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Physicist's bet on the 'God particle' pays off in chocolate coins

July 04, 2012|By Eryn Brown and Karen Kaplan | Los Angeles Times
  • MIT physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek was so confident the Higgs boson would be found that he bet a cache of rare chocolate coins. His friendly wager paid off Wednesday.
MIT physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek was so confident the Higgs… (Chitose Suzuki / Associated…)

Scientists continue to celebrate the announcement Wednesday that in all probability, the long-sought Higgs boson – a.k.a. the “God particle” – has been detected at a European atom-smasher outside Geneva.

For the physics community as a whole, it’s a confirmation of its theories about why there is mass in the universe.

For one particular physicist, it means that a payoff of rare chocolate coins is in the offing.

In 2005, MIT physicists Frank Wilczek and Janet Conrad made a friendly wager. Wilczek bet that the Higgs boson would be found by scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. Conrad bet that the elusive subatomic particle would remain hidden.

The scientists set up rigorous conditions, and even roped in a referee to determine a winner. They wagered a stash of the chocolate coins that are served at Nobel Prize award ceremonies in Stockholm. If Conrad lost, she’d have to send Wilczek 10 coins; if Wilczek lost, he’d have to deliver 100 coins to his colleague.

As reported last year in the L.A. Times, the stakes were a reflection of Wilczek's confidence in the Higgs. “It's just a matter of letting the accelerator run long enough,” he said at the time.

On Wednesday morning, that confidence paid off. The referee emailed Wilczek to report that Conrad had conceded.

“It seems my faith has been rewarded,” Wilczek said Wednesday.

The referee was inclined to reserve judgment until details of the discovery were published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In a seminar at CERN, leaders of the two research teams that are looking for signs of the Higgs said it could take years to fully characterize the newly discovered particle and confirm that is is indeed the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.

But Conrad indicated she was ready to concede, according to Wilczek.

For his part, Wilczek said he had 20 or 30 of the chocolate coins socked away in a drawer someplace, which would have been useful if the bet had gone the other way. But even with so many on hand, he said he was still looking forward to receiving the new coins from Conrad.

It’ll be nice to have more, he said, and “these will be fresher.”

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