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11 Epic Controversies in Dinosaur Naming

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Naming a dinosaur is no easy task. Beneath the apparent mess of prolonged syllables and technical jargon, a vast array of unexpected factors—from politics and religion to wordplay and spelling—can dictate which dino moniker gets officially recognized and which “-saurus” goes extinct. Here are eleven of the all-time greatest showdowns in the storied history of dinosaur nomenclature.

1. “Scrotum humanum,” The World’s First Dinosaur

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Behold “Scrotum humanum”, the very first dinosaur name ever coined. In 1763, British naturalist Richard Brookes was shown a femur fragment which he named for the infamous piece of the male genitalia he felt it resembled (I’ll let you figure out which). Scientists never took this seriously and now know the creature as Megalosaurus. In the 1980s, a vocal minority contended that, due to seniority, “Scrotum” should be reinstated. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) disagreed and ruled in favor of its more tasteful alternative.

2. T. rex on Trial (Part I)

Thinking he’d found two new dinosaurs, paleontologist H.F. Osborn named them Tyrannosaurus rex and “Dynamosaurus imperiosus” in the same 1905 paper, before realizing that these bone-crunching predators were one and the same. Scientifically, the first name given to an organism in an academic paper takes priority and Osborn happened to have mentioned T. rex on page 262 and “D. imperiosus” on 263—meaning one page of data saved T.rex. BUT WAIT! Stay tuned for another threat to the “tyrant lizard king!”

3. Triceratops vs. Torosaurus

Renowned paleontologist Jack Horner has recently argued that Triceratops and fellow frilled dino Torosaurus were really the same beast. But fear not, Triceratops groupies: the more recognizable name emerged 2 years earlier. Ergo, regardless of the debate’s outcome, everyone’s favorite three-horned herbivore is perfectly safe (if it weren’t already extinct, that is).

4. “Ultrasauros” vs. Procrastination

BYU’s late, great James “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen coined the name Ultrasaurus in 1979. Unfortunately, he didn’t publish his paper on the long-necked dinosaur (“sauropod”) until 1985. By then, Korean paleontologist Haang Mook Kim had independently used Ultrasaurus to designate a completely different animal. D’Oh! Not wanting to lose his awesome name, Jensen replaced the third “u” with an “o” to create “Ultrasauros.” Alas, it later turned out that the “Ultrasauros” material really belonged to a Supersaurus, which had been dubbed earlier by none other than Jensen himself. At least Supersaurus is still pretty cool, unlike the name a certain sauropod got saddled with. More on that later…

5. Arkansaurus vs. “Arkanosaurus” (vs. Bill Clinton)

“Arkanosaurus” and Arkansaurus fridayi were both used as names for Arkansas’ only known dinosaur, until the latter eventually won. Some speculate that Arkansaurus may have been intended as a state-based pun. While this is uncertain, at least a few political punsters definitely did latch onto the dinosaur: former governor Bill Clinton was nicknamed “Arkansaurus taxandspendus” by American conservatives in his 1996 presidential run.

6. Iguanodon vs. the World

Replica tooth. Wikimedia Commons

Before the word “dinosaur” was even invented, the wife of Sussex doctor Gideon Mantell stumbled upon a fossilized tooth in 1825 and the scientific community laughed at his imaginative assertion that it had belonged to an enormous, plant-eating reptile. Since huge, scaly herbivores don’t exist in his day, referring to the tooth’s owner as Iguanodon—or “iguana tooth”—seemed ludicrously inappropriate when an ancient rhinoceros looked like its most likely source. But as more complete fossils confirming Mantell's hypothesis began to turn up en masse, the magnificent reality of these creatures was celebrated the world over, and Iguanodon turned into a household name.

7. T. rex on Trial (Part II)

For two incomplete vertebrae, famed paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope invented the clunky moniker Manospondylus gigas in 1892. In 2000, it was confirmed that his specimens were identical to T. rex backbones, and some worried that the world’s most famous dinosaur would have to be rechristened. However, a new ICZN rule enacted that year included a loop-hole allowing secondary names to take priority if the original wasn’t deemed valid after 1899. Since M. gigas was never widely used after the cutoff date, the “tyrant lizard king” was saved.

8. Archaeopteryx vs. “Griphosaurus”

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Named by in 1861 by Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer and meaning “ancient wing,” Archaeopteryx lithographica has long been recognized as a “missing link” between modern birds and their dinosaurian ancestors. Von Meyer's rival, Johann Andreas Wagner, denied that this was a transitional fossil and proposed calling it “Griphosaurus problematicus” (“the problematic griffin lizard”) later that year. “Darwin and his adherents,” he wrote, “will probably employ the new discovery as … justification of their strange views upon the transformation of animals. But in this they will be wrong.” His pointed words fell on deaf ears, and Meyer’s name (like Darwin’s theory) won out.

9. The “Big Dead Lizard”

The name Syntarsus was accidentally given to two creatures: a predator, discovered by paleontologist Mike Raath in 1969, that lived approximately 180 million years ago; and a modern beetle that had been found a century earlier. So insect expert Michael Ivie formally re-named Raath’s dino Megapnosaurus, which literally means “big, dead lizard” as a joking dig at dinosaur science. Paleontologists weren’t laughing. Livid that his life’s work underwent a name change without his input, Raath wrote, “I am myself very disappointed that the normal dictates of professional courtesy, let alone professional ethics, have apparently been disregarded.” To many colleagues, the fact that this dinosaur now went by a deliberately silly title was salt thrown on an open wound. Ivie’s actions remain a touchy subject worldwide.

10. Presumptuous Protoavis

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Protoavis really ruffles some feathers. When Sankar Chaterjee called a partial skeleton he’d found Protoavis texensis in 1991, he believed that it was a primitive bird, thus pushing the date of avian origins back by roughly 60 million years. His bold claim has since been almost universally rejected, making a name that literally means “first bird” one of the most controversial in modern science (in fact, Protoavis might not have even existed at all, for its bones appear to belong to several different animals).

11. “Brontosaurus” Thunders Off

As many of us know, the celebrated “Brontosaurus” never existed. In 1879, legendary fossil hunter Othneil Charles Marsh discovered a nearly-perfect sauropod skeleton. Calling it “Brontosaurus” (“thunder lizard”), he put it on display with the head of a Brachiosaurus that had been found nearby at a different site (since nobody likes a decapitated dino). “Brontosaurus” sank into limbo in 1903, when paleontologists found that it was identical to Apatosaurus (“deceptive lizard”), a sauropod named in 1877. Yet, bronto-lovers can take heart in maverick paleontologist Robert Bakker, who’s argued that the original “Brontosaurus” skeleton is unique enough to merit its own genus, meaning its name would be at long last restored. Most scientists dismiss these claims, so the odds are slim. But maybe one day, “Brontosaurus” will stomp into our museums once more, just as it roams through our imaginations.

Mark Mancini attends Stony Brook University.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]