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5 Reasons Michael Faraday Is as Cool as Tesla

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The Internet is obsessed with Nikola Tesla, with good reason. But I would argue that one of his predecessors, Michael Faraday, is just as worthy of all that attention. The son of a blacksmith, Faraday lived in 19th century London and eventually made some of the most important discoveries in physics and chemistry. Of course, there are plenty of other scientists who have made groundbreaking discoveries. So what's so special about Michael Faraday?

1. He was a self-made scientist.

Michael Faraday left school at 13 to work as an errand boy; by 14, he was an apprentice to a London book-binder. Though he had learned only basic arithmetic in school, young Faraday took an interest in the books he was binding. He began staying after hours to read, and it wasn't long until he was attending scientific lectures. In 1812, Faraday went to several lectures given by the chemist Humphry Davy. Faraday was so inspired by the lectures that he wrote to Davy and asked to be his assistant, despite having no formal science education. Although Davy at first turned him down, one of his lab assistants was later fired, and Davy gave Faraday the job. Everything that Faraday eventually discovered was a result of Davy's impeccable experimental style.

2. His lecture series are still running.

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Michael Faraday, the under-educated lab assistant, is responsible for two of the Royal Institution's longest-running traditions. The first is the Friday Evening Discourse, in which members of the Royal Institution dress very formally in order to hear a one-hour lecture from a selected scientist. The speaker traditionally is locked in a room 5 minutes before the appointed start, as one lecturer once fled before his time, forcing Faraday to give an impromptu lecture.

Faraday's second tradition within the Royal Institution is the Christmas Lectures. The Christmas Lectures began as a way of introducing science to children, at a time when science education was scarce at best. The lectures have continued since 1825, with the only interruption being World War II. Faraday himself gave 19 Christmas Lectures, mostly about chemistry and electricity, though his most famous lecture was “The chemical history of a candle.”

3. He made electric power possible.

One of Faraday's most important discoveries is that of electromagnetic induction. Basically, Faraday found that if you move a magnet through a metal loop, that metal loop will have an electric current running through it while you're moving the magnet. The discovery was enormous. Not only did it underscore the connection between electric and magnetic fields (now commonly referred to simply as electromagnetic fields), but it proved that electricity could be created with nothing more than a magnetized piece of metal and a metal loop.

Faraday used this knowledge to create the first transformer (the thing that's inside the big brick on your laptop charger) and the first electric generator. He went on to create devices that laid the groundwork for modern transformers, generators, and electric motors.

4. He's one of the fathers of electrochemistry—but it was kind of an accident.

Faraday was trying to prove that all electricity is the same electricity when he stumbled upon the first two laws of electrochemistry. These laws deal with the relationship between the amount of electricity used and the amount of substance converted through a chemical reaction. These principles are still used in electrochemistry today to make things like batteries, metal-coated objects, and purified metals.

5. He invented the Faraday cage.

His name's in the title, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he invented it—but what is it? A Faraday cage (or Faraday shield) blocks whatever is inside the cage from static electric fields. This principle, which Faraday discovered in 1836, has all kinds of cool applications. Not only are Faraday cages used to protect electronic equipment from lightning, but they can also protect people from electric death lightning. One of my physics professors demonstrated this effect (sadly, not on video) by climbing inside a Faraday cage and licking an exposed and functioning generator.

Sarah Frazier is a sophomore majoring in Physics at Rice University. She's part of our College Weekend extravaganza.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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