Stephen Hawking’s Most Provocative Moments, From Evil Aliens to Black Hole Wagers

BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE EVENT HORIZONFind out how VFX artists have created a visceral experience while we plunge into a black hole.

“This was a form of insurance policy for me. I have done a lot of work on black holes, and it would all be wasted if it turned out that black holes do not exist,” Hawking wrote in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. “But in that case, I would have the consolation of winning my bet, which would win me four years of the magazine Private Eye.”

Nowadays, the object is widely accepted to be a black hole. What’s more, the discovery of gravitational waves in 2016 all but confirmed black holes’ existence. (Meet the scientists trying to take the world’s first picture of a black hole.)

Years later, Hawking entered another black hole-related bet with Thorne and Caltech theoretical physicist John Preskill. In 1997, the trio wagered over whether a black hole destroys the information encoded in the objects it gravitationally devours. Thorne and Hawking bet that black holes do in fact destroy information—seemingly breaking a tenet of quantum mechanics. Preskill disagreed.

In 2004, Hawking conceded the bet, buying Preskill a baseball encyclopedia as a prize. Hawking later tried to figure out how black holes preserve information, making notable progress in a 2016 study in Physical Review Letters. But the paradox remains unsolved.

The $100 Higgs Boson

Black holes weren’t the only targets of Hawking’s scientific gambles. In 2012, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider made history when they discovered hints of the Higgs boson—the long-sought missing piece of the standard model of particle physics. (Read National Geographic’s coverage of the 2012 announcement.)

Theorized in the 1960s, the Higgs boson is the particle that interacts with most other subatomic particles to endow them mass. But for decades, the Higgs proved fiendishly difficult to find—so much so that Hawking had a running bet with the University of Michigan’s Gordon Kane over whether the particle would ever be discovered.

“About a decade ago, I was in a conference in Korea, and Stephen was there,” Kane said in a 2012 interview with NPR. “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.”

When news broke of the Higgs boson’s discovery, Hawking praised Higgs for his work—and noted that he had lost the bet.

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