5 Stupid Bets That Changed the World

#2. Bring the People of Two Enemy Countries Together

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What with BBC America, bespectacled boy wizards and tabloid-fodder royal weddings, it's hard for Americans to conceive of a time when we didn't like merry old England. But hatred between the two countries lasted nearly a century after the Revolutionary War. By the 1870s, the U.S. had fought two wars against the British Empire, and Americans knew that many Brits had openly supported the Confederates during the Civil War, basically rooting for the USA to fall apart.

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"Secession all the way!"

So it's not too hard to imagine the smack that American politicians and newspapers loved to talk about the English back then, painting a picture that each and every one of them was just raring to harrumph and throw hot tea in our faces while exclaiming, "I say!" Americans gulped down ye olde flamebait, and verily hated the English in return.

However, one Yank named Gilbert Bates thought the whole thing was seriously overblown, and that the rank-and-file British citizens just wanted to let bygones be bygones. And to prove it, Bates put his money where his apple-pie-hole was. In 1872, he made a bet with one of his friends: 1,000 bucks to Bates' 100 that Bates could walk through England wearing an American flag like a freaking toga, and nothing bad would happen to him.

Civil War Journeys
"Coincidentally, 'Old Glory' is also what I call my package."

We're just kidding about the toga part, by the way. His actual plan was to dress up in military regalia, hoist up a full-sized American flag on a 9-foot staff and march more than 300 miles from the Scottish border to London. So, actually much more in-your-face than the toga thing.

Bates' friends were less than hopeful, some of them predicting disaster akin to a countrywide soccer riot. But in the end all the naysayers had to eat crow, because not only did Bates walk away clean -- he was treated like a king. People fought for the privilege of feeding him, cheered him on and offered him places to stay when the weather was bad (meaning, since we're talking about England, that he was never hurting for a warm bed). Hell, the only manhandling he had to endure was the throngs of people clamoring to shake his hand and pay their respects to the American flag.

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And the groupies. Lord, the groupies.

When Bates arrived in London, the English threw a citywide party for him, where they raised the Stars and Stripes right next to the Union Jack. From that moment on, all those politicians and newspaper men who were trying to start shit between Americans and the English pretty much shut the hell up. The press in particular changed its tune, and lauded both Bates and the Brits. One Philly newspaper wrote that, "So enthusiastic and excited were the populace of London, that when Bates appeared upon the scene they seemed to lose all control over themselves."

So what did Bates do with his cool grand (a veritable fortune in those days)? Nothing. Once he realized all the good he was doing, he sent a telegram to his friend: "Cancel wager. I regard this mission as something finer than a matter of money." That, by the way, is about the worst kind of trash talking you can do after winning a bet.

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"It's not about the money. All that matters is that I suck less than you."

#1. Write One of the Most Important Works in the History of Science

NPR

We kicked off this article by pointing out that nothing motivates scientists like the prospect of winning some trivial amount of money. But even that understates the situation: Modern physics pretty much got started thanks to a bet.

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Little known fact: Einstein actually discovered relativity tattooed on his ass after a weekend in Vegas.

Back in 1683, a guy named Christopher Wren was chatting it up with an astronomer and wondered why the planets moved in weird elliptical orbits instead of in nice, neat circles. It turned out that the accepted answer at the time was "Hell if I know," so Wren made a wager with the scientific community. He bet 40 shillings -- hundreds of dollars in today's money -- that nobody could come up with an explanation within two months. Enter Sir Isaac Newton, who apparently really needed 40 shillings.

It took Newton years to prove why the planets behave like they do, not the two months specified in the wager. So while he never was able to claim his hard-thought prize, he vowed that all that time he had spent away from his true passion -- LARPing as Merlin -- was going to pay off somehow, damn it.

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"They are going to love my King Arthur-Robin Hood slash fiction."

So he took his solution to the bet, expanded on it with some more of his physics musings, published it as a book under the title Philosphiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy") and called it a day.

Newton's book, more commonly known as just Principia, turned out to be one of the greatest and most influential scientific texts of all time. Newton's famous three laws of motion? Yeah, you can find them in Principia, along with countless other theories that laid the foundation for every physics nerd who came after him. If one wise guy hadn't made the bet that spurred Newton on, physics as we know it might not exist.


Chapter 1: ... wizards, I guess?

Oh, and by the way -- Johannes Kepler, the guy who first noted that the planets move in elliptical orbits and thus provided the basis for Newton's later work, only did so because he had made a bet with a colleague that he could understand the planets' orbits in eight days. It actually took him eight years, but hey, we said scientists are known for making bets, not winning them.

Eddie would like to thank his friend Brenda Vega for helping him come up with the idea for this article. You can contact Eddie at firebugfilms@hotmail.com, and his website is here.

For more some folks who should have thought better, check out 6 People Who Died In Order To Prove A (Retarded) Point. Or learn about 7 People Who Cheated Death (Then Kicked It In The Balls).

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Al-Qaida's No. 2: The Easiest Kill in Terrorism.

And stop by LinkSTORM because no one likes going to church anyway.

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