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The Quick 10: 10 Mad Scientists

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strangeloveDr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Strangelove, and my favorite "“Dr. Frank N. Furter. Mad Scientists abound in science fiction, but what's scarier than these fictional docs are their real-life counterparts. I should warn you, the last two are men who did really appalling, unethical experiments to unwilling human subjects. It made me a little squeamish to write about them, so skip them if you're not up for it. With that"¦

1. Herophilos was a Greek physician who probably introduced the experimental method to the world. It's been written that he vivisected at least 600 living prisoners to see what they looked like inside during his lifetime, from 335-280 B.C.

languille2. Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux was fascinated with severed heads. But at least he didn't sever them himself "“ at the time, France was still actively using the guillotine because it was believed to be a quick, humane death. But Beaurieux's studies showed that perhaps it was not as quick as previously thought. In 1905, he watched a man named Languille be"¦ well, separated from his body. Here's the account:

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck...

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [...] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions "“ I insist advisedly on this peculiarity "“ but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again[...].

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement "“ and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.[

3. Johann Konrad Dippel. As Miss C. pointed out this morning Dr. Dippel (say that. It's fun.) may have been the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein. Dippel did live at Castle Frankenstein in Germany, and he definitely did strange experiments. But they weren't without merit "“ he did end up inventing Dippel's Oil, which was used for a while as a medicine, an animal repellent and insecticide. It's not used much any more. He also sort of accidentally created the dye that makes "Prussian blue", which was great for artists "“ previously, the only way to make that color was either prone to fading or extremely expensive.

So it's clear that he was frequently experimenting with animal bones and the like, but it's possible that he dug up cadavers to experiment on them, too. There were rumors at the time that he was trying to transfer the soul of one cadaver to the body of another. This has never been verified"¦ but it sure makes for a good story.

4. Andrew Ure was a Scottish doctor in who practiced in the 19th century.

He used the corpse of a local murderer, who was executed by hanging, to see if people who had died certain ways could be brought back to life. Based on his trials, he concluded that anyone who died of suffocation, drowning or hanging (anything that restricted breathing, I suppose) could be brought back to life if the phrenic nerve was stimulated. I'm not entirely sure how he concluded this, since he clearly was never able to bring anyone back to life, but he concluded it nonetheless.

5. Was Alfred Nobel a mad scientist? Well"¦ kind of. At least, people viewed him that way. After discovering that nitroglycerine would work to create dynamite, an unstable version of it exploded in their family-own factory. It killed his little brother and a few others who were working at the time. After this, he started to become known as the "Merchant of Death." It was even the title used when a local newspaper mistakenly printed his obituary "“ "Merchant of Death Dies." Upset by this moniker, Nobel used his vast fortune to found the Nobel Prize and distract people from the bad things that had happened because of his invention. It worked "“ to this day we associate the award with the most brilliant people in their fields.

6. In 1955, Time magazine reported that Vladimir Demikhov had successfully grafted the head of one dog onto another dog. Here's the original, rather disturbing story or you can skip that and read a few choice quotes here:

Dr. Demikhov started in a small way by replacing the hearts of dogs with artificial blood pumps. Next, he planted a second heart in a dog's chest, removing part of a lung to make room for it. The extra heart continued its own rhythm, beating independently of the original heart. Sometimes the original heart stopped beating first. Then the second heart carried the burden until it failed too.

Encouraged by his successes, Dr. Demikhov tried the reverse operation. He removed most of the body of a small puppy and grafted the head and forelegs to the neck of an adult dog. The big dog's heart pumped blood enough for both heads. When the multiple dog regained consciousness after the operation, the puppy's head woke up and yawned. The big head gave it a puzzled look and tried at first to shake it off.

The puppy's head kept its own personality. Though handicapped by having almost no body of its own, it was as playful as any other puppy. he host-dog was bored by all this, but soon became reconciled to the unaccountable puppy that had sprouted out of its neck. When it got thirsty, the puppy got thirsty and lapped milk eagerly. When the laboratory grew hot, both host-dog and puppy put out their tongues and panted to cool off. After six days of life together, both heads and the common body died.

tesla7. Nikola Tesla "“ obviously a genius. But also? A little bit crazy. Up until his death in 1943 (he was 86), he was still developing inventions and theories, even though he was completely destitute and living in a hotel. Many, many of his theories and ideas eventually came to be, even though they seemed completely insane at the time. Some of the inventions that haven't come to be yet include anti-gravity airships, teleportation, time travel and a thought photography machine. Some of that still seems improbable, but who knows what will come to be. So let's say that scientifically, Tesla wasn't mad "“ just ahead of his time.

But he did do plenty of stange things in his personal life that would classify him as a little bit odd. He probably had OCD "“ he did everything in threes or in numbers divisible by three. He was actually physically disgusted by jewelry, especially pearls. He was definitely a germophobe, although he was strangely obsessed with pigeons. He ordered special feed for pigeons he fed in Central Park and sometimes would bring a lucky few birds back to his hotel room to keep him company. He even claimed that one all-white pigeon visited him every day. He said,"Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me."
According to Tesla, she flew in through his window one night and told him she was dying. He said,

"And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes - powerful beams of light". "...Yes," "...it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory."

As you can see, the title "Mad Scientist" definitely fits the bill.

8. Giovanni Aldini liked to conduct electricity through corpses to see what they could do. After a murderer was hanged in London in 1803, Aldini put conducting rods connected to a battery on the corpse's face, which made the deceased's muscles contort and more. Apparently his left eye actually opened. Then he stuck a rod up the dead dude's rectum, which made his back arch, his legs kick and one of his fists punch. There's a more detailed account here, including one of his colleague's experiments with "zombie kittens".

9. Josef Mengele. A truly despicable human being, to be sure. He was an SS physician who conducted all kinds of terrible experiments on prisoners, completely unconcerned for their suffering or dignity. He was especially fascinated with twins "“ it's documented that he once sewed two Gypsy children together in an attempt to create Siamese twins. His other tests including injecting chemicals into the eyes of children to see if it would change their eye color, sex change operations and lethal drug injections. Much of this was done without anesthesia.

10. Shirō Ishii was a microbiologist who served in the Imperial Japanese Army suring the Second Sino-Japanese war. Like Mengele, he conducted horrifying experiments on captives, such as amputating limbs only to reattach them elsewhere on the body, freezing body parts and then thawing them out to study gangrene (while they body parts were still attached to the person), and impregnating women via rape and then removing the fetus to study it. And this is only the beginning of it "“ if you want to know more, Google "Unit 731" to read about all of their experiments "“ but don't say I didn't warn you. Ishii never served any time for his crimes against humanity. He was arrested by American occupation authorities when WWII was over, but he was set free in exchange for some of the germ warfare data he had learned conducting experiments. At least one source says he moved to Maryland and continued researching bio-weapons, but his daughter says he stayed in Japan.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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