Higgs’ big loser: Why Stephen Hawking is such a bad gambler


BosonWhen it comes to betting on cosmic outcomes like the discovery of the Higgs boson, British physicist Stephen Hawking is a three-time loser. But there's a good reason for that. Hawking's latest loss was to Gordon Kane, a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan who worked out some of the ways that the Higgs boson could be detected in a particle-smasher like the Large Hadron Collider. About 10 years ago, Kane was discussing some of the issues while he and Hawking were together at a physics conference. “Stephen interrupted, and said he would like to bet me that there was no Higgs boson,” Kane recalled today. It took a while to work out the conditions of the $100 bet, and at one point things looked so dim for the search that Kane sent Hawking a check, according to The Detroit News. But this week, when researchers at the LHC announced that a subatomic particle matching the Higgs boson's general description had been discovered, it was Hawking's turn to concede the bet. “It seems I have just lost $100,” he told the BBC's Pallab Ghosh.

This isn't the first time Hawking has lost a small-stakes, high-profile bet on a scientific proposition. Back in 1975, he bet Caltech physicist Kip Thorne that there was no black hole at the center of the X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1. By 1998, he conceded that the black hole was there, and got Thorne a year's subscription to Penthouse magazine as a payoff. In 1997, Thorne and Hawking bet Caltech's John Preskill that information is completely lost when something falls into a black hole. But in 2004, Hawking changed his mind and said that information could conceivably leak out of a black hole. Hawking paid up by sending Preskill the repository of information he requested: a baseball encyclopedia. At last report, Thorne had not yet conceded. There's another wager still pending: Hawking is betting that primordial gravitational waves will be detected, resulting in the confirmation of inflationary big-bang theory. The Perimeter Institute's Neil Turok, a proponent of the cyclic model of cosmic origins, is betting against him. “If these gravitational waves are seen, they will instantly disprove our model,” Turok told Cambridge professor Alan Macfarlane. The terms of the bet, however, are still under negotiation.

So, as far as we know, Hawking is 0-for-3, with one bet still up in the air. That led the BBC's Ghosh to joke today in a Twitter update that “research effort could be saved if we knew what other bets Prof. Hawking has placed and assume he'll lose.”

More here.