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No. 1356:
Betting on Science

Today, let's bet on science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

An article in the August 25th, 1998, New York Times strikes a chord. It's about how so many scientists place bets on the outcome of experiments, or on yet-to-be-understood physical behavior. Scientists make such bets with one another all the time.

In 1684, architect Christopher Wren issued a bet. He offered a book worth 40 shillings to anyone who could derive Kepler's laws from the inverse square rule which dictated the influence of the sun's gravity on planets. Newton snapped back that he'd already done it, but he didn't publish the result in the Principia until three years later. While we have no evidence Wren ever paid up, the Principia does call him one of the great geometers of all time.

Almost a century before, Kepler bet a colleague it would take him only a week to predict Mars's orbit around the Sun from earlier observations. (It actually took him five years.) Modern scientists like Feynman and Hawking often bet on outcomes.

The stakes tend to be fairly modest -- typically 10 to 500 dollars, dinner for four, or six bottles of champagne. These are token bets. They don't reflect strong convictions. They're bets that people can afford to lose, and which they often do lose. In many cases they even hope they'll lose. And so the bet really appears to be a metaphor for something else.

These betting scientists leave me reviewing my own lifetime of constructing experimentally-driven theories of heat flow. I've made many hypotheses about why things behave as they do, and I've been wrong more often than right. I take great pride in a few of my theoretical models that've proven to be right. While I haven't bet with colleagues, I've placed a kind of bet every time I set out to do a new experiment. I've bet my time, energy, and resources.

All this betting is driven, not by conviction, but by hope. Constant betting reminds us that scientists aren't experts. If they were -- if they dwelt in domains of established fact -- then betting would be fruitless, and science would be no fun.

Scientists have used a stockpile of rigorous strategies to keep from being deceived by their hopes. The task of science is to narrow down what is true out of the welter of things that might be true. In that, it's not so different from a horse race.

The science we teach is another matter. We teach what's been reduced to near certainty by the scientific process. It's a little like teaching the record of Kentucky Derby winners, then asking why students don't feel the excitement of the horse race. Horse racing is exciting only when we don't yet know which horse will win.

All that lays a peculiar demand on those of us who try to teach science. Can we give finished science the taste and feel of science in the making? Can we make science back into something that has students on edge about what might be the truth of things?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Glanz, J., Putting Their Money Where Their Minds Are. The New York Times, Science Times, Tuesday, August 25, 1988, pp. B9 and B12.

I am grateful to Sharon Cunningham for suggesting the topic.