New British Coin Featuring a Black Hole Honors Stephen Hawking

The Royal Mint
The Royal Mint

It has been one year since Stephen Hawking’s death, but the theoretical physicist’s life and legacy live on in both time and space. In an effort to immortalize the late scientist, Hawking’s words were beamed toward the nearest black hole last June, and now, he has his very own coin in the UK.

As New Scientist reports, The Royal Mint has created a 50-pence coin featuring a drawing representing a black hole, Stephen Hawking’s name, and an equation he co-created with Jacob Bekenstein to describe the entropy of a black hole. Though Hawking wasn't the first scientist to predict the existence of black holes, he devised mathematical theorems (like the one on the coin) that lent credence to their existence in the universe. He was also the first person to discover that black holes weren’t entirely black because they emit radiation, and are therefore capable of evaporating and disappearing.

Edwina Ellis, who designed the collector's coin, said she was inspired by a lecture Hawking gave in Chile in 2008. “Hawking, at his playful best, invites the audience to contemplate peering into a black hole before diving in,” Ellis said in a statement. “I wanted to fit a big black hole on the tiny coin and wish he was still here chortling at the thought.”

A different Stephen Hawking coin
The Royal Mint

The Royal Mint says the Hawking coin is the first in a new series that celebrates British innovation in science. The coins come in gold proof, silver proof, silver proof piedfort, and “brilliant uncirculated,” and they’re being sold on The Royal Mint’s website (although most are currently sold out). In recent years, UK coins have also commemorated Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

[h/t New Scientist]

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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