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5 Massive Screw-Ups in Paleontology

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By Jeff Fleischer


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.


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.


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.



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.


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
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]