar wager.

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Maybe don't bet against science — use it to your advantage instead with Adam Kucharski's "The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 31, 2018

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