Stephen Hawking Loses $100 Betting Against The God Particle
"Never" is often a losing proposition in science, and this was no different. Last week brought exciting news that the particle, the final piece in the Standard Model of Particle Physics, had been discovered by physicists at CERN.
As for Hawking, this was not his first scientific bet, nor was it his first loss. In 1975, he bet cosmologist Kip Thorne a subscription to Penthouse that Cygnus X-1 was not a black hole, and in 1997 bet John Preskill a baseball encyclopedia that information would be lost in a black hole. With the loss against Kane, Hawking is now 0-3 in scientific wagers.
Kane described the circumstances of the bet in an interview with NPR's David Greene:
KANE: About a decade ago, I was at a conference in Korea and Stephen was there. And we were sitting around a table, as I recall, with six or seven other physicists. And Stephen said I'll bet you that there is no Higgs boson. So, I immediately said I'll take that bet. Then when we arranged the details a little bit and settled on $100. And we had to make it sort of long-lived as a bet.
GREENE: When does he plan to pay you back? Has the check been cut?
KANE: Well, I think it's clear he will, but I haven't been directly contacted. And if he sent me a check, I might put it on my wall and not post it.
However, a decade is nothing compared to how long Peter Higgs has had to wait. The Scottish physicist proposed the existence of the particle in 1964, and has had to endure all sorts of second-guessing and skepticism in the intervening years. Obviously, last week’s announcement at CERN in Switzerland came as a profound relief to the man who started the whole quest in the first place.
The Standard Model argues that all matter of the universe is comprised of twelve particles that serve as the building blocks for everything. Experimental observation has confirmed the existence of eleven of those particles, but until last week, the existence of the Higgs could only be inferred, not directly confirmed.
As to why it’s so important? Simply put, Higgs particles hold the universe together. Calling it "the God particle" doesn't seem quite so hyperbolic now, does it?
As explained, the other particles take on mass when they interact with the Higgs field, which is comprised of Higgs particles. However, Higgs particles vanish rather rapidly upon interaction, which is why it's taken nearly 50 years and many billions of dollars to spot one in the wild. Researchers have compared the importance of this finding to the discovery of the electron back in 1897. As with that discovery, it will take some time for most of society to absorb the significance of this achievement.
Still, in times when politicians are looking to score points by slashing science and education budgets, the Higgs discovery is a reminder of the importance of long-term scientific researching. It's particularly relevant for a certain country where many voters are still skeptical about global warming and the theory of evolution.
You see, long before the Higgs was discovered in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the U.S. had committed to building a similar complex. Plans were drawn up, tunnels were dug, buldings constructed...and then it all came to a screeching halt in 1992 when Congress abandoned the project in the face of, yes, tightening budgets.
Attempts to take it up again were finally killed by the House in 1993, and to this day the Superconducting SuperCollider complex stands abandoned on the outskirts of Dallas, a monument to American disinterest in basic science.
Meanwhile, Hawking has been a good sport about his latest financial loss, lavishing the particle’s namesake with generous praise. "This is an important result," he noted a few days ago, "and should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize."
No doubt some cranks will soon come along to tie in this discovery with the Mayan apocalypse, or some other grand conspiracy. But for now, it's worth celebrating one of the greatest achievements of modern science - one that may yield results as unimaginable to us as smartphones and GPS were to the Victorians.
Reach Contributor Joe Peters here.