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Americans Win Bet With Giant Of Physics

Thu., Feb. 13, 1997, midnight

John Preskill won a bet with Stephen Hawking, but all he got was a lousy T-shirt.

In 1991, Preskill and Kip Thorne, both physicists at the California Institute of Technology, made a wager with the formidable British physicist on an esoteric point of theoretical physics.

The issue at hand: Do the laws of physics as they’re currently understood allow for the existence of objects known as naked singularities?

Preskill and Thorne said yes. Hawking said no.

Calculations performed by Matthew Choptuik, a physicist at the University of Texas in Austin, show that Hawking was wrong and the California colleagues are right.

So, last week, Hawking settled by giving each of his friends a T-shirt emblazoned with the message, “Nature abhors a naked singularity.”

It is unclear whether that gesture satisfies the conditions of the bet, but never mind. Preskill and Thorne are satisfied that their point has been made.

“He thought that at least as far as classical relativity goes, it should be a consequence of the theory that you can’t make a naked singularity,” Preskill said.

A naked singularity is sort of like a black hole - but not really. Black holes are regions of space that are isolated from the rest of the universe because nothing can escape the gravitational pull of the infinite mass, or singularity, inside them. A naked singularity is simply a point of infinite mass with no isolating space around it.

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