Physicist Stephen Hawking Was Smartest When He Was Wrong

Physicist Stephen Hawking Was Smartest When He Was Wrong

Physicist Stephen Hawking Was Smartest When He Was Wrong
Stephen Hawking taking a zero gravity test in 2007. (Photo Courtesy: NASA Kennedy Space Center Media Archive)

(Bloomberg View) -- In 2002, the future Nobel Prize-winner Peter Higgs joined several fellow physicists at a dinner in Edinburgh. Drinks flowed and the professional invective followed. According to a report published in the Scotsman the following morning, the gathered physicists were frustrated by, and perhaps a little jealous of Stephen Hawking. "It is very difficult to engage him [Hawking] in discussion, and so he has got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not," Higgs is quoted as saying. "His celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have."

Higgs had reason to feel aggrieved. Two years earlier, Hawking had placed a very public $100 bet that the Higgs boson -- a subatomic particle theorized in the 1960s -- would never be found. In professional physics and cosmology, where being right is the surest route to professional rewards, it was tantamount to an insult. And Higgs, whose legacy was that particle, took it personally.

For Stephen Hawking, who died Wednesday at 76, it wasn't personal. It was just science. For years, he'd been making -- and losing -- public bets on fundamental questions of physics. He felt no shame in these repudiations, but rather reveled in them, knowing that science advances when its participants are wrong as well as right. His willingness to admit that reality at his own self-deprecating expense is an important part of his legacy as a public intellectual -- and a lesson for our polarized times.

High-profile scientific bets date back at least to the late 19th century. They’ve become more common in recent years as researchers leverage better communication technologies to raise awareness of basic scientific questions and disputes. More than most of his peers, Hawking seemed to appreciate the possibilities. In 1974, he bet Kip Thorne, a CalTech physicist, that Cygnus X-1, a bright object in the constellation Cygnus, wasn't a black hole. In 1990, he announced that the accumulated evidence meant he'd lost the bet (which he paid off with a subscription to Penthouse). The subsequent publicity raised the profile of black holes -- and Hawking -- for years.

Hawking continued wagering. In 1997, he and Thorne bet another CalTech physicist, John Preskill, that information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved. If Hawking and Thorne were right, the finding would undermine the basic tenets of physics. Hawking worked on the problem until 2004, when he used the occasion of a major physics conference to announce he'd devised a calculation that proved he was wrong. As the losing party, he presented Preskill with a baseball encyclopedia from which information could easily be retrieved. The bet was covered globally, as was the scientific question at the heart of it -- and Hawking's embrace of his own error.

Hawking's bets were generally made with friends and colleagues unlikely to feel the sting of losing to the celebrity scientist (which never happened, anyway). When Hawking bet against the Higgs boson, he wagered with Gordon Kane at the University of Michigan, not Higgs himself. The intention was good-natured: Hawking believed that a failure to discover the predicted particle would be more interesting for physics.

Higgs didn’t take kindly to the suggestion and, rather than engage Hawking, continued to call into question his scholarship. Ever the gentleman, Hawking didn't take the bait. After the Higgs boson was confirmed in 2012, he made a global spectacle of paying off the $100 wager, admitting he was wrong and calling for Higgs -- his longtime critic -- to be given the Nobel.

Hawking's humility and graciousness would be rare in any age, but particularly at a time when conceding even the slightest error is viewed as a weakness to be derided and exploited. As key scientific fields like climate change and vaccinations become politicized, this kind of rigidity also infects how we do and don't discuss them. Public-facing scientists become reluctant to concede uncertainty about data for fear that the admission will undermine funding and support for their research. The result: well-intentioned intellectuals who feel obligated to present science as a series of truths not to be argued or doubted.

If Hawking’s life can teach scientists, public intellectuals and social media users anything, it's that humility and a willingness to change one's mind isn't a sign of weakness, but rather of an adventurous and intellectually engaged mind and polity. That's a legacy as worthy as Hawking's monumental scientific achievements.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”

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