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Telescopes and space missions

Telescopes and space missions

Taking a chance on physics

25 Aug 2004 Belle Dumé

What are the chances of physicists finding the Higgs boson at CERN or intelligent life on Titan by the end of the decade? Six-to-one for the Higgs and not very likely for life on Titan according to New Scientist magazine and bookmakers Ladbrokes, who have joined forces to offer the public the opportunity to gamble on a range of scientific projects.

“Physics bets are not just the preserve of big names like Stephen Hawking,” says Valerie Jamieson of New Scientist, “now everyone can join in”. Last month Hawking, who is famous for placing bets on physics with colleagues and co-workers, admitted defeat in a bet about information and black holes.

Warren Lush, who deals with special bets at Ladbrokes, says that setting the odds was difficult. “I canvassed expert opinion and then formed the odds the way a bookmaker does,” he says. “This means that they are not the true odds of a breakthrough, more the odds that we are willing to lay bets on.”

From tomorrow physicists and members of the public outside the US will be able to place bets of up to £25 on five physics projects at the odds shown in brackets, although these will change over time:
• The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft finding intelligent life on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) by 2010 (10,000/1)
• The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detecting gravitational waves by 2010 (500/1)
• Building a fusion power station by 2010 (100/1)
• The ATLAS experiment at CERN finding the Higgs Boson by 2010 (6/1)
• Understanding the origin of cosmic rays by 2010 (4/1)

Lush says that the physicists he asked about cosmic rays were very positive about the chances of a breakthrough, but opinions about finding the Higgs swayed dramatically. However, at 100/1 the odds of building a fusion power station are the same as those offered for finding Elvis alive, which is deemed five times more likely that detecting a gravitational wave by 2010. Meanwhile, the discovery of life on Titan could cost Ladbrokes thousands, but Lush says that he is not losing any sleep.

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