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5 Massive Screw-Ups in Paleontology

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By Jeff Fleischer

1» THOMAS JEFFERSON'S MISTAKE

asloth.jpgIn decades past, American presidents apparently had hobbies other than playing golf and eating at McDonald's. Thomas Jefferson, for one, was an avid paleontologist. As early as the 1790s (before it was cool), he kept an impressive fossil collection at his home in Monticello. So when a group of confused miners came upon some unidentifiable bones in a West Virginia cave, they sent them to Jefferson. Judging from the long limbs and large claws, the president suspected they belonged to a giant cat "as preeminent over the lion in size as the mammoth is over the elephant," and that the animal might still exist somewhere in the unexplored West.

Jefferson got the size right. The description? Not so much. The animal he named Megalonyx (giant claw) was actually one of the giant ground sloths that slowly roamed America during the last ice age. And while Jefferson later agreed with this alternative diagnosis, his error wasn't a complete waste. The Megalonyx marked one of the first important fossil finds in the United States, and it prompted the first and second scientific papers on fossils published in North America. In honor of the president's contribution, the sloth's name was later formalized to Megalonyx jeffersonii.

2» THE DINOSAUR THAT NEVER WAS

aBrontosaurus.jpgTo this day, the Brontosaurus remains one of the most popular and recognizable dinosaurs in history—an impressive feat for an animal that never existed. The confusion started in 1879, when collectors working in Wyoming for paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh found two nearly complete—yet headless—sauropod dinosaur skeletons. Wanting to display them, Marsh fitted one specimen with a skull he found nearby, and the other with a skull he found in Colorado. Voilà!—the Brontosaurus was born.

Unfortunately for Marsh, the skeletons were later exposed as adult specimens of a dinosaur he'd already discovered, the Apatosaurus. The error was formally corrected in 1903 by Elmer Riggs of Chicago's Field Museum, and scientific papers haven't called the animal Brontosaurus since. Seventy more years passed before researchers determined that the skulls Marsh borrowed really belonged to the Camarasaurus, a discovery of his archrival, Edward Drinker Cope. Pop culture, however, missed the memo altogether.

3» GETTING YOUR HEAD SCREWED ON RIGHT

Paleontology's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, Marsh and Cope [see #2] had a nasty and long-running professional rivalry. Although they'd actually started out as friends (with each even naming a discovery after the other), by 1870, their relationship had taken a turn for the worse. A year earlier, Cope had assembled a skeleton of the sea reptile called Elasmosaurus. However, in his rush to publish his discovery, he placed the head on the wrong end, giving everyone the impression that the animal had a very long tail instead of a very long neck. Marsh poured ample salt in that wound by making fun of Cope's error in print (suggesting he rename the animal "twisted lizard") and constantly ridiculing it at parties and exhibitions. Given the stakes, he might as well have slapped Cope across the face with a glove and insulted his mother. As it was, all Cope could do was try and buy up all the published examples of his posterior-backwards construction.

The feud only grew from there. The two men fought over allegations that, on a tour of Cope's digging operations in New Jersey, Marsh bribed collectors to send key fossils to him. And in 1877, a part-time collector in Utah incited a whole new string of cutthroat arguing by trying to sell bones from his site to both of them. Other feud highlights included a series of snippy "he said, he said" pieces in the New York Herald, and the time the Smithsonian confiscated much of Marsh's fossil collection after Cope accused him of misusing tax dollars to hoard fossils for himself.

For all the angst it caused them, though, Marsh and Cope's constant one-upmanship was great for science. During their 20-some years of bickering, the two added 136 new species (including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Diplodocus) to the nine that had previously been discovered in North America.

4» PULLING TEETH

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Henry Fairfield Osborn was a giant in the field of paleontology, but he also has one giant mistake to his name. In 1922, while serving as president of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn received a fossil of a tooth found in Nebraska. Suffering from a bout of overconfidence, the normally careful scientist published a paper announcing (based on one tooth, mind you) that he'd discovered Hesperopithecus haroldcookii, the first anthropoid ape unearthed in North America.

Taking into account that all of this was happening just three years before the Scopes Monkey Trial, word of a missing link was a pretty big deal. Add to that British anatomy professor Sir Grafton Elliott Smith touting the discovery as a potential breakthrough, and artist Amedee Forestier drawing a famously speculative picture of the "Nebraska Man" (and Woman) in the widely read Illustrated London News. Although Osborn never hypothesized where (or if) his ape fit into the evolutionary chain, he used the discovery to fuel his war of words with anti-evolution blowhard William Jennings Bryan. Osborn made sure to note the irony of the tooth having come from Bryan's home state, and even suggested calling the ape Bryopithecus in honor of "the most distinguished primate which the state of Nebraska has thus far produced."

Unfortunately, in this particular case, said distinguished primate got the last laugh. Upon further examination, it was determined that the tooth belonged to a millennia-old peccary—otherwise known as an ancient pig. In fairness to Osborn, the similarities between human and peccary teeth had already been noted in scientific literature, so it wasn't that wild a guess. Of course, that didn't stop creationists from pouncing on the mistake.

5» CREATING A MONSTER (AND THE BIRTH OF THE GRIFFIN)

Long before there was a science called paleontology, people were trying to come up with explanations for giant bones found in the ground. And often, those explanations pointed to mythological creatures. But of all the fairy-tale creatures accused of inhabiting the ancient world, the griffin might claim the most direct connection to actual fossils. Usually depicted in folklore as a lion with an eagle's head and wings, the griffin was said to fiercely guard its gold. The hybrid animal appears consistently in the art of ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia, and its legend apparently originated with Scythian nomads who wandered east toward Mongolia's Gobi desert.

So, how do fossils fit in? The Gobi is filled with the fossils of both the Protoceratops, a lion-size dinosaur with a birdlike beak, and of the similarly beaked Psittacosaurus. And while there were no massive hoards of gold around, the skeletons were often found guarding something arguably more valuable—hoards of eggs. The ancients were wrong about griffins, but that may have had more to do with misdiagnosing evidence than with legend or superstition.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
May 28, 2017
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Amazon

As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting! 

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Fitbit Flex 2, Black (US Version) for $59.95 (list price $99.95)

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Fritesla 20000mah Power Bank 4USB Portable Charger for Smartphones (Green) for $24.99 (list price $100.00)

KITCHEN

Moscow Mule Hammered Copper 18 Ounce Drinking Mug, Set of 4 for $21.48 (list price $40.00)

OXO Good Grips Nylon Potato Masher for Non-Stick Cookware for $6.99 (list price $9.59)

Imarku Pro Kitchen 8 inch Chef's Knife High Carbon Stainless Steel Sharp Knives Ergonomic Equipment for $29.99 (list price $99.99)

Lodge L9OG3 Cast Iron Round Griddle, Pre-Seasoned, 10.5-inch for $16.19 (list price $24.00)

Cuisinart CSBP-100 3-in-1 Stuffed Burger Press for $11.47 (list price $14.99)

Wilton Nonstick 6-Cavity Donut Pan for $8.15 (list price $9.99)

Cuisinart Set of 3 Fine Mesh Stainless Steel Strainers, CTG-00-3MS for $11.21 (list price $22.00)

BLACK+DECKER GD2011B Family Sized Electric Griddle, 20 x 11-Inch, Black for $16.57 (list price $39.99)

Circulon Sunrise Whistling Teakettles, 1.5-Quart, Black for $19.99 (list price $40.00)

Rachael Ray Cucina Hard Porcelain Enamel Nonstick Covered Round Casserole, 4.5-Quart, Agave Blue for $27.69 (list price $100.00)

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Presto 04820 PopLite Hot Air Popper for $17.55 (list price $29.99)

Contigo AUTOSEAL Transit Stainless Steel Travel Mug, 16 oz, Polar White with Grayed Jade Lid Accent for $15.55 (list price $24.99)

AUTOSPOUT Straw Ashland, 24oz, Monaco for $8.49 (list price $12.99)

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Sherpa Throw Blanket Lt Grey 50x60 Reversible Fuzzy Microfiber All Season Blanket for Bed or Couch by Bedsure for $23.99 (list price $59.99)

Hoover Vacuum Cleaner WindTunnel 3 High Performance Pet Bagless Corded Upright Vacuum UH72630PC for $139.51 (list price $189.99)

LANGRIA Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Firm for Optimal Orthopedic Support, Removable Washable Bamboo Cover Hypoallergenic Anti-Bacterial CertiPUR-US Certification,Queen Size for $12.99 (list price $59.99)

Downy Unstopables In-Wash Scent Booster Beads - FRESH, 26.5 oz. for $10.97 (list price $15.99)

Aszaro Cedar Balls, Cedar Cubes & Cedar Sachets 40 pc Combo Pack | 20 Natural Cedar Wood Balls, 20 Blocks & 5 Bonus Sachets | Ward Off Moths, Mildew And Mustiness For Easy Garment Care for $17.97 (list price $25.99)

Garment Steamer, Holan Portable Handheld Clothes Steamer, Fast Heat-up and 200ml Capacity Fabric Steamer with Two Brushes Perfect for Home and Travel for $17.99 (list price $39.90)

Monkey Hook Picture Hanger Home and Office Pack, 30 pc set for $11.25 (list price $19.75)

Queen Size SafeRest Premium Hypoallergenic Waterproof Mattress Protector - Vinyl Free for $29.95 (list price $95.98)

LUCID Premium Hypoallergenic 100% Waterproof Mattress Protector - 15 Year Warranty - Vinyl Free - Queen for $19.99 (list price $40.00)

HANSLIN Desk Top Swivel Alarm Clock for $23.75 (list price $29.99)

WBM Himalayan Glow 1002 Hand Carved Natural Salt Lamp with Genuine Neem Wood Base/Bulb and Dimmer Control, Crystal, Amber, 8 - 9-Inch, 8 - 11 lb for $30.98 (list price $39.95)

 

HEALTH AND BEAUTY

BS-MALL Makeup Brushes Premium Makeup Brush Set Synthetic Kabuki Cosmetics Foundation Blending Blush Eyeliner Face Powder Brush Makeup Brush Kit (10pcs, Golden Black) for $9.99 (list price $39.99)

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Crest 3D White Luxe Whitestrip Teeth Whitening Kit, Glamorous White, 14 Treatments - Packaging May Vary for $34.69 (list price $44.99)

Gillette Fusion Manual Men’s Razor Blade Refills, 12 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $33.97 (list price $47.99)

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Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 30, 5 Oz. for $7.47 (list price $10.99)

Thinksport Kid's Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, 3oz for $10.87 (list price $11.99)

Colgate MaxFresh Wisp Disposable Travel Toothbrush, Peppermint - 24 Count for $3.41 (list price $7.99)

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Gillette Fusion ProGlide Manual Men's Razor Blade Refills, 4 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $13.22 (list price $18.03)

Radha Beauty Rosehip Oil 4 oz - 100% Pure Cold Pressed Certified Organic for $13.95 (list price $49.99)

OFFICE, SCHOOL, AND CRAFTS

SwissGear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack - Black for $54.99 (list price $130.00)

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Fineliner Color Pen Set,0.38mm Colored Fine Line Point,Assorted Colors,10-Count for $6.58 (list price $9.99)

uni-ball 207 Impact Gel Pens, Bold Point (1.0mm), Blue, 12 Count for $20.00 (list price $26.46)

Elmer's Liquid School Glue, Washable, 1 Gallon, 1 Count for $14.08 (list price $20.49)

Westcott Jumbo Circles Template (T-826) for $4.31 (list price $7.00)

Amzdeal Magnifier Eye Glasseses Eye Loupe For Reading Drawing Making handicrafts Repairing for $11.89 (list price $39.99)

OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

Coleman 12 oz. Enamel Mug for $3.49 (list price $8.98)

Igloo 5 Gallon Seat Top Beverage Jug with spigot for $22.99 (list price $39.99)

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Polar Bottle Insulated Water Bottle (24-Ounce) (White) for $7.99 (list price $11.99)

ALPS Mountaineering Crescent Lake 0-Degree Sleeping Bag (Regular) for $43.19 (list price $53.99)

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VicTsing 50ft Expanding Hose, Strongest Expandable Garden Hose with Double Latex Core, Solid Brass Connector and Extra Strength Fabric for Car Garden Hose Nozzle for $34.99 (list price $39.99)

Insulated Picnic Basket - Lunch Tote Cooler Backpack w/ Flatware Two Place Setting (Black & Red) for $25.99 (list price $31.04)

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Lightning Nuggets Inc 0-47815-14175-7 12-Count Firestarters for $5.54 (list price $12.99)

Imarku BBQ Grill & Baking Mats, Durable , Heat Resistant, Set of 10 Non-Stick Grilling Accessories for $23.99 (list price $49.99)

TOOLS

TIWIN LED Light Bulbs 100 watt equivalent (11W),Soft White (2700K), General Purpose A19 LED Bulbs,E26 Base ,UL Listed, Pack of 6 for $19.99 (list price $23.99)

Kidde FA110 Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher 1A10BC, 1 Pack for $19.98 (list price $42.99)

Sugru Moldable Glue - Black & White (Pack of 8) for $14.80 (list price $21.25)

5 Pack Ipow LED Battery-powered Wireless Night Light Stick Tap Touch Lamp Stick-on Push Light for Closets, Cabinets, Counters, or Utility Rooms,Cordless Touch Light,Batteris Not Included for $9.97 (list price $11.99)

Dimmable LED Desk Lamp, 4 Lighting Modes(Studying, Reading, Relaxing, Sleeping), 5 Level Dimming, 1 Hour Auto Timer, Touch Sensitive Control, Modern, - Piano Black for $29.97 (list price $109.00)

KEDSUM 200pcs Adhesive Cable Clips, Wire Clips, Car Cable Organizer, Cable Wire Management, Drop Cable Clamp Wire Cord Tie Holder for Car, Office and Home for $8.99 (list price $19.99)

GlowBowl A-00452-01 Motion Activated Toilet Nightlight for $10.40 (list price $24.99)

Mothers 07240 California Gold Clay Bar System for $14.24 (list price $15.37)

J5 Tactical V1-Pro Flashlight The Original 300 Lumen Ultra Bright, LED 3 Mode Flashlight for $12.95 (list price $29.95)

Oria Precision Screwdriver Set, 60 in 1 Magnetic Driver Kit with 54 Bits, Professional Electronics Repair Tool Kit for iPhone/ Cell Phone/ iPad/ Tablet/ PC/ MacBook and Other Electronics for $13.99 (list price $26.99)

SE MH1047L Illuminated Multi-Power LED Head Magnifier for $8.94 (list price $15.44)

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