The Boson Bet
Gordy, Stephen, and the Higgs
by Lois Kane
We asked Lois Kane, sometime Ann Arbor Observer writer, if she could/would write a piece about her husband, Gordy Kane, U-M professor of physics, winning a bet with Stephen Hawking. The bet concerned the existence (Kane) or non-existence (Hawking) of the Higgs boson. In July, physicists at the giant accelerator at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, presented data showing that the boson had been observed.
Instead of complying with our suggestion, Kane submitted the following interview with herself. It appears here verbatim.
Q: What is it like living with a physicist who makes bets with Stephen Hawking?
A: There are actually three questions in there: What is it like living with a physicist? What is it like living with a person who bets? What is it like to bet with Stephen Hawking? I'll answer them one at a time.
First, you know all those jokes about physicists? Well, they are mostly right, at least, in the case of theoretical physicists. They do physics in their heads even when they are pretending to be discussing buying a new couch.
Second, most theorists are gamblers. They are fiercely gambling their time and their reputation on the validity of whatever they are conjecturing is true of the universe. Gordy and Stephen take things further. They love bets, which is how this thing came about.
As to the third, making bets with Stephen, doing anything with Stephen, is lots of fun. The press makes a big deal about Stephen being a great physicist. That's surely true, but it's not everything. What they don't talk about is that he is a great friend and colleague who is respected and loved by everyone who knows him.
Stephen is also notorious for his gleeful physics bets. This one happened twelve years ago when he and Gordy were at a meeting on Jeju Island, South Korea. Controversy about there being such a thing as the Higgs boson provoked Stephen to challenge Gordy to a $100 wager. Gordy, with absolute convictions about the
Higgs, and his own proven inclinations toward betting, accepted, of course. His hopes were not to cash a check, but to frame one.
So, in answer to your question, living with a physicist who makes bets with Stephen Hawking is fabulous. Mostly.
Q: Do you understand the Higgs boson?
A: In a word, no. But I've been married to this stuff for fifty-three years so I have some thoughts about it. The main thing is, I think I understand scale. I understand that we can describe, in words, what physics knows about the world when things are the size that we can see. And also I have some sort of notion of things at the size of all the bosons. Too small to see, but detectable at accelerators. They are not exactly seen at accelerators. Their effects on other particles are seen. Physicists use math to understand the patterns the effects make.
They read mathematical explanations of patterns the same way we read menus. It is real to them. A big equation is as clear as thoughts about a hamburger.
I sort of understand that the effect of the Higgs boson is to give mass to other particles, which is sort of (I have to say "sort of" a lot) like photons providing what we think of as light.
Q: Why was it such a big deal that the Higgs boson was discovered by the machine at CERN?
A: The discovery was like dropping the last piece of the puzzle into physics at the scale of the Higgs and all other bosons (and fermions, but we won't go into that). The observations establish that physics up to that point is, indeed, correct. The part that Gordy is keen on is that that knowledge lets them go forward into more detailed understanding of existence.
Q: What's it like to know Stephen Hawking?
A: I'm glad you asked. I've been wanting to tell everyone. To be in the same room with Stephen is to feel what "sacred" must mean. I can't tell it, really. You feel it. There is overwhelming peace and love in that room. Stephen's love of life that has sustained him past possibility is more mysterious than Higgs bosons, which are susceptible to examination by huge machines. There is no mathematics that's going to explain how this exquisite person can endure every discomfort, every limitation, every frustration and still laugh happily, insist on living, and mirthfully make bets.
[Originally published in September, 2012.]