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A Dino Named Sue: The Most Complete T. Rex Ever Found

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If you've only got one afternoon in Chicago, which museum should you attend? After mulling over the possibilities and consulting my Magic 8-ball, I decided to hit up the Field Museum. It was a great choice, largely because I got to meet this old gal, who happens to be one of the most controversial set of bones in existence.

The Discovery

The dino named Sue was almost not found. After the crew on the dig found a few Edmontosaurus bones, they were pretty much ready to call it quits. But then their truck got a flat tire. While waiting on the tire to be fixed, Sue Hendrickson thought she would bide her time by checking out some cliffs that they were unable to get to before. After finding some small pieces of bone, she looked up to see where they had fallen from. Sticking out of the cliff were some much larger bones that looked to be well preserved. (Photo from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research)

hendrickson The remains were eventually excavated and the crew discovered that the T. Rex was 80 percent complete "“ the most complete set of T. Rex bones ever found. In fact, only seven T. Rex fossils that are more than 50 percent complete have ever been found, so this was really an amazing find. The reason the skeleton is so complete, they speculated, is because the dino was covered with water and mud shortly after it died, so other animals weren't able to make off with pieces of it very easily.

The Controversy

Pretty much as soon as word of the discovery got out, people started fighting over who "owned" Sue (the dino, not the paleontologist). The excavation crew had permission from Maurice Williams, the owner of the land, to dig and remove the skeleton and paid him $5,000 for those privileges. But Mr. Williams said the $5,000 didn't include the sale of any findings "“ just permission to remove and clean them.

It gets even more complicated. Williams belonged to the Sioux tribe, and the Sioux insisted that the bones were rightfully theirs. However, the United States Department of the Interior held the land the dinosaur was found on in trust, so they claimed the land actually belonged to them and not Williams. Concerned that something would happen to the valuable fossil, the FBI and the National Guard seized the it from the dig site in 1992 and transferred it to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. It was eventually decided that the fossil did belong to Maurice Williams. He decided to sell it, which was when the Field Museum pooled funds with California State University, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald's, Ronald McDonald House Charities and lots of individual donors to purchase the T. Rex when it when up for auction at Sotheby's. They ended up buying it for $8,362,500.

The Restoration

The Field Museum built a new research laboratory specifically for preservationists to work on Sue. It also allowed the museum's visitors to watch the preservation through glass. Copies were made of each bone and models were made of the 20 percent of the bones that were missing. McDonald's got one complete set to put on a traveling tour and Disney's Animal Kingdom received a set that you can still see in the DinoLand U.S.A. section of the park.

The preservationists also took CT scans of each bone to see what they could learn, but at nearly five feet long, the skull was way too big to fit in a conventional medical scanner. So they borrowed the scanner at Boeing's Rocketdyne lab in California, which was usually used to check out space shuttle pieces.
What they discovered from all of their scans was that Sue was really old for a dinosaur. She had also broken numerous rib bones, but they had all healed so they were injuries that occurred before she died as opposed to injuries that caused her death. The ribs weren't her only injuries, though "“ she had also broken her fibula, experienced some damage to her skull and damaged vertebra of her tail. They think that she died from disease, though, and not from a fight or a fall. All in all, more than 25,000 hours were spent cleaning and restoring Sue.

The Display

Once properly examined and cleaned, the Field Museum was ready to show Sue off to the public in her entirety. Problem: without muscles, Sue's 600-pound head was simply too heavy for her body to easily hold up. Plus, her head had some damage to it and wasn't in the greatest shape. So, the solution was to cast a mold of the skull, fixing the smashed parts so the head wouldn't look distorted. It was also much more lightweight and was easier to attach to the body. The original skull is on display for museum patrons to see; it's not attached to anything.

sue head

When the whole thing was assembled, Sue ended up being 42 feet long and 13 feet tall at the hips. Despite her huge size, her brain cavity is only big enough to hold about a quart of milk.
So, that's the story of Sue. If you're ever in Chicagoland, I highly recommend checking her out. The whole museum is fantastic "“ I lost my husband in the Native American exhibit for about an hour, and when he wandered out he confessed that he could have spent an entire day there. It's a wonderful, not-boring museum with lots and lots of dino bones for you to ponder. I'll leave you with a few of them.

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dino2dino

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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