Scientists are announcing a major breakthrough in physics this week—the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, ending a 50 year quest to find the missing particle that makes mathematical sense of the universe. If experiments showed it didn’t exist, we’d have to rethink all the equations we’ve been using to understand everything from gravity to relativity.
But one man was betting they wouldn’t find it: Stephen Hawking.
Acknowledging it was a major discovery, he said, “This is an important result and should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize.” “But,” he continued, “it is a pity in a way because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect. For this reason I had a bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle wouldn’t be found. It seems I have just lost $100.”
Sometimes called the “god particle” for its role in explaining fundamental questions like why matter has mass and indeed how the universe itself could have started, you’d think Hawking would have been betting on its discovery.
Hawking has long held that there is no god other than the computer of our minds, and he made news in philosophy circles last year year denouncing the notion of an afterlife: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Maybe he’s just disappointed that the Higgs boson confirms exactly what we already suspected about mathematical reality—after all, even the smartest minds enjoy the mystery of having some things remain unknown.