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Sweet Action: 8 Big Bets Made by Famous People

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© Matthew Putney/ABC/Handout/Corbis

One of the headlines coming out of Saturday night's GOP debate was Mitt Romney's offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle an argument over something Romney said (and removed) from his book No Apology. Perry hasn't taken the bait, but here are some big money bets other famous people have made.

1. Truman Defeats Dewey, Jimmy the Greek Defeats Vegas

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Everyone remembers the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline from the 1948 presidential election, but Harry Truman wasn't the only big winner that night. Legendary gambler Jimmy the Greek had bet $10,000 on Truman at steep 17:1 odds. His logic? His research showed that female voters weren't too keen on candidates with facial hair, which didn't bode well for the mustachioed Dewey.

2. Arnold Palmer Bets on Romance

When golfing legend Arnold Palmer met his wife, Winnie, he had a problem that a lot of young guys run into: he couldn't afford an engagement ring. He was still an amateur golfer at the time, and he was barely scraping by on his meager income. Eventually, he borrowed money from a group of pals to cover the rock.

Palmer wasn't crazy about having this sort of debt, so when the same group of buddies proposed a trip to New Jersey's Pine Valley Gold Club, he jumped on the chance to chisel away at his obligations. When they hit the links, Palmer offered the boys this bet: he would get $100 for every stroke he finished under 70. If he played poorly on the notoriously tough course, he would shell out $100 for every stroke he finished over 80. Although he bogeyed the first hole, Palmer repeatedly used this system along with a variety of side bets to wriggle out from under $5,000 in debt in a single weekend.

3. Getting Into the White House is Tougher Than Free Throws

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A few years ago, NBA star Shaquille O'Neal and a member of his entourage had a fiery debate about whether or not Shaq could just drop by the White House unannounced and be welcomed with open arms. After much back-and-forth, Shaq decided he'd give it a try. If he couldn't get past the gate, he would do 1,000 pushups. If he made it inside, his buddy would have to do the pushups.

Unfortunately for Shaq, even the Big Aristotle needs an appointment to see the President. When O'Neal walked up to the gate, the Secret Service politely but firmly turned him away. He later told the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg that he was working off his debt in increments of 20 to 30 pushups. (Shaq is pictured with the Lakers and President Bush in 2002.)

4. Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb Doesn't Go Off

Even celebrity scientists have tried their hands at high profile gambling. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich is famous for his grim predictions concerning overpopulation; he famously predicted in 1968 that 20% of the world's population would starve to death before 1985. As you might expect, these claims were somewhat controversial. When Ehrlich commented in 1980 that he would make an even money bet that England would not exist in the year 2000, economist Julian L. Simon had heard enough. Simon decided to book an unusual bet of his own with Ehrlich.

Since Ehrlich's underlying Malthusian argument involved the depletion of natural resources, Simon made this challenge: Ehrlich could name whatever natural resource he wanted, buy $1,000 worth of it, and pick a time frame. If at the end of the time frame the commodities were worth more than the initial $1,000, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference. If they were worth less than $1,000, Ehrlich would fork the difference over to Simon. If Ehrlich's predictions about dwindling natural resources came to pass, the prices of commodities would skyrocket and Simon would be out a lot of cash.

Ehrlich was game. He spread his $1,000 evenly among chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten and told Simon to wait 10 years. Although the world's population shot up by 800 million people in the intervening decade, the metals' prices crashed. When the bet ended in 1990, Ehrlich had to cut Simon a check for $576.07.

5. Phil Mickelson Has a Nice 2001

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PGA golfer Phil Mickelson had a hot hand during 2001. Fans might remember that two longshots won titles that year: the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, and the Arizona Diamondbacks knocked off the New York Yankees in a classic World Series. Mickelson was part of betting groups that had picked both squads. Their $20,000 bet on the 28-to-1 Ravens yielded a cool $560,000, and they hit again with $20K on the 38-to-1 Diamondbacks. And to think people used to say Mickelson couldn't get a big win.

6. Ringo Says Don't Bet on a Beatles Reunion

By 1974, legions of fans were clamoring for a Beatles reunion, but Ringo Starr was having none of it. The drummer told London reporters that he had bet a thousand pounds that the Beatles wouldn't play together that year, and that he would be happy to throw a thousand quid down on the group never playing together again.

7. Hollywood Ads Add Up

In 1999, Dreamworks' Saving Private Ryan was locked in a duel with Miramax's Shakespeare in Love for the Academy Award for Best Picture, which set the stage for an unusual bet. Dreamworks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg bet actor Warren Beatty that his rival Miramax would run more ads hyping its film than Dreamworks would. The stakes: a $10,000 donation to the charity of the winner's choice. Beatty won the wager when Dreamworks took out 165 pages of ads versus Miramax's 118, and Katzenberg paid up.

8. Computers Are No Match for Chess Master

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In 1968, Scottish chess champion David Levy attended a conference on artificial intelligence and discussed the future prospects for chess-playing computers. Although Levy was optimistic about the future of chess-playing computers, he thought developing great AI would take a while. After some debate, he bet four professors 1,250 British pounds that nobody would make a computer that could beat him within the next 10 years.

Although it took a while for chess programs to pose a serious threat to him, Levy ended up winning the bet when he defeated the program Chess 4.7 in a six-game match at the 1978 deadline. The man-vs.-machine showdown was such a big deal that even Sports Illustrated covered it.

After his win, Levy put up another $1,000 as a bounty for the first chess program that could beat him in a four- or six-game match. He eventually fell in 1989 to Deep Thought, a precursor to famed chess computer Deep Blue.

Portions of this article originally appeared in early 2010.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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