January 5, 2009

When Physicists Fight

Stephen Hawking is a famously stubborn agitator among his peers: for one thing, he's had a years-outstanding bet with Peter Higgs that Higgs' eponymous boson (also called The God Particle for its portended import: the Higgs boson theoretically gives everything its mass) will not be discovered. Recent excitement over at CERN has brought this wager back into the limelight, and it appears that Hawking, while acknowledging that the LHC's probability of proving the Higgs has increased by a probability of four, remains mischievous and declares that it would be "more interesting" not to find it, making the scientific community "think again." Higgs, for his part, is a good sport, but must be dying inside at the LHC's continued delays.

Another of Hawking's loud and controversial theories concerned black holes, an area of expertise that his name is practically synonymous with (and in fact, two definitions concerning black holes are named for him--Hawking radiation and Hawking temperature). Thirty years ago, Hawking claimed that nothing, not even information, can escape a black hole's singularity, and fellow physicist Leonard Susskind spent a good part of his career proving him wrong (and defending a fundamental law of physics in the process). The drama, in all its theoretical glory, is laid out in entertaining fashion in Susskind's new book The Black Hole War. In addition to the sex appeal of two scientists battling it out with mathematical equations, TBHW is a great primer on string theory and quantum field theory--and reinforces the notion that these guys are all helpless gamblers. In the epilogue, Susskind prints a contract drawn in 1980 between Hawking and another physicist, Don Page; on it, it confirms via thumbprint that Hawking conceded the black hole war in 2007. Maybe this explains his angst with the Higgs boson: regardless of international acclaim as one of science's greatest minds, the man just wants to win a bet.

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