5 Stupid Bets That Changed the World
Random betting is one of mankind's most popular (and usually most pointless) habits. But while most people are making drunken dares to see who can fart the loudest while doing a keg stand, a select few are making wagers that change the world.
You'll never believe some of the amazing feats that were accomplished simply because someone looked someone else in the eye and said, "Betcha can't ..."
Establish the Entire Field of Nanotechnology
If you had to pick one profession that's rife with gamblers, the last group of people that would come to mind would probably be scientists. But actually, it turns out that the people we trust with our cancer research and Earth-splitting death lasers are also the most likely to embark on research projects on a bet: Scientists wager all the goddamn time (so much that there's an entire Wikipedia page devoted to their gambling exploits).
"10-to-1 odds this thing kills us all. Any takers?"
Which brings us to the birth of nanotechnology, the science of making microscopic machines that is already being used to improve everything from skin cream to pants.
In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman held a talk in which he described a magical future where scientists could shrink computers, medical equipment and all sorts of then-huge things to the size of those mites that live in your eyelashes. Considering that this was an era when computers were the size of a house and ran on whale oil, the predictions sounded somewhat ridiculous. So, Feynman decided to throw down the scientific gauntlet: He bet a cool grand ($8,000 in today's dollars) that nobody could build a working motor that measured no more than 1/64 of an inch on a side. Just so you don't have to break out your ruler, that's about the size of a grain of salt.
About six months passed with no one managing to construct the sweet-ass minuscule motor Feynman had described, despite the prospect of being able to finally afford an awesome new dirt bike. But then along came a guy named Bill McLellan, who -- using such sophisticated scientific equipment as goddamn tweezers and toothpicks -- totally built Feynman's motor. The thing packed 2,000 rpm, weighed 250 micrograms, was smaller than the head of a pin and consisted of 13 parts.
Just big enough to create a buzzing sound in your ear, and just small enough that you'd never find it.
Feynman made good on his wager, but was disappointed with the outcome. You see, he had expected the construction of the motor to necessitate an entirely new technological breakthrough, but the guy who built it did so using only amateur radio skills and some seriously steady hands. Still, the bet inspired countless scientists to start thinking small, and when K. Eric Drexler popularized the concept of nanotechnology and founded the field of molecular nanotechnology in the 1980s, he credited Feynman as his inspiration.
Write World-Famous Stories
We've told you before how some of the world's greatest stories were written for stupid or trivial reasons (often involving a writer needing a quick paycheck). Well, it turns out there are even stupider reasons that all-time classics have been created, as there are authors out there who wrote enduring works simply because someone bet them they couldn't.
Take the case of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who became famous after earning his Ph.D. in Children's Rhymeology and becoming Dr. Seuss. He was already a resounding success by the late 1950s, having written a few touching children's stories, such as the tale of a stylistically challenged feline and the poignant story of a goblin who comes down with a terminal case of heart gigantism. Then one day in 1960, Seuss was shooting the shit with his publisher, Bennett Cerf, when Cerf decided to lay down a challenge. He bet 50 bucks that Dr. Seuss couldn't write a decent story using 50 different words or fewer.
Seuss, presumably realizing he could knock out this project in half an hour, slapped together a story that could fit into a few Twitter updates. The result was a book that, by now, pretty much every person in the English-speaking world can say they read as a kid: Green Eggs and Ham.
"Seriously, Sam, please do fuck off with your green eggs and ham."
And we're not kidding about how many people have read it: As of 2001, the lexiconically challenged tale of a kid learning to eat rotten food was not only Dr. Seuss' most popular book, but also the fourth best-selling children's book of all freaking time.
But that's just kiddie stuff, right? Well fine then, let's talk about someone a bit more grown up: Ernest Hemingway. The guy is famous for two things: writing incredible stories using an economy of words and drinking alcohol as if he had a blood vendetta against his liver. So one day, Hemingway was in a bar (drinking), when some guy bet him 10 dollars that he couldn't write a story using six measly words.
"This guy bet me money. Dumbass."
Whereas most people would have come up with a riveting tale of said guy fucking himself sideways, Hemingway instead accepted the bet and wrote:
For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
He then collected his 10 bucks, which he presumably blew right then and there on another round, and proceeded to call that story his best work. And today the story is still inspiring others to write captivating tales using fewer words than you would use during your typical fast food drive-through transaction.
"My order was too brief? Who am I, John Steinbeck?"
Make a Fortune from a Movie You Had Nothing to Do With
We've told you before how the original Star Wars trilogy wasn't exactly all that well planned out, and how a lot of Lucas' original (insane) ideas were shelved in favor of the awesomeness you saw. Well, according to one of Lucas' friends, Steven Spielberg, this caused him to complain to just, like, everybody about how his pet movie project wasn't turning out like he'd envisioned. This actually led Lucas to propose a bet with Spielberg hinging on the failure of Star Wars -- a bet that we're willing to wager he now regrets.
According to an interview with Spielberg, Lucas visited the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, due to come out around the same time as Lucas' film, and marveled at the scope and splendor of Spielberg's as-yet-unfinished movie. At the same time, he was whining about how Star Wars was going to take a steaming dump at the box office because it didn't "live up to the vision that he originally had."
"I can only make, like, four of these things into toys."
Then Lucas had a flash-bulb moment: Since he was so sure that Star Wars would bomb, why not take advantage of Spielberg and make a friendly bet with him? If this half-assed Star Wars thing made more money, Spielberg would get 2.5 percent of Lucas' movie's profits, and vice versa, for all eternity.
Care to guess how that one turned out? No need to guess, we'll tell you: Close Encounters of the Third Kind raked in a not-too-shabby $337 million. But that little film called Star Wars? Well, let's just say that it spawned a franchise that made that amount of money 65 times over. And it's still raking in obscene piles of cash today. Spielberg says he still gets begrudging checks in the mail from ol' George.
Bring the People of Two Enemy Countries Together
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"It's not about the money. All that matters is that I suck less than you."
Write One of the Most Important Works in the History of Science
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.
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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.