The 2019 Physics Nobel Prizes were announced this morning, half going to Jim Peebles for his work on big bang cosmology, half to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for discovery of an exoplanet.
You can read elsewhere more details about the prize winners and their work, but I do want to point out that this announcement means (since there will be no further Physics Nobel Prize awards before the start of 2020) that John Horgan has won his 2002 bet with Michio Kaku, with \$2000 going to the Nature Conservancy. The winning prediction from Horgan was:
By 2020, no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.
If one looks at the comments back then, Gordon Kane signs on to an even stronger variant of the Horgan/Kaku bet:
By 2020 there will be a Nobel Prize for a string- or unification- or supersymmetry-based theory or explanation or experimental discovery.
Luckily for him he doesn’t seem to have put up any money for this, since he has now lost this bet.
For my own comments at the time, see here (this was a couple years before this blog was started). As I explained there, I was willing to sign up on Horgan’s side of the bet if the “other unified theory” clause was eliminated. Unlike Horgan, I’m not a sceptic at all of the existence of a unified theory, or of humanity’s ability to find it. My argument (which I think has held up well) was that we’re not going to get there by pursuing superstring theory or anything like it. In a better world, the LHC would have found not a vanilla Higgs, but something unexpected that gave us a new idea about electroweak unification, one that pointed to a successful new idea about a fully unified theory. I didn’t think this was likely, but I thought it was possible, and I wasn’t interested in betting against the possibility I would most like to have seen.
What shocks me about where we are now that Kaku and Kane have lost their bets is not that they lost, which was to be expected, but that this loss seems to have had zero effect on their behavior. Kane’s endless replacement of failed predictions by new ones is a well-known story. For Kaku, one can get some idea of his current point of view from this interview:
Yahoo News: So tell us about your work in string field theory. You’re trying to finish Einstein’s equation?
Michio Kaku: That’s right. We want to find the “God Equation” — the ultimate theory that explains the entire universe. We want an equation that’s maybe 1 inch long that would allow us to “read the mind of God” — those are Einstein’s words.
Yahoo News: And how’s it going?
Michio Kaku: We think we have it! It’s called string theory. It’s not in its final form, and it’s not testable yet, [but] we have the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva.
We’re testing the periphery of the theory, but the theory itself is a theory of the universe — so it’s very hard to test. But we physicists are optimistic. We think we will be able to test the theory. And we think it is the final theory. So physics ends at that point. Another era opens up, but one era ends when we finally prove this is the Theory of Everything….
If string theory is correct, it means that all the subatomic particles — the electrons, the protons — are nothing but musical notes on a tiny vibrating rubber band. So that physics is nothing but the harmonies of the vibrating rubber bands. Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can create from the vibrating strings. The universe is a symphony of strings.
And the mind of God is cosmic music resonated through hyperspace.
I don’t know of other bets on string theory, but there were quite a few bets about SUSY. I assume David Gross has now paid off his lost bets on SUSY, haven’t heard though anything about that. At the Copenhagen SUSY bet event, the losers (Arkani-Hamed, Gross and Shih) showed no signs that losing a bet on a scientific outcome had any effect at all on these scientist’s views on the issue they were willing to bet on.
Update: Horgan has posted his own take on this here.
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