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4 Scientific Breakthroughs Happening Right Now

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I'm a writer because I'm bad at math and science (not to perpetuate 'boy subject' stereotypes). OK, there are more reasons than that, but suffice it to say that sixth period chemistry was not my favorite class in high school (sorry, Mr. Rathe). It's not that I don't find it interesting; I just don't quite grasp it. Thankfully, Cassandra Galante, a junior at Colgate, knows her stuff. Read on as she runs through four recent scientific breakthroughs in terms even I can understand. "“ Stacy Conradt

4 Scientific Breakthroughs Happening Right Now
by Cassandra Galante

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1. When hypothermia is a good thing

EverettThe scenario: Kick-off returns are a coach's nightmare "“ they are the most dangerous play in football, with both teams running head-on at full speed. It's rare if these plays don't end in some seriously painful tackles. Usually the players get up and keep hitting each other, but just a few months ago, Buffalo Bill Kevin Everett's tackle drove his helmet straight into another player's shoulder, crushing his spine and paralyzing him from the neck down. Football injuries can be nasty, so team doctors and trainers are ready on the sidelines, prepared to perform some serious medicine at any given moment. It was the Buffalo Bills' orthopedic surgeon who had Everett in the ambulance within 15 minutes and injected cold saline into Everett's femoral artery to induce "moderate hypothermia" and reduce swelling.

The breakthrough: Everett's diagnosis went from life-threatening to miracle when he started walking again just two months later, possibly due to his spine being chilled. It prevented the damage from spreading from the injured area. This has sparked a lot of interest and discussion in the medical community "“ if induced hypothermia can help minimize spinal cord injuries, a serious medical breakthrough may be in reach.

2. Medical breakthrough or musical breakthrough?

arm
The scenario: Roadside bombs in war-torn areas are unfortunately pretty commonplace. Military-issue body armor can protect the torso, but bulky arm and leg guards can bog a soldier down and be just as deadly. The trade-off is when a humvee rolls over one of these hidden mines, this new protection allows soldiers to survive, but they still lose entire arms or legs.

The breakthrough: Science has developed increasingly high-tech prosthetics. Those made of silicone and PVC are incredibly lifelike. Researchers are also working on a process called targeted muscle re-innervation, which reroutes the nerves previously connected to the missing limb to a different muscle on the body (i.e. the chest) and then uses that motion as a trigger for moving the prosthetic a certain way. Pretty impressive "“ but there's also a $55 million dollar project to develop a prosthetic arm with goals so ambitious that they claim a person could play the piano with their "mind-controlled" arm. Which gives new meaning to the old joke:

"Doctor, doctor, will I be able to play the violin after the operation?"
"Yes, of course..."
"Funny! I never could before!"

3. ...How about this global warming?

treeThe scenario: The climate controversy has spawned the "hockey stick" graph, the glitterati's new obsession with living green, and the tendency for every socially awkward person to joke "how about this global warming?" whenever it's unseasonably hot outside. It's why you're constantly seeing the words "carbon offset" in advertisements lately, and why people can't stop talking about hybrids. Environmentalism has always been a common political concern, but it didn't become the epitome of cool to be green until the release of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

The breakthrough: One scientist has invented a synthetic "tree" that looks nothing like a tree but does its most valuable job—that of cleaning the air of carbon dioxide. The creator claims that it could even be improved to do the job of 1,000 trees, which would go a long way towards getting rid of the 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide humans produce every year.

4. Outsmarting Mother Nature

tsunamiThe scenario: Humans may be damaging the earth, but she returns the punch every now and then. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (AKA the Asian Tsunami, AKA the Great Sumatra-Andaman Tsunami) hit land early in the morning on December 26, reaching up to 100 feet high and killing 225,000 people, making it the deadliest tsunami ever recorded. There was quite a bit of outcry at the lack of any sort of tsunami warning system. Only those who recognized the receding bubbly water as a sign of an approaching tsunami would know to run immediately. Other methods exist, but none effective enough to give enough warning time for an evacuation.

The breakthrough: At a U.N. conference months later, an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was created, with intentions of expansion into an International system in the future. But until then, those who live where tsunamis hit will have to live in constant worry, unless they pick up on some other way to detect the killer waves.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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