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The Last of the (New) New Einsteins

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For the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins" "“ visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. All week, Mr. Vance has been anointing additional New Einsteins here on mentalfloss.com. The final (new) New Einstein? A dog genius.


Who He/She Is: An unnamed doberman-border collie mix from Southern England


What He/She Did: No one knows the name of the first dog to sniff out a cancerous tumor. Since it was about 90 dog years ago, the clever pup has probably gone to the great fire hydrant in the sky by now. But the story was documented by Hywel Williams and Andres Pembroke in the British journal, Lancet, in 1989. Apparently the unnamed canine became obsessed with a mole on the leg of its owner "“ sniffing at it constantly, even when it was covered by clothes. Eventually, the dog got tired of having its prognosis ignored and simply decided to remove the mole with an ad hoc surgery involving its teeth.


When the owner finally went to Williams and Pembroke, she found out that the mole was cancerous and that the dog had probably saved her life.

Why You Should Start Idolizing Him/Her Immediately:

First of all, after succeeding where billions of dollars in federal funding have come up short, this creature likely went home and licked its own privates. That's got to be impressive in anyone's book.

Second of all, the discovery led to a whole new way to think about cancer detection. Scientists knew that tumors release all manner of exotic trace chemicals like alkanes and that they could theoretically be detected, say, on your breath if you looked carefully. But it never occurred to anyone that they might stink.

The notion that cancer has an odor has led scientists to start examining the some 3,000 chemicals that leave the body every day. Recently, scientists have confirmed that certain skin cancers can be detected in the air just above the tumor using devices called gas chromatography mass spectrometers. The analysis takes a day or two.

But when it comes analytic chemistry, the best in modern technology can just barely compete with the human nose, which can detect some of the more noxious chemicals in the parts per quadrillion (think a pinhead drop of liquid in a container the size of the Astrodome). Now consider that dogs can smell chemicals with at least 1,000 times that sensitivity.

Which brings us back to the Doberman mix. Today, dogs have detected nascent lung cancer and breast cancer with 88-99 percent sensitivity "“ theoretically more accurate than pap tests and mammograms. This has led to a number of clinics training cancer dogs to look for lung and bladder cancer. When you think about it, it's not all that different from the way we used to test for pregnancy by injecting frogs with women's urine.

So next time you go for a check up, don't be surprised if your clinician greets you by humping your leg.

Previous (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić , Roland Fryer, Nathalie Cabrol, David Shaw

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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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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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