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The Russians Didn't Just Use Pencils in Space

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A longstanding urban legend goes like this: During the space race of the 1960s, NASA spent millions developing a fancy "space pen" that could be used in zero gravity ... but the Soviets just used a pencil. This story resonates with us because NASA did actually spend piles of money on writing utensils in space—in 1965 they paid $128 per mechanical pencil, according to NASA historians (for the record, the pencils had high-strength outer casings, but the writing guts were just regular mechanical pencils). It just seems logical that the thrifty Soviets would use a simpler, smarter solution. But the story about the government-funded space pen and Soviets using pencils instead is just plain wrong—both space programs used the Fisher Space Pen, and neither paid anything to develop it. Let's dig into the real history here.

Why Don't Regular Ballpoint Pens Work in Space?

The traditional ballpoint pen relies partially on gravity to get ink out of the cartridge, onto the ball, and ultimately onto paper. Within the cartridge, there is a reservoir of ink (you can see this in that clear-plastic "stick" in the middle of a typical Bic pen). But without gravity, there is no force to push the ink towards the ball—it just floats freely in the cartridge. This is why traditional ballpoint pens don't write properly upside down (at least after the first few strokes) and often fail to write on vertical surfaces—the ink loses contact with the ball.

Why Not Use a Pencil?

Americans and Soviets actually did use pencils in space, before the Space Pen came around. Americans favored mechanical pencils, which produced a fine line but presented hazards when the pencil lead tips broke (and if you've ever used a mechanical pencil, you know that this happens a lot). That bit of graphite floating around the space capsule could get into someone's eye, or even find its way into machinery or electronics, causing an electrical short or other problems. And if there's one thing Houston didn't need, it was more astronauts calling up with problems.

The Soviet space program used grease pencils, which don't have breakage problems—to access more of the writing wax, cosmonauts simply peeled away another layer of paper. The problem with a grease pencil is that it's imprecise and smudgy—it's a lot like writing with a crayon. The peeled-away paper also created waste, and bits of paper floating around a Soyuz capsule were nearly as annoying as bits of graphite floating around an Apollo capsule.

The final mark against pencils has to do with fire. Any flammable material in a high-oxygen environment is a hazard, as we all learned after the terrible fire on Apollo 1. After that tragedy, NASA sought to minimize the use of flammable materials in space capsules—and every form of pencil (traditional, mechanical, or grease) involved some amount of flammable material, even if it was just the graphite.

The Fisher Space Pen

Image courtesy of Cpg100/Wikimedia Commons

In 1965, engineer Paul C. Fisher patented a new pen design that changed everything. His Fisher Pen Company reportedly spent $1 million of its own money to develop what was first called the "Anti-Gravity" Space Pen, and later simply the "Space Pen." Fisher happened to perfect his invention around the time that NASA had its $128 pencil problem, so Fisher capitalized on that bad press and publicized his heavy-duty pen as the obvious solution. And it worked.

Fisher's Space Pen featured a series of technological improvements, making it suitable for use not just in space, but in other demanding environments. Its biggest innovation was its ink capsule—pressurized nitrogen forced the ink to flow, enabling the pen to write upside-down, in zero gravity, in a vacuum, or even underwater. The nitrogen was separated from the ink by a floating barrier, which served to keep the ink in the writing end of the capsule. The ink was itself different from typical materials; it had a thixotropic (highly viscous) consistency that resisted evaporation, and kept the ink stationary until the ball moved, at which point it turned into a more typical fluid.

To counterbalance the pressurized ink flow, Fisher also included a precision roller ball made of tungsten carbide, positioned to prevent leakage. The pens were made entirely of metal except for the ink, which reportedly had a flash point of 200° C—enough to meet NASA's strict flammability requirements.

Fisher delivered samples of the Space Pen to NASA in 1965. NASA tested the pen to verify Fisher's claims, and ultimately approved a later version for use starting in 1967. Wanting to avoid the earlier scandal about paying excessive amounts for pencils, NASA received a bulk discount for the pens, reportedly paying just $2.39 per pen for an order of 400 units in 1968. The Soviet space agency also purchased 100 pens. NASA astronauts began using the Space Pen on Apollo 7 in 1968. By 1969, both the American and Soviet space programs had Fisher Space Pens in space—and Fisher trumpeted that success in his Space Pen marketing, which continues today. (Among other odd achievements, a Space Pen was used on the Russian space station Mir in the mid-1990s for a promotion on QVC, as the first product "sold from space.")

For more on Fisher and his Space Pen, check out the timeline of Fisher Space Pen history, Dwayne A. Day's excellent history of the pen, the Snopes article about the pen, or read more about Fisher and his history in politics. They're also still for sale.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.