Hawking proves a good sport when it comes to settling bets

By Joe Friesen

The Globe and Mail
July 22, 2004

One of the universe's great wagers was settled in Dublin yesterday when renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking admitted his black-hole theory was wrong and settled a bet with colleague John Preskill by giving him an encyclopedia of baseball published in Canada.

Mr. Preskill insisted that his prize be Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia, a seven-kilogram volume of baseball writing and statistics published by Toronto-based SPORTClassic Books.

A copy of the 2,688-page book was sent by overnight courier from New York to Dublin, at a cost of $150 (U.S.).

It arrived in time for yesterday's public settling of accounts between the two scientists at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation.

Wayne Parrish, the president of SPORTClassic Books, said Mr. Hawking offered to pay the shipping costs, but he doesn't think he'll collect on the debt. The publicity alone is worth more, he said.

The book typically sells about 20,000 copies a year and is seen as an exhaustive reference book with complete career records for 16,000 professional baseball players.

John Thorn, the lead author of Total Baseball, said he laughed out loud when he heard the news.

"It was the most preposterous thing I'd seen in a while," he said. U.S. president Bill Clinton took a copy of an earlier edition to China in 1998 to be given to the Chinese Premier as part of a representative sample of American books.

Mr. Thorn said his work and that of Mr. Hawking have some vague parallels.

"I think the parallel that might be drawn, and it is very thinly drawn at that, is that Total Baseball originally tried to present a unified field theory of baseball, through its linear weight system," he said.

"That is that all of baseball may fundamentally be understood in terms of outs and runs. Conserve outs and make runs."

Mr. Hawking, an Englishman, and Mr. Preskill, an American, made the wager seven years ago on whether information about matter consumed by black holes, the celestial vortexes formed by collapsing stars, is permanently destroyed or conserved in some form.

Mr. Hawking, who made his name partly on the basis of his 1975 black-hole theory, yesterday conceded his theory was mistaken.

He said in a speech that black holes hold their information for eons, but as they disintegrate their contents can be sent shooting back into the universe. He backed his new theory with a complex set of calculations.

He paid his debt with an encyclopedia because it is something from which information can always be recovered.

An assistant to Mr. Hawking said via telephone that Mr. Hawking was in no way disappointed about having to purchase a baseball book for his colleague.

"No, he loved it," Andrew Dunn said. "We went to enormous lengths to get hold of this baseball encyclopedia.

"At one point, we were having trouble getting it and he tried to persuade John Preskill to take an encyclopedia of cricket, which of course we could find in England, but John Preskill is a baseball fan, being an American, so that wasn't good enough."

University of Toronto astrophysics professor Tom Bolton said it's fitting that a volume of baseball statistics would be used to settle this wager.

"Baseball is statistics," he said. "It is the thinking person's game because there's a certain measured pace to it and there's a lot of subtlety about what kind of pitch to throw, where to throw it, how you play different hitters . . . it's a very intriguing game."

Mr. Hawking, who came to international fame after the publication of his book A Brief History of Time, had previously argued that matter in black holes might travel to a parallel universe, thereby conforming with the subatomic theory that says such matter must be conserved in some form.

"I'm sorry to disappoint science-fiction fans, but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes," he told the conference.

"If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, which contains information about what you were like but in an unrecognizable state."

Mr. Hawking, who is paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and speaks through an electronic voice synthesizer, added, "It is great to solve a problem that has been troubling me for nearly 30 years, even though the answer is less exciting than the alternative I suggested."

Copyright 2004 The Globe and Mail
July 22, 2004