The Almighty Buck

Did Stephen Hawking Owe a Nobel Physicist a Subscription To a Softcore Porn Magazine? (vice.com) 106

dmoberhaus writes: In 1974, Stephen Hawking made a bet with Nobel Prize-winning cosmologist Kip Thorne about a black hole. The wager was a subscription to the softcore porn magazine Penthouse for Thorne or a subscription to "Private Eye" (basically the British equivalent of The Onion) for Hawking. Hawking ultimately lost the bet, but did he ever pay up? Motherboard dug around to find out if Hawking settled this infamous bet.

Motherboard's Daniel Oberhaus wasn't able to get ahold of Thorne, but did manage to track down a copy of the obscure 1997 straight-to-VHS documentary called Black Holes, which is the only evidence that the wager even happened. "In 1990, Stephen Hawking happened to be visiting Los Angeles and he broke into my office and thumb printed off on this bet," Thorne recalls in the video. Oberhaus writes: "Although the status of Cygnus X-1 was an open question in the 70s, by the 90s mounting evidence had forced Hawking to concede the wager. The bet was recorded in a handwritten note scrawled on a piece of card which is shown in the film. It read: 'Whereas Stephen Hawking has a large investment in general relativity and black holes and desires an insurance policy, and whereas Kip Thorne likes to live dangerously without an insurance policy, therefore be it resolved that Stephen Hawking bets 1 year's subscription to 'Penthouse' as against Kip Thorne's wager of a 4-year subscription to 'Private Eye,' that Cygnus X-1 does not contain a black hole of mass above the Chandrasekhar limit.' 'I had given Thorne a subscription to Penthouse, much to his wife's disgust,' a smiling Hawking says in the film."

Medicine

Patients Regain Sight After Groundbreaking Trial (bbc.com) 73

An anonymous reader quotes a report from the BBC: Doctors have taken a major step towards curing the most common form of blindness in the UK -- age-related macular degeneration. Douglas Waters, 86, could not see out of his right eye, but "I can now read the newspaper" with it, he says. He was one of two patients given pioneering stem cell therapy at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Cells from a human embryo were grown into a patch that was delicately inserted into the back of the eye.

The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see straight ahead -- whether to recognize faces, watch TV or read a book. The macula is made up of rods and cones that sense light and behind those are a layer of nourishing cells called the retinal pigment epithelium. When this support layer fails, it causes macular degeneration and blindness. Doctors have devised a way of building a new retinal pigment epithelium and surgically implanting it into the eye. The technique, published in Nature Biotechnology, starts with embryonic stem cells. These are a special type of cell that can become any other in the human body. They are converted into the type of cell that makes up the retinal pigment epithelium and embedded into a scaffold to hold them in place. The living patch is only one layer of cells thick -- about 40 microns -- and 6mm long and 4mm wide. It is then placed underneath the rods and cones in the back of the eye. The operation takes up to two hours.

AI

Machine Learning Spots Treasure Trove of Elusive Viruses (nature.com) 28

Artificial intelligence could speed up metagenomic studies that look for species unknown to science. From a report: Researchers have used artificial intelligence (AI) to discover nearly 6,000 previously unknown species of virus. The work illustrates an emerging tool for exploring the enormous, largely unknown diversity of viruses on Earth. Although viruses influence everything from human health to the degradation of trash, they are hard to study. Scientists cannot grow most viruses in the lab, and attempts to identify their genetic sequences are often thwarted because their genomes are tiny and evolve fast.

For the latest study, Simon Roux, a computational biologist at the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, trained computers to identify the genetic sequences of viruses from one unusual family, Inoviridae. These viruses live in bacteria and alter their host's behaviour: for instance, they make the bacteria that cause cholera, Vibrio cholerae, more toxic. But Roux, who presented his work at the meeting in San Francisco, California, organized by the JGI, estimates that fewer than 100 species had been identified before his research began. Roux presented a machine-learning algorithm with two sets of data -- one containing 805 genomic sequences from known Inoviridae, and another with about 2,000 sequences from bacteria and other types of virus -- so that the algorithm could find ways of distinguishing between them.

Medicine

How a Virus Spreads Through an Airplane Cabin (gizmodo.com) 76

An anonymous reader shares a report: Traveling by plane greatly increases our chances of getting sick, or so many of us are wont to believe. To be fair, it's not uncommon to come down with a nasty illness after we return from a vacation or business trip. But is flying the culprit? The latest research suggests the answer is no -- but much of it depends on where we sit. New research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that airline passengers infected with influenza -- a disease that spreads through the air -- aren't likely to infect other passengers who sit more than two seats to the left or right, or more than two seats in front or back. In other words, your chances of contracting the flu from an infected passenger are slim -- unless you're sitting within about three feet (one meter) of them. Given that three billion of us fly annually, combined with the popular conception that we often contract diseases inflight, it's surprising to learn that very few studies have looked into this issue in detail.
Medicine

Lead Exposure Kills Hundreds of Thousands of Adults Every Year in the US, Study Finds (theguardian.com) 220

Bruce66423 shares a report from The Guardian: Last week, a massive new study concluded that lead is 10 times more dangerous than thought, and that past exposure now hastens one in every five U.S. deaths. Researchers at four North American universities, led by Bruce Lanphear, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, studied the fate of 14,289 people whose blood had been tested in an official U.S. survey between 1988 and 1994. Four fifths of them had harbored levels of the toxic metal below what has, hitherto, been thought safe. The study found that deaths, especially from cardiovascular disease, increased markedly with exposure, even at the lowest levels. It concluded that lead kills 412,000 people a year -- accounting for 18% of all U.S. mortality, not much less than the 483,000 who perish as a result of smoking. The study has been published in the Lancet Public Health journal.

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