Posts Tagged ‘Kip Thorne’

Stephen Hawking waged Penthouse against Private Eye in black hole bet

June 8, 2020

A copy of the satirical bimonthly Private Eye in 1972

Who would have thought it? A wager that a celestial object was not a black hole was made by Stephen Hawking, the mathematician, cosmologist and author of A Brief History of Time, with the stakes being a year’s subscription to Penthouse against four years of Private Eye magazines.


Penthouse in 1968

The story is described in chapter six of Hawking’s 1988 book, Brief History of Time. I came across it in Inside Einstein’s Mind, a recently-shown BBC documentary about Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Kip Thorne, a US cosmologist, was on the other side of the 1975 bet, which was based on whether X-1, a source of X-rays in the Cygnus constellation, was a black hole. It took 15 years for Hawking to accept he had lost the bet and fork out for the Penthouse subscription to Thorne.

The programme says that both Thorne and Hawking believed Cygnus X-1 was a black hole all along, but Hawking took on the wager because four years of the satirical twice-monthly Private Eye would have been a form of compensation had he been wrong.

In the documentary, Thorne mentions how the British version of Penthouse magazine was much more explicit, compared with the US editions. Bob Guccione, an American, had launched Penthouse in Britain in 1965, and in the US four years later. It traded on being more sexually explicit than other men’s magazines sold openly in newsagents and was the first of these to show female pubic hair, in its April 1970 issue.

In 2018, Hawking died and was buried between Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey in London. Hawking had been Lucasian professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a post that dates back to 1663 and has been previously held both by Newton and Charles Babbage.