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The Large Hadron Collider: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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This morning, at 3 a.m. EST, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), flipped the switch and circulated the first proton beam around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The LHC, for those of you that have been hiding on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears, is the world's largest particle accelerator (the underground circular tunnel its housed in has a circumference of 17 miles and straddles the border between Switzerland and France, crossing it at four points). By colliding opposing beams of protons, CERN scientists intend to fill in the gaps that currently exist in the Standard Model, re-create the conditions that existed an instant after the big bang and get their hands on the Higgs Boson, the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that hasn't been found.

The idea of a ginormous particle accelerator knocking protons into each other at nearly the speed of light has some people"¦concerned. Despite the analysis performed by the LHC Safety Study Group, their conclusion that the LHC posed no conceivable threat, a second review by the LHC Safety Assessment Group and their conclusion that the LHC wasn't dangerous, two lawsuits, one in the U.S. and one in Europe, have been filed to keep the hadrons from colliding (if you were wondering, a hadron is bound group of quarks, and also really easy to misspell as hardon).

What are these people so worried about? Well, just the little matter of doomsday"¦

Back in (micro) Black (holes)

Much of the legal challenge to the LHC revolves around the slim chance that two quarks, one from each proton beam zipping around the collider, both endowed with immense energy inherited from the protons that contain them, could get too close to each other, collapse under their own gravitational interaction and create a small black hole. That gravitational interaction, many physicists have noted, needs to be really strong, though. For any scenario where a black hole pops up in the LHC we'd have to assume the existence of extra dimensions accessible to gravitons (the hypothetical particles that mediate the force of gravity), but not the other particles at play in the collider.

A planet-eating (or even a Switzerland-eating) black hole being created by the LHC would be, in a word, a long-shot. We've got room for error, though. The same reasoning that suggests creating black holes is possible also says that those black holes will evaporate because of a process called Hawking radiation. As much as black holes suck, they also radiate some energy out. The intensity of this radiation is determined by the temperature of the black hole, which is inversely proportional to its mass, so the very tiny black holes that the LHC might maybe manage to create would only be there for a fraction of a second before evaporating.

Keeping Proton Beams in Line

Even if a black hole comes and goes in the blink of an eye, the LHC is still a serious piece of machinery. During operation, the two proton beams will carry a total energy of 724 megajoules, equivalent to the energy of 380 pounds of TNT detonating. But it gets better! The magnets that keep the proton beams on their path during experiments will have a total stored energy of 10 gigajoules. That's the same amount of energy created by 2.4 tons of TNT going off.

With that much energy in one place, even small malfunction could be disastrous. Once the particles are set loose on their demolition derby, is there any way to shutdown the whole operation if there's a technical problem?

Well, duh. CERN spent almost two decades devising a system of fail-safes for the collider. The longer the proton beams whip around the track, the greater the chance that they'll become unstable, so CERN does the same thing to the beams that the nuns did to me in grade school: make them stand in the corner and think about what they've done.

When its time to replace the beams, the old ones are deflected by "kicker" magnets out of their circular path and steered by "septum" magnets (if you're thinking that the LHC is the world's largest collection of weird magnets, you're wrong; that would be my grandmother's fridge) into absorbers called beam dump blocks.

On its way to the dump block, the beam passes through "“ you guessed it "“ more magnets, which fan the protons out and lower the beam's intensity. Inside the beam dump cavern is the block, a 10-ton, 27-foot long graphite cylinder encased in steel and concrete. Quite a roadblock, but still easy enough for the proton beam to eat through, so CERN engineered things so that the beam is "scanned" onto the cylinder in a pattern instead of hitting it at just one point with full strength.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.