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Epic Scientific Bets [Dec. 7th, 2006|08:11 pm]
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Originally published at Galactic Interactions. Please leave any comments there.

We’ve all heard about various bets that Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne have made with each other and with others. I was there when Hawking conceded on one of those bets, during a public lecture at Caltech in the mid-90’s. And, yeah, those dirty old men had various magazine subscriptions listed as the stakes of the bet.

Well, I, too, participate in epic scientific bets, and am here to declare victory in one. A couple of months ago, Ethan Siegel of the Univ. of Florida came to give a talk about charge separation and currents in the early Universe at the local cosmology/particle theory journal club. At one point in his talk, he puts up a picture of M81 (which looks something like:


(Image: N.A.Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF)), and says that it’s a picture of M87 (which looks something like:


(Image: NOAO/AURA/NSF)). I assert that he’s named the galaxy wrong, that really it’s a picture of M81; he’s pretty sure he’s right. The name of the galaxy is not terribly important to the talk, and there’s no point in getting stuck on it, so I say, “I’ll bet you a nickel,” and he moves on.

A week or so later I get this in the mail:


Let it be known that Ethan Siegel is a man of his word!

This is the second nickel I’ve won on a galaxy. Way back in 1998, Saul Perlmutter, Isobel Hook, and I were debating which “long-shot” supernova candidate we were going to take a spectrum of at the end of the night. We’d already managed to get a complete set of spectra for the supernovae below whatever brightness cutoff we had for that search, but we had a little time left to make an attempt at one more very dim one. We had two reasonable, although not overly compelling candidates. I argued for one, Isobel the other. I was convinced (based on more of a gut feeling than real evidence) that the one Isobel was advocating was really a variable quasar, not a supernova. Saul broke the tie and decided in favor of Isobel’s candidate. I told her, “I’ll bet you a nickel it’s a quasar.”

Half an hour later, when classic broad emission lines showed up on on our computer screen, Isobel pulled out her coin purse and handed me a nickel.

I’m a high roller.