5 Famous Bets in Scientific History

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While science is driven by careful deduction and analysis, scientists are also human and often have “hunches” about possible future discoveries. To this end, colleagues have been known place bets with each other about possible scientific developments. But beyond just making for a good story, this demonstrates the human side of science, and the fact that those who are ultimately successful may simply be willing to “fail longer than the rest of us.” Even after the seemingly endless rounds of peer review and experimentation, such scientific wagers also reveal the collaborative methods by which science can be self-correcting in the face of new evidence. Following are five of the most famous scientific wagers in history.


5. Nobel Prize Winner Issues Two Challenges

A 1959 lecture by Richard Feynman helped inspire the field of nanotechnology decades later.

Richard Feynman

Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, with a career spanning from work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s to leading the investigative team on the 1986 Challenger disaster. In between, Feynman issued a pair of famous challenges to the scientific community in 1959. One required construction of a working motor no larger than 1/64th of an inch square; the second posed the challenge of shrinking the page of a book to 1/25,000th in scale so that it remained legible to an electron microscope. The prize for solving either of the two challenges: $1,000. Electrical engineer William McLellan claimed the first prize in 1960 after constructing a 250-microgram motor. The second reward wasn’t claimed until 1985 when a Stanford graduate student named Tom Newman inscribed the first page of A Tale of Two Cities literally on the head of a pin. Many physicists credit Feynman’s 1959 lecture, entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” with inspiring the field of nanotechnology that emerged decades later. And how far has nanotech come? In 2007, Israeli scientists etched the 300,000-plus words of the Bible onto an area the size of a grain of sugar.


4. The Simon-Ehrlich Wager on Commodities Prices

Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon waged a famous 1980s bet on commodities prices.

Paul Ehrlich in 2010; Paul Ehrlich

Supply and demand drive the modern economy, with some experts often claiming that ultimate collapse is right around the corner. The interplay of such complex systems often defies modeling, but that doesn’t stop theorists from trying. In 1980, economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich made a very public wager on the future price of five commodities during the next decade (nickel, tin, tungsten, chromium and copper) valued at the 1980 price of $1,000. The idea was that if the price rose, Simon would pay off the difference to Ehrlich, conceding that demand from a growing population had caused a scarcity. However, by 1990, all of the prices had fallen due to inflation, although the world population had grown by 800 million. Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576 to make up the difference. The moral of the story? Perhaps it’s best to side with an economist over a biologist when it comes to commodities speculation. It should also be noted that Ehrlich did not have the best track record in predictions in that era. His 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted “smog disasters” would kill tens of thousands in New York and L.A. in the 1970s, and that famine would bring about the end of England by the year 2000.


3. Hawking Loses Bets on Black Holes

Stephen Hawking lost two high-profile bets regarding black holes.

Photo credit: NASA

Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest astrophysicists of the 20th century, and placed a pair of high-profile bets as a sort of insurance policy against his own discoveries. He made the first wager with physicist Kip Thorne concerning the existence of black holes. Hawking bet Thorne in 1975 that the well-known X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1 did not harbor a black hole; Thorne disagreed. After evidence mounted that the system had a black hole, Hawking finally conceded the bet in 1990, giving Thorne his “prize,” a subscription to a popular porn magazine — much to the consternation of Thorne’s wife. Hawking, however, was pleased to have lost, as his research was based on the premise that black holes were indeed real. Hawking lost a similar hedge bet against his own theory in 2004 with physicist John Preskill and Thorne on whether information can escape from a black hole, a phenomenon that scientists now term Hawking radiation. Hawking settled the bet by giving Preskill a copy of a sports encyclopedia.


2. The “Flat Earth Wager”

A wager in the 19th century about whether the Earth was flat led to a series of lawsuits.

A flat-Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893.

Alfred Russell Wallace is best known as a naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin. However, he also found himself embroiled in one of the more bizarre chapters of 19th century science. For almost any theory, one can find a competing field of pseudo-science deniers, and Victorian England harbored numerous “Flat Earth Societies” championed by John Hampden. In 1870, Wallace took up Hampden’s challenge of 500 pounds for proof that the world was round. His method was straightforward and simple; using three objects spaced three miles apart, he demonstrated that the middle object appeared about five feet above the other two when sighted through a telescope, consistent with the curvature of the Earth. Hampden then cried foul, and began a bizarre campaign of public attacks against Wallace and his family. Wallace sued for libel, instigating a series of countersuits that ruined Wallace financially and professionally. Too late in the game, Wallace realized that he was dealing with a denier, who fed off of media acclaim rather than a skeptic disposed to altering his ideas in the face of evidence. By the way, there is still an active Flat Earth Society today, promoting the belief that the Earth is flat.


1. Isaac Newton Solves an Epic Challenge

A scientific bet inspired Isaac Newton's epic Principia.

Isaac Newton’s own first-edition copy of his 1687 Principia; Andrew Dunn/AndrewDunnPhoto.com

In 1619, Johannes Kepler published his third and final law of planetary motion, describing the orbital period of a body as being in direct proportion to the longest diameter of its orbit. This raised the suspicion that gravity itself was inversely proportional with distance (that is, move twice as far away and it is 1/4th as strong, three times the distance equals 1/9th strength, etc.) so in 1684, English astronomer Christopher Wren offered a prize of 40 shillings to anyone who could link the two. Astronomer Edmund Halley approached an indifferent Isaac Newton, who impatiently told him that he had already solved the problem several years earlier but could not locate his notes on the subject. Newton later sent his solution to Halley well past Wren’s two-month deadline, upon which Halley urged the reluctant Newton to publish his work. The seed planted by the wager later grew to become Newton’s magnum opus on The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, better known as simply the Principia, in which Newton describes his three laws of motion, inertia, and universal laws of gravitation. Modern physics owes much to a persistent Halley for bringing Newton’s ideas to publication.


One More: The Genome Wager

Wagering continues to this day on many scientific outcomes, such as the discovery of gravity waves or the Higgs-Boson. One famous ongoing bet concerns genomics. Specifically, Lewis Wolpert has bet fellow biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake that by May 1, 2029, scientists who know the genome for an animal or plant embryo will be able to predict its development, including any abnormalities. Dr. Sheldrake maintains that genes aren’t entirely predictive in terms of laying the groundwork for future development of the organism, which is instead guided by non-inherited factors. The prize for the bet is a 2005 bottle of Quinta do Vesuvio port wine, which should reach maturity by 2029.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.