Gravitational waves

The discovery of gravitational waves in space led to two physicists nearly winning a stack of cash at the bookmakers after placing a bet in 2004. (Image: NASA/AFP)

Scientists involved in last week’s gravitational waves breakthrough missed out on a big win at the bookies, it has emerged.

The US-based LIGO project (Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) recently detected significant ripples in space-time. The detection of these “gravitational waves”, caused by the movement of black holes in space, is a major breakthrough for astronomers trying to understand the universe. They also confirm Einstein’s predictions in his Theory of General Relativity.

But for two members of the team, British physicists Professor Jim Hough and Professor Sheila Rowan, the discovery also meant a narrow gambling loss.

The pair of scientists took out a wager with UK firm Ladbrokes in 2004 that gravitational waves would be discovered by 2010. The bet was offered at odds of 100/1 and the pair put down a £25 (AUD50) wager. Ladbrokes also offered markets on the discovery of life on Titan, Saturn’s moon. The odds of that were a rather longer shot at 10,000/1.

Gamblers Miss Out By Six Years

In fact, the discovery of gravitational waves was initially priced up at 500/1. However, bookmakers slashed the odds after several bets were placed on the outcome. Ladbrokes ended up offering just 10/1 on the discovery. Prof. Hough even framed the betting slip in his Glasgow University office.

Regardless, the gambling scientists were six years overdue for their wager to come in.

Canny gamblers would have lumped on if they’d followed the advice of fellow physicists. Glasgow University’s Professor James Hough said at the time of the original wager:

“It [discovery of gravitational waves] is more like 5/1 or 2/1,” he said. “I think it is a great investment.”

“I have been working in the field for a number of years and experiments are just getting to the stage where first results are possible.

“They are not guaranteed yet. That will not be true until after 2010 but still the chances are very high from the present experiments.”

Prof. Hough’s predictions seem to have come eerily true.

Bookies Firm On No Discovery

Despite the drop in price, the bookmakers were confident that their book was safe.

Warren Lush, who was working for Ladbrokes at the time, came up with several science-related wagers around 2004. He said:

“We [Ladbrokes] took a firm position that gravitational waves would not be found by 2010 after seeking out further academic advice. Our view was that some new equipment needed to be developed.

“There was actually another professor, Alan Watson, who bet on the discovery at a much bigger price. [At the same time] we offered odds of 6/1 that the Higgs Boson would be discovered by 2010 [the so-called ‘God Particle’] and we turned out to be right on that one too.”

“Fantastic Science” Excites Physicists 

LIGO is a US-based project which uses laser instruments to help detect waves in space. LIGO was decades in the making.

It wasn’t until September last year that the waves passed through LIGO’s beams. Scientists say the waves have spent 1.3 billion years travelling across space after two black holes were created.

“The very thing that we detected was a surprise, two black holes,” Professor Rowan told the BBC.

“And they’re big; their size is very interesting to astronomers. So it’s amazing that immediately we’re doing fantastic science.

“We’re willing to lose out on the £2,500. This is worth much more.”

Worth a Punt on the Little Green Men?

Elsewhere in the Novelty markets, Irish poker site PaddyPower, which operates the Sportsbet site Down Under, has started a book on the discovery of alien life.

The bookmaker goes 100/1 that the existence of aliens will be proved next year or in 2018. A rather more realistic 1/100 is offered that little green men will be discovered in 2020 or later.

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