Doubt is a key feature of scientific progress that consists of a constant reevaluation of hypotheses. This constant doubt and proposal of new theories often leads the research community to controversy and conflict. This is the framework that fosters the making of bets between scientists, which arise with some frequency. In most cases, they help to visualize major problems that science is facing, and thus it is worth focusing on some of them.

The bet on the brain and consciousness that still stands

Last June, a huge meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) took place in New York, where more than 800 neuroscientists, philosophers and curious members of the public packed an auditorium. They had come to learn the first results of an ambitious investigation into a profound question: What is consciousness?  At the meeting, the result of a bet between neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers was settled.

In June 1998, Koch and Chalmers had attended a conference in Bremen, Germany, and ended up talking late into the night at a local bar about the nature of consciousness. Koch wagered Chalmers that, by 2023, someone would discover the mechanism by which neurons in the brain produce consciousness. Dr. Chalmers, who maintained otherwise, accepted the bet. The prize would be a few bottles of fine wine.

In the 25 years that have passed, powerful tools have been developed for probing the brain, and numerous experiments have been conducted to determine the origin of consciousness[1] At the meeting in New York, the aim was to present the results of an experiment to measure the predictability of two of the main hypotheses on the neural bases of consciousness: Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT). These theories were supposed to allow some verification by subjecting individuals to certain stimuli, observing the reactions in the brain.

Six independent laboratories conducted the adversarial experiment between the two theories, following a pre-established protocol and using various complementary methods to measure brain activity. They asked 256 volunteers to look at a series of faces, letters and shapes and then press a button under certain conditions. The results were inconclusive, not allowing any of them to be validated, confirming that a clear neural correlate of consciousness has not been found. Dr. Koch ended the evening by carrying a wooden box full of wine onto the stage. He took out a 1978 bottle of Madeira and gave it to Dr. Chalmers. He then challenged his friend to a new bet, this time double or nothing: a brain marker of consciousness by 2048. Dr. Chalmers accepted the bet instantly, adding “I hope I lose, but I suspect I’ll win.”[2]

A bet that leads to great results

Wagers between scientists are nothing new. They are a long-standing practice. One of the most important scientific works in history, Isaac Newton’s Principia, emerged in response to a bet.

We go back to the year 1684, when three celebrities gathered for dinner to discuss their views on the motion of the planets. These were Christopher Wren, the architect who had rebuilt half of London, including St Paul’s Cathedral and more than 50 churches, and who had a great fondness for astronomy; Robert Hooke, the physicist who had discovered the law of elasticity that bears his name; and Edmund Halley, the astronomer who had calculated the orbit of the comet that visits us every 76 years and which was named after him. Kepler had formulated the laws governing planetary motion based solely on observations, so they represented simply a fact. They sought to mathematically relate Kepler’s laws to an inverse square force law. Given difficulty presented to them, Wren decided to throw down a challenge: 40 shillings (just under $2,000 today) to whoever could mathematically demonstrate the nature of that invisible force that attracted the planets, for which he set a deadline of two months. Neither Hooke nor Halley was able to tackle the issue. However, Halley, who had become obsessed with the problem, had the bright idea of calling upon Isaac Newton, who he knew was a strange and eccentric being as well as an extraordinary mathematician.

When Halley met Newton and asked him what he thought the curve would be that would be described by the planets supposing the force of attraction towards the sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it, the reply was immediate: an ellipse. “I calculated it some time ago”, he said. Newton could not provide the written solution, most likely because did not have it complete. The fact is that Halley, obsessed as he was with the matter, urged him to work on it. Newton, for his part, locked himself in his studio, working day and night. After three months, he was able to send Halley some notes, in which he presented his Law of Universal Gravitation and systematically explained the rules that govern all bodies in motion. Nevertheless, Halley continued to press Newton to publish his theory, on which he continued to work with the same zeal for two years. The result was the innovative Principia Mathematica, three volumes in which he not only proposed the law of gravity and the three laws of motion, but also contributed to the creation of calculus, establishing the foundations of classical mechanics.

Newton was so exhausted by this work that he never took up mathematics or physics again. Since Newton’s intention does not seem to have been to publish his early works, nor to continue them, the wager of these three figures and the subsequent determination of Halley could have been decisive for this historic step in science. As for the reward offered by Wren, there was no point, since the deadline imposed on it was far exceeded.

Scientific wagers have proliferated in the second half of the twentieth century

The phenomenon of betting on the outcome of scientific questions has proliferated in the twentieth century for no known specific reason, although it is conceivable that this custom says something about research itself. Robert P. Crease, philosopher of science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says that “[b]ets are interesting, because they reveal the game-like quality with which scientists often approach their work.”[3]

The fact is that in certain institutions dedicated to research, they have come to be established as a common incentive mechanism. Scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California keep a book with the title “Official SLAC Theory Group Record of Wagers,” containing 28 pages of bets dating back to 1984. Similarly, at the old Bell Laboratories, for decades there was a betting “book” in the tearoom, where scientists gathered for discussion every day at 4 p.m.[4]

Hawking’s bets

Stephen Hawking, undoubtedly the most well-known scientist of the late twentieth century, is also famous for having bet repeatedly, but above all, for having lost all his wagers.

A black hole is an astronomical object with a gravitational force so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape from it. Their existence is derived from Einstein’s field equations, but Einstein never came to accept their real existence in the universe. In 1933, Lemaître became the first person to understand the nature of the horizon of a black hole, long before it was called a black hole.[5] But in the early 1970s, when black holes were still completely unknown objects, a powerful source of X-rays was discovered in the constellation of Cygnus, and scientists began to speculate that it could be a black hole. This gave rise to his first high-profile wager. It was in late 1974 that he bet Caltech physicist Kip Thorne that there was no black hole at the center of the X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1. The agreement was signed before witnesses and the document was framed in Thorne’s office. A few years later, however, even though astronomers were still unsure that Cygnus X-1 was a black hole, Hawking relented. As Thorne relates, “Late one night in June 1990, while I was in Moscow working on research with Soviet colleagues, Stephen and an entourage of family, nurses, and friends broke into my office at Caltech, found the framed bet, and wrote a concessionary note on it with validation by Stephen’s thumbprint.”[6] And he paid the agreed-upon prize, a year’s subscription to Penthouse magazine.

A few years later, in 1997, Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne joined in a bet against Caltech quantum physicist John Preskill regarding the so-called black hole information paradox. The former claimed that information is completely lost when something falls into a black hole, while John Preskill said that this did not make sense, since there is a requirement of quantum mechanics according to which information cannot be destroyed.

In 2004, Hawking announced that he was conceding the bet and that he now believed that black hole horizons should fluctuate and leak information. In 2013, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, he claimed that this bet was the “biggest blunder” of his career. Hawking rewarded the winner with a baseball encyclopedia, to fulfill the agreement.

It didn’t take long for him to bet again. This is how the director of the Perimeter Institute, Neil Turok, explained how Hawking challenged him in a new bet. “In 2001, I gave a talk proposing a new theory of the big bang according to which the big bang was only the latest in an infinite series of big bangs, and the universe would be a cyclic universe.[7] Stephen, in typical fashion, at the end of a talk, said ‘I bet you that the Planck satellite will discover the gravitational wave signal of inflation, which would immediately disprove your theory’, because our prediction from our theory was that there would be no gravitational wave signal.”[8] In 2014, a Harvard research team, BICEP2, based in Antarctica, announced the detection of certain primordial gravitational wave imprints and, although doubts were raised in scientific media about the finding, Hawking was quick to declare himself the winner of the bet. A few months later, however, the BICEP2 team recognized that the signals captured did not correspond to primordial gravitational waves. In fact, we still have not detected them.

Hawking’s last defeat was at the hands of Gordon Kane, a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan, in relation to the discovery of the Higgs boson. This boson is an elementary particle that has a fundamental role in the mechanism by which mass originates in the Universe. At the beginning of this century, it was the only particle predicted by the Standard Model of Particle Physics that had not yet been detected, and its discovery was essential to make sense of everything we know about the behavior of matter at its most elementary levels. For this reason, every effort was being made to verify its existence.

On July 4, 2012, in an exciting session, CERN announced the detection of the Higgs boson. Hawking celebrated it with these words on the BBC: “It seems I have just lost $100.”[9]

Indeed, a decade earlier, at a meeting in Korea where both Kane and Hawking were discussing at the same table along with four or five other scientists, according to Kane, “Stephen interrupted, and said he would like to bet me that there was no Higgs boson”[10], and the bet was formalized right there and then with a $100 prize.

Hawking’s losing record has led the BBC science commentator to joke: “The only bet that I’m sure Hawking has won is the poker hand he played on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’.[11]

A multitudinous bet

Symmetry is at the heart of the laws of nature. Symmetry in physical systems is a broader concept than the symmetries we can observe in the appearance of a butterfly. It refers to all the features of a physical system that, under certain transformations, are invariant. Emil (Emmy) Noether, by relating symmetries to the principle of conservation, enabled the construction of the Standard Model of particles, with which amazing progress has been made in simplifying the world down to just a few important ingredients and a small set of natural laws encoded in symmetries.[12]

Over the past five decades, physicists have focused on building theories that encompass larger symmetries. The focus of this process is supersymmetry, usually known by its abbreviation SUSY, the mathematical theory that suggested the existence of an associated “superparticle” for each known particle, a concept considered elegant and that was needed to solve some other theoretical problems, such as the existence of dark matter, which is supposed to be the fundamental constituent of the cosmos. It is a hypothetical idea that is losing followers over time.

In 2000, a number of scientists bet on the existence of supersymmetry. And in August 2016, 44 physicists gathered in Copenhagen at the Niels Bohr International Academy to settle the bet made 16 years earlier. Twenty had bet that, by then, the Large Hadron Collider would have detected evidence of supersymmetry; 24 had bet against it. The “No” side won: in the summer of 2016 there were no signs of superparticles. Each of the winners received the prize consisting of a “good cognac at a price not less than $100”.

A fun bet

The multiverse is a speculative idea according to which our universe is only one among the innumerable existing, each of which is controlled by different parameters in the laws of nature. This idea is reached through several different scientific models. It appears to be a popular idea in modern physics, and although no experimental evidence has been found, it continues to be an ongoing object of scientific research and debate.

At a panel discussion at Stanford University in which Andrei Linde, known for his theory of cosmic inflation, and Martin Rees, astronomer and rector of Trinity College, Cambridge, were present, an audience member asked them how much they would bet on the multiverse concept. Rees imaginatively replied that on the scale of whether he would bet his goldfish, his dog or his own life, he was nearly at the dog level. Andrei Linde, who had been arguing “eternal inflation” for 25 years, said he would almost bet his life.[13]

A few days later, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg gave a lecture at Trinity College that closed with these words: “In the Austin Airport, on the way to this meeting I noticed for sale the October issue of a magazine called Astronomy, having on the cover the headline ‘Why You Live in Multiple Universes.’ Inside I found a report of a discussion at a conference in Stanford, at which Martin Rees said that he was sufficiently confident about the multiverse to bet his dog’s life on it, while Andrei Linde said he would bet his own life. As for me, I have just enough confidence about the multiverse to bet the lives of both Andrei Linde and Martin Rees’s dog.”[14]

Manuel Ribes

Bioethics Observatory- Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia



[1] See The European Human Brain Project: “We can gain fundamental insights into what it means to be human”

[2] John Horgan A 25-Year-Old Bet about Consciousness Has Finally Been Settled   Scientific American June 26, 2023

[3] James Glanz Putting Money Where Their Minds Are; Where Scientists Gather, Wagering Flourishes  The New York Times August 25, 1998

[4] Ibidem

[5]  See Lemaître, religión, ciencia: “Había dos formas de llegar a la verdad. Decidí seguir ambas”

[6]  Kip S. Thorne  Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy  1994  ISBN–10. 0393312763 

[7] See Scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. A paradigm shift: from consensus to controversy

[8] Ian Sample Stephen Hawking claims victory in gravitational wave bet     The Guardian  Tue 18 Mar 2014

[9] Alan Boyle Higgs’ big loser: Why Stephen Hawking is such a bad gambler   Science Editor, NBC News   July 6, 2012

[10] Ibidem

[11] Ibidem

[12]  See La simetría está en la esencia del universo

[13] Martin Rees Unser Platz im Universum  21.11.2020

[14] Steven Weinberg   Living in the Multiverse  arXiv:hep-th/0511037v1 3 Nov 2005


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