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Gambling on the nature of things

Betting on the Nobel prize probably began when the first one was awarded in 1895. But it has to be a rare occurrence when the winner of a friendly wager gets a bottle of port - and the loser wins a Nobel itself.

That was the outcome of Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt's first bet with former Harvard office mate Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist and dark energy specialist at California Institute of Technology.

A second bet plays out this week, with Professor Schmidt depleting his frequent flyer account in order to make good on a promise to fly Professor Carroll and his wife Jennifer from Los Angeles to Canberra. All because of a wager made four years ago that the Higgs boson - an elusive theorised particle - would never be found.

Perhaps Professor Schmidt won't enter into a third bet with Professor Carroll quite so lightly.

Back in the early 1990s, the two PhD students debated endlessly whether the density of the universe would ever be able to be measured. Professor Carroll, who describes himself as an ''optimistic theorist'' as opposed to Professor Schmidt being a ''pessimistic observer'', believed it would happen and the two agreed to place a bottle of Graham's 1985 Vintage Port on the wager. As fate would have it, the density of the universe would eventually be able to be measured - and Professor Schmidt was part of the team who helped figure it out.

He may have lost the bet, but he won himself a Nobel prize along the way and was, according to Professor Carroll, ''not unhappy conceding defeat''. The pair duly shared the port at Harvard in 2010.

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In 2009, a second bet was made: whether the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland could prove the existence of the Higgs boson.

As Professor Carroll recalls, ''in his usual pessimistic experimentalist way Brian was very sceptical. And once again I was optimistic. We chose stakes where we would all win a little bit by Brian flying us out to Australia if I was correct.''

Professor Schmidt was looking forward to a sampling of molecular gastronomy at the famed Chicago

restaurant Alinea courtesy of Professor Carroll's credit card if he had won.

The existence of the Higgs boson has consumed particle physicists and other scientists since the 1960s because it would, in theory, explain all the mass in the universe.

Professor Schmidt had sifted through the evidence and fell into the doubter's camp. Last July he was in Germany with other Nobel laureates to watch live as the Large Hadron Collider sent two opposing particle beams into each other at high speed and produced a new particle - the elusive Higgs boson.

''My view of the evidence had been flawed. I was wrong, but I was very excited. I love to lose bets when you are betting against exciting things,'' Professor Schmidt said. ''I shrugged my shoulders and said 'that's good, I don't mind losing'. But I do admit I will have to be more careful about any future bets with Sean.''

Because both men are passionate about science communication - Professor Carroll featured on The Colbert Report and in a documentary series Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman - he will use his time in Australia to deliver guest lectures on the impact of the Higgs boson discovery at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. ''It doesn't do any good for us to discover things about the universe and not tell anyone,'' Professor Carroll said.

Professor Carroll's public ANU lecture is at Main Theatre of the ANU Arts Centre on Wednesday from 6pm. Tickets are $6 and include a glass of wine.