Mayo ClinicHealth Oasis
August 25, 1998

Putting Their Money Where Their Minds Are


After escaping Germany within months of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and wandering the world separately for 15 years, Maurice and Gerson Goldhaber were ready for the most ordinary of brotherly relationships when they reunited as particle physicists in the United States. So when Gerson was engaged in the experiment of his life, racing to discover a speck of antimatter called the antiproton, Maurice did what just about any scientist in a close family might do: He bet a colleague $500 that the antiproton did not exist.

Richard P. Feynman, the physicist, bet Norman Ramsey of Harvard that physics in a mirror world would be unchanged.
THE STAKES 50-to-1 odds on a dollar bet.
THE OUTCOME Experiments in 1957 proved Dr. Feynman wrong. He paid up.

Far from showing disloyalty, Dr. Goldhaber was merely carrying on a noble tradition -- wagering on the outcome of scientific questions -- that seems as pervasive in labs, observatories and supercomputer centers as pools on college basketball tournaments are in office parks and machine shops.

The tradition was already alive when titans like Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton were setting the foundations of modern science -- and making bets.

This century's savants have ponied up on everything from the properties of matter's tiniest building blocks to the fate of the entire universe. The stakes generally range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, often in the form of pricey dinners or expensive liquor -- and in at least one instance, 100 gallons of gasoline.

"Many bottles of the finest champagnes and malt whiskies, and even more esoteric stakes, rest in abeyance while observers struggle to count rare photons from remote galaxies," wrote Dr. James Peebles of Princeton University and Dr. Joseph Silk of the University of California at Berkeley in the journal Nature a few years ago.

Such bets are "a way to focus attention on what are the really key issues," Peebles said in an interview. Others think that because scientific betting is as common as shooting craps in a Damon Runyon story, the custom must say something important about physical research.

"There's often a stereotype that scientists are out to create a ground plan of the universe and that they believe their theories with religious fervor," said Dr. Robert P. Crease, a philosopher of science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Bets are interesting, because they reveal the game-like quality with which scientists often approach their work."

The Associated Press
Stephen W. Hawking, the Cambridge University cosmologist, bet Kip Thorne of Caltech that the star Cygnus X-1 was not a black hole.
THE STAKES A subscription to the magazine Private Eye for Dr. Hawking, and to Penthouse for Dr. Thorne.
THE OUTCOME In 1990, Dr. Hawking conceded defeat.

But others are far from seeing anything so significant in scientific bets. Dr. Margaret Geller, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, called them "sort of disgusting." She said, "It has always struck me as one of the rather unsophisticated macho aspects of these fields."

Added Sir Martin Rees, an astrophysicist at Cambridge University, "I actually think it is rather frivolous to make them." In a scientific disagreement, professional reputations are the stakes that count, he said.

Maybe so, but the scientific tote board lights up with remarkable frequency. For decades at the old Bell Laboratories (now part of Lucent Technologies) in New Jersey, a betting "book" lay in the tearoom, where scientists gathered for discussions each day at 4 P.M., recalled Dr. Pierre Hohenberg, a physicist who is now a deputy provost at Yale University. "A few of us were ideologically inclined to say that arguments should end up with a bet," Dr. Hohenberg said. "Talk is cheap."

The handwritten, laboratory-style notebook recorded bets on highly technical subjects like competing explanations for superconductivity, in which certain chilled materials transmit electricity without resistance. It also contained more general wagers on political and economic issues. The book disappeared from the tearoom around 1990, perhaps stolen by a sore loser. Long before then, however, a chance remark by a regular bettor at Bell Labs inspired a similar book on the opposite coast.

"On the front page it says, 'The Official SLAC Theory Group Record of Wagers,' " said Michael Peskin of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California. It contains 28 pages of mostly scientific bets dating to 1984.

His own proudest entry, he said, is a winning bet against Dr. Sidney Drell at SLAC regarding the existence and mass of the top quark, an elementary particle discovered to much fanfare in 1995. "Dinner for four," said Peskin with satisfaction.

The German astronomer Johannes Kepler is believed to have begun the game in 1600, when he was given the problem of figuring out Mars's orbit around the Sun from astronomical observations made by his mentor, Tycho Brahe. Kepler took over the problem from a senior Brahe assistant, Longomontanus.

Kepler bet Longomontanus he would crack the problem in a week or so, said Dr. James Voelkel, a historian of science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The stakes are not known, but Longomontanus won going away: It took Kepler five years to find the solution.

The Associated Press
Samuel C. C. Ting, the M.I.T. physicist, bet Mel Schwartz of Columbia University that a rumored new subatomic particle did not exist.
THE OUTCOME Dr. Ting had already discovered the particle and had made the bet to throw off the competition. He paid up when another team of physicists made the same discovery.

That set the stage for what was "undoubtedly one of the most crucial wagers in scientific history," said Dr. Alan E. Shapiro, a historian of science at the University of Minnesota. Kepler's pondering had produced his three laws of planetary motion, which describe the elliptical orbits and how fast planets moved in them. Unfortunately, nobody knew why planets would behave like that.

So as a way to spark competition, Christopher Wren, the English architect and scientist, announced in 1684 that he would give a book worth 40 shillings to anyone who, within two months, could deduce Kepler's laws from the inverse-square law that says the Sun's gravity decreases with the square of the planet's distance from the Sun. Isaac Newton's paper on his solution grew into his Principia, the tract that became a cornerstone of modern physics. "The rest is history," Shapiro said. By the time he published it, however, years had passed, and Newton could not cash in his winning ticket.

High-profile wagers among scientists continued to crop up from time to time in the 1700's and 1800's. For reasons no one can quite explain, however, the 20th century has been the Monte Carlo night of scientific culture. "In my life I have made countless bets on science; I may not be able to remember all of them," said Dr. Walter Lewin, an astronomer at M.I.T.

Even so, some notable players complain that there is not enough action to go around. "Most scientists are not interested in bets," said Dr. Michael Turner an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, still fuming after a conference where no one would make a new bet with him on the rate at which the universe is expanding, called the Hubble constant.

"Bets imply a certain irrationality or in-your-face attitude," Turner said. "I love 'em."

Like a gambler blowing ostentatiously on his dice, Turner stands out in his enthusiasm, but he is hardly alone. Relating a not-so-unusual episode in his book "The Neglect of Experiment" (Cambridge, 1986), the historian Allan Franklin counted no fewer than three separate bets on tests of whether "parity" -- a kind of left-right symmetry -- was preserved in subatomic interactions.

The late physicist Richard Feynman, for example, gave 50-to-1 odds on a dollar bet and paid off when experiments in 1957 showed that the laws of physics were not quite the same when left and right and up and down were reversed, as in a mirror -- just as predicted by two theorists, T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang.

Nearly everyone involved in those bets eventually won a Nobel Prize in physics for one reason or another. Betting by leading scientists continues to the present: Dr. William Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who shared a 1997 Nobel, has $100 plus interest riding on whether or not unexplained surprises turn up in the physics of the quantum microworld any time over the next 50 years.

In his wager with Dr. Benjamin Bederson of New York University, Dr. Phillips said he bet against surprises bigger than just a new particle or force, "but I'd love to be wrong."

A similarly high-minded detachment marks the skein of bets made by the cosmologist Stephen W. Hawking. The bets, several of them made with Dr. Kip Thorne and Dr. John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology, often involve the properties of black holes -- massive, collapsed bodies whose gravity is so intense that even light cannot escape. This tone is not always reflected in the stakes: Dr. Thorne won a subscription to Penthouse magazine in one bet against Dr. Hawking.

Often the stakes involve expensive liquor.

That tradition may have been started in the 1950's by Dr. Walter Baade, an astronomer at the Palomar Observatory in California. Dr. Baade bet his colleague Rudolph Minkowski, a bottle of Hudson's Bay Procurable whisky that a strange-looking galaxy spewing radio waves was really a pair of galaxies in collision. Dr. Minkowski conceded the bet and then drank most of the whisky anyway. Justice might have been served, since colliding galaxies fell out of favor a few years thereafter.

In the shadow of Baade and Minkowski, Dr. Peebles of Princeton is referee for an international bet on the value of the Hubble constant, a number that describes the rate of expansion of the universe. The stakes: a case of single malt scotch. Dr. Lewin of M.I.T., in two separate astronomical bets, staked a dozen bottles of whisky against a pound of caviar; and six bottles of "superb" champagne against three of cognac and three of champagne. Marc Davis of Berkeley agreed to wager "a case of the best wine from Italy against the best California wine" with an Italian physicist on the size of the largest structures in the cosmos.

Near the end of the oil crisis, almost 20 years ago, Dr. Frank Shu of the University of California at Berkeley bet Dr. George Djorgovski of Caltech 100 gallons of gasoline that by Jan. 1, 2001, theorists will have determined several crucial cosmic parameters to within 20 percent. One such parameter is the mass density of the entire universe -- still a notoriously controversial number. In view of the oil shortage, Shu and Djorgovski stipulated that the an amount of of fine wine worth the same amount could be substituted if there were no gasoline left by 2001.

There is at least one good reason for all this wagering, Djorgovski said. The system that bestows official scientific awards "is usually rewarding old guys for what they've done God-knows-when," he said. He added: "It would be actually nice if there was an active, up-to-date system that would provide prizes for great new achievements quickly. Maybe making bets is a simple, samizdat way of doing that."

Bets can also serve quite a different purpose: as a diversionary tactic to throw other scientists off the scent. In the months leading up to what physicists call the "November revolution" in 1974, Mel Schwartz of Columbia University heard rumors that Dr. Samuel Ting of M.I.T. had discovered a remarkable new subatomic particle. Dr. Schwartz confronted him -- they were then working in the same laboratory -- but Ting flatly denied the rumor. Still suspicious, Schwartz offered to bet $10 that Ting had found the particle. Ting accepted.

Ting immediately wrote in his lab notebook, "I owe Mel Schwartz $10." Ting said he had been put in an "impossible position," since he wanted to check possible errors before making an announcement. He paid up just two months later, going public after learning that another group led by Dr. Burton Richter of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center had also seen the particle. Ting, Richter, and Schwartz all eventually won Nobel Prizes. "What I keep kicking myself about is that I didn't make it $200," Schwartz said.

Of all the reasons scientists make bets, however, by far the most compelling seems to be the urge to make a point in a way that is not soon forgotten.

A few minutes after Maurice Goldhaber, now 87 and still active in research at Brookhaven National Laboratory, arrived at a party in 1954, he got into an argument with his host over the existence of the antiproton. The particle had been predicted by the great theorist Paul Dirac, an authority few physicists were prepared to contradict. "I said, 'I don't believe it until it is proven,' " Goldhaber said. After all, he pointed out, there was the inconvenient detail that the universe around us is made of matter, not antimatter.

The host -- a brilliant if rough-cut theorist named Hartland Snyder -- suddenly reached out and grabbed his hand, recalled Dr. Goldhaber. "He said, 'I bet you $500 that the antiproton exists.' Without thinking I said, 'O.K.' " Even though Dr. Goldhaber's brother Gerson was scrambling to detect antiprotons at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and sober reflection told Dr. Goldhaber that his odds of winning the bet were not good, he did not consider backing down.

As it happened, a few months before Gerson Goldhaber's results were ready, another team at Berkeley detected antiprotons, winning a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1959. But the widely discussed bet had its own modest influence on the history of science, said Dr. Gösta Ekspong, who was a member of Gerson Goldhaber's team and is now retired from Stockholm University. "People were reported to say that they believed in the existence of the antiproton," said Ekspong, "because Maurice Goldhaber paid off."

James Glanz writes for Science magazine.

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