PASADENA— It's not every day that a theoretical physicist pays off a bet on nakedness, but Stephen Hawking did so today at the California Institute of Technology.
Hawking, a Cambridge University professor and arguably the most significant figure in physics since Einstein, has been at Caltech for the past six weeks as a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar. He conceded today a 1991 bet he made with Caltech physics professors Kip Thorne and John Preskill that a phenomenon known as the naked singularity is possible.
Thorne and Preskill think that naked singularities are allowed by nature. Hawking does not, but conceded the bet today "on a technicality," he said.
In accepting Hawking's payoff, Preskill said that "We're much more tolerant of nakedness" than the British physicist.
"It comes from living in Southern California," Thorne added.
The bet payoff was Hawking's presenting his two American colleagues with adequate raiments to shield their nakedness from the vulgar view. Specifically, the goods consisted of two T-shirts, which the bettors would only say were inscribed with "an appropriate message" from Hawking.
The big breakthrough came when another physicist named Matthew Choptuik (now at the University of Texas at Austin) developed a supercomputer simulation showing how a naked singularity could occur. To back up a bit, a singularity is a place where matter or light crashes in by force of its own weight to form a region of exceedingly high density.
No one disputes that singularities can exist, but Hawking believes that a singularity can occur only inside a black hole, where it cannot be seen. According to Thorne and Preskill, there should be situations in which singularities could exist outside of black holes and therefore be observed.
Hawking has always rejected the idea of the naked singularity, but admits that Choptuik's computer simulation shows how one could conceivably exist. There's virtually no possibility that Choptuik's naked singularity would ever arise in a real universe, however.
"Basically, it could exist only in a computer," Preskill said. "But it's the sort of event that would be allowed to happen, and that's what the bet was all about." For his part, Hawking said that he's still a betting man when it comes to theoretical physics, even though he is now 0-2. In fact, discussion on a new bet is already underway.
"I'm going to win this time, but I don't know when," he said.