The Odds of Discovery

/ by Adam Preskill /

Gambling has long had a place in science, occasionally it even moves discovery along

From the OCT/NOV 2005 issue of Seed:

(Illustration by Dave Casey)

One afternoon several years ago, Dr. John Preskill, professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, decided he’d heard just about enough from Stephen Hawking. “We were having a discussion, and he just seemed so confident in his position that I started thinking, ‘What makes you so sure?’”

A historic and infrequently recognized relationship exists between the advancement of science and the business of betting. Scientific lore is replete with wild wagers recorded in laboratory logbooks and ridiculous prizes hinging on intensely serious studies. Legend has it even Isaac Newton’s “Principia” was a response to Christopher Wren’s monetary challenge to prove Kepler’s laws of motion.  The relationship has recently ascended to a level where bets on far-flung scientific speculations are no longer solely the purview of the scientists involved. Ladbrokes Worldwide, a British online bookmaking firm, provided all bettors the opportunity to make a wager on scientific research. Ladbrokes opened betting for two weeks on five scientific problems—the discovery of the Higgs boson, source of high-energy cosmic rays, life on Titan, feasibility of nuclear fusion, and the existence of gravitational waves—offering odds to the public on whether any of these outstanding issues would be settled by 2010.

The two men were debating what’s known as the information paradox, with Preskill insisting Hawking’s position contradicted an aspect of quantum theory. “So,” says Preskill, “we made a bet.” In July 2004, Hawking announced at a major international conference that his latest research provided a resolution to the paradox: a means for information to escape black holes intact. And so Hawking publicly conceded to Preskill, honoring the wager by presenting his colleague with a symbolic gift: an encyclopedia of baseball, something dense from which information can be retrieved.

The odds, however, were less a reflection of the likelihood that a given scientific feat would be accomplished than a reflection of the average person’s opinion about the likelihood of success. The point for Ladbrokes is that people are willing to put their money where their opinion is. Indeed, when Ladbrokes posted 500 to 1 odds that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) project would be able to detect gravitational waves, bettors pounced. The wagers came in so fast that the odds plummeted, just as they would for any point spread or horse race. By the time betting closed, the odds that LIGO would be successful were down to 10 to 1.

Betting also has empirical uses for researchers. In 2001, climatologists investigating global warming realized that a town in Alaska had been recording bets on the exact day the ice would melt on the nearby Tanana River since 1917. Because the climatic event was eagerly watched by hundreds of locals with a stake in the pot, scientists are confident that the records are accurate. Having historical data from a time before anyone started to study global climate change proved exceptionally valuable.

Of course, in bets riding on the results of incredibly advanced thinking, the bettors also happen to be the judges. After Hawking’s concession, Preskill, still holding fast to his principles, found himself somewhat unwilling to accept victory. He felt the concession wasn’t scientifically sound. Physicists are still debating the veracity of the work that Hawking only recently published. “This is a really big issue in theoretical physics, and Stephen argued so persuasively for his theory for so many years, that to suddenly shift on the basis of what seems like a pretty weak argument to many scientists—not just me—was a bit of a shock. There’s really something kind of sad about it.”

It’s a case of winner’s remorse, of course—but within the pages of his new encyclopedia of baseball, Preskill may just find that the lesson has been learned many times before.

Originally published September 30, 2005

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