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In the Beginning: Your prayers have been answered!

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Well, almost. With just 6 (six!) days to go until our new book's release, mental_floss is happy to present another set of origins. Enjoy!

Holy Architecture!

When it comes to the history of religious architecture, we pray we've got the facts right.

Karnak: One Beautiful Pyramid Scheme

80px-SFEC_EGYPT_KARNAK_2006-002.JPG.jpgNo religious site in Egypt dazzles more than the Karnak. The largest temple ever built, the Karnak is really a complex sprawling across 247 acres of land and constructed over 2,000 years, starting in the 15th century B.C.E. The ancient name of the temple, Ipetisut, means "the most sacred of places," and the main temple was dedicated to Amon, the central god of Thebes.

Unlike other religious structures—dedicated to one or a few deities—the Karnak represents every god and goddess from Egyptian civilization throughout two millennia. As each ruler came into power, he added new images, courts, halls, truncated pyramids (called pylons),and sphinxes. From a design stand point, the different influences created a site without a coherent style, but they also etched the history of Egypt in stone
In ways that we wouldn't usually see. Later generations tend to tear down the work of the civilizations that came before them, but instead the Karnak shows off the work of generations of ancient builders, making it a time capsule of the Egyptian empire.

Stupafly: The Great Stupa at Sanchi

36075-Great-Stupa-1.jpgFor the origin of this religious site, first we'd better explain what a stupa is. The earliest Buddhist religious monument, a stupa is simply a mound of mud, clay, or other materials used to cover relics of the Buddha. But let's back up for a second. After the Buddha passed away some time around the 4th century B.C.E., he wasn't buried immediately. Instead his remains were cremated and divided to be buried under eight stupas (plus two more for the urn and the embers). We don't know which were the original monuments, but the Sanchi is rumored to be an embellishment of one of the mounds.

After the Indian emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C.E., in a fit of religious zeal, he had the original stupas opened and the remains redistributed to the thousands of stupas he'd built in honor of the Buddha. Ashoka also commissioned the Great Stupa at Sanchi—a half globe structure made of bricks built over the Buddha's ashes with an accompanying obelisk to mark the spot. The interesting part about the decision to build the grand structure was that Sanchi wasn't considered sacred because of any event in Buddha's life—or even the lives of the Buddhist monks. Rather, it was chosen because the Hill of Sanchi was very near the richly populated city of Vidisa, plus two important trade routes and rivers, and because it was visible from a distance (thanks to the height of the hill). Most important, though, it was both quiet and secluded (the best atmosphere for meditation). Location,location,location!

Dome Improvement: The Church of Hagiya Sophia (Ayasofya)

More after the jump!

800px-Aya_sofya.jpgHagia Sophia was the seat of the archbishop of Constantinople, but it was also a church built to withstand disaster, and we'll tell you why. The first church constructed on the same site in the 4th century was destroyed. The second, built by Constantius II, burned down during riots. So, when the Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the church again in 532"“537, he hired a physicist (Isidore of Miletus) and a mathematician (Anthemius of Tralles) as architects to create a fireproof building.

Though they succeeded in protecting the building from fire, they didn't do quite as well with the dome. The architects placed 40 windows around its base, which gave the Hagia Sophia its famous mystical light reflecting everywhere in the central part of the church and also gave the dome the appearance of hovering above. To make the design work, the architects used pendentives (triangular wedges cut from a sphere) for the first time successfully. Unfortunately, despite the cleverly designed dome, the building had weak walls—made with more mortar than brick. So, once the dome was on top of the building, the weight forced the walls to lean out.

Sadly, the dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558,and the replacement crumbled in 563. Eventually, an Armenian architect named Trdat repaired the damage in 989,and the church became a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin occupation at the beginning of the 13th century. The Turks Invaded Constantinople two centuries later and turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but eventually the building was turned into the Ayasofya Museum in 1935, by order of the Turkish president Kemal Atatürk.

St. Peter's Basilica: Where Cost Isn't an Issue

300px-Petersdom_von_Engelsburg_gesehen.jpgYou simply can't put a price tag on faith. Replacing an earlier St. Peter's Basilica built over the tomb of St. Peter in 323 C.E., the 1506 building was designed for Pope Julius II by Bramante. After Bramante's death, he was eventually replaced by Michelangelo, who built a basilica in the form of a Greek cross with five cupolas (small domes). Of course, the renovations hardly stopped with Michelangelo and continued on far after his death. In the end, all of the additions of the 15th through 17th centuries ratcheted up the price significantly.

So, just for the record, two huge semicircles, 280 columns with 160 statues of saints, two fountains in the square, and an Egyptian obelisk: over $48 million. Building the largest church in the world right next to the residence of the Pope: priceless.

The Parthenon: Virgin 2.0

200px-Parthenon_from_west.jpgThe most famous (and arguably the most structurally perfect) building in Greece is named for a famous ethereal virgin. No, not that one. We're talking about the Greek goddess Athena. Built in the 5th century B.C.E. on the acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon houses the cult statue of Athena Parthenos, which translates to "Athena the Virgin."

Surprisingly, the Parthenon replaced an older temple of Athena, destroyed by Xerxes I of Persia in 480 B.C.E. Under the authority of statesman Pericles, architects and sculptors began work on the Parthenon In 447B.C.E. and finished it a mere nine years later (lightning fast, compared to some temple timelines). The building shows off the delicate harmony of Greek architecture and sculpture, with carefully curved Doric columns and high-relief representations of battles between the gods and the Amazons and even the Greeks and centaurs. Of course, if that wasn't impressive enough, there was always the giant gold and ivory statue of Athena within.

Some scholars claim that the temple wasn't technically a religious site—it was used more as a treasury, which is technically true. Still, the statue and the temple survived as monuments to Athena for almost a thousand years. That is, until the 5th century C.E. when the statue was stolen and the temple was converted to a Christian church in honor of yet another virgin—Mary.

51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpgCan't wait the 6 days for In the Beginning? Pre-order your copy at any of these fine stores today: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Books-A-Million. Oh, and if you e-mail us your proof of purchase at, we'll send you an autographed sticker to place in the book!

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]