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Great wagers in physics history

Two of the most powerful words in science might just be “Wanna bet?”

While science usually makes progress through rigorous research, testing, and verification, sometimes a hunch — and a little friendly competition — can push scientists to keep digging for the truth.

The time-honoured tradition of scientific wagers adds stakes (usually very, very low stakes) and levity to the scientific process.

A bet led Isaac Newton to write what would evolve into his masterwork, Principia. Stephen Hawking might be the world’s most famous present-day scientist, but that doesn’t mean he knows all the answers: despite numerous wagers, he has a terrible win-loss record.

Said Hawking’s colleague John Preskill, who has won some of these bets: “Although Stephen Hawking is without doubt a great scientist, he’s a bad gambler.” (To Hawking’s credit, many believe he deliberately makes long-odds wagers in order to bring attention to interesting scientific debates.)

Here are some of the greatest wagers — some settled, some still outstanding — in physics history.

flat earth wager
Learn more about the Bedford Level Experiment.

 

Hawking wager
Watch the mini-documentary Hawking at the Perimeter.

 

Hawking Turok Wager
Read more about the search for primordial gravitational waves.

 

black hole hawking wagerWatch a short video explaining the black hole information paradox.

 

Copenhagen lhc bet
Watch a short introduction to supersymmetry by Perimeter Distinguished Visiting Research Chair S. James Gates Jr.

 

Newton kepler bet
Watch a talk by physicist Barry Barish that explores “the hidden dispute behind Newton’s Principia.”

 

quantum wagers
Watch an excerpt of William Phillips’ public lecture at Perimeter Institute.

 

colliding galaxies bet
Read the story of Cygnus A (and why many researchers now believe Minkowski was actually justified in drinking the whiskey).

 

preskill thorne wager
Read a 1997 New York Times article about this wager.

 

scientific bet
Read “Putting Their Money Where Their Minds Are,” a New York Times article about scientific wagers.

 

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