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A Brief History of Breast Implants

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To get the real story on fake breasts, let's open In The Beginning: A Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything and turn to the page on implants.

Nowadays, having one's breasts augmented seems nearly as commonplace as having one's hair permed. One of the most frequently performed cosmetic procedures, more than 200,000 U.S. women had the surgery in 2000 alone. But it wasn't always this way: once upon a time, breast augmentation was a highly questionable, semi-experimental procedure that frequently resulted in disfigurement and health-endangering complications. Of course, people subjected themselves to it anyway, jumping on the bandwagon whenever a new method came along.


The story begins in 1890, when Austrian doctor Robert Gersuny kicked things off by injecting paraffin into women's chests. The results looked fine for awhile, but over time grew hard and lumpy. Worse yet, infection rates were alarmingly high, so by the 1920s the procedure had been totally abandoned. In its place, surgeons experimented with the transplantation of fatty tissue from the abdomen and buttocks to the breasts, but the fat was often reabsorbed by the body, leaving the subject with asymmetrical breasts and unsightly scars where the fat had been harvested.

Pains and Needles

While the painful failures scared women away from the surgical methods for some time, that did nothing to stop American worship of the well-endowed woman. Icons like Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner helped solidify the gravity-defying, bombshell-shaped breast as the de rigueur "new look" in the 1940s and 1950s, and many women turned to "falsies" and bra-stuffing to keep up. It didn't take long, however, for surgeons to get out their scalpels and needles again, and in the 1950s women began to have various types of synthetic and polyvinyl sponges implanted. This may have been the worst approach yet: the sponges began to shrink and harden a few months after surgery, and infections, inflammations and a cancer scare eventually doomed the s es to the graveyard of failed breast augmentation therapies.

Pros and Silicones

Increasingly desperate, surgeons in the late 1950s went for a collective Hail Mary. They implanted everything from ivory balls and wool to ox cartilage into their unwitting guinea pigs' breasts "“ but none of it worked. During World War II, Japanese prostitutes reportedly injected themselves with silicone to better attract the patronage of American GIs, a technique that became so popular that silicone became a precious commodity. Topless dancers in the U.S. also got hip to silicone shots, but it wasn't long before complications like discoloration and infection put a damper on the silicone fever.

saline-implants.jpgThen, in 1961, everything changed. That's when a little corporation called Dow Corning collaborated with two Houston cosmetic surgeons to create the first silicone breast prosthetic, made from a rubber sac filled with viscous silicone gel. The basic design remained unchanged for 30 years, though it was modified slightly for safety reasons in 1982. Ten years later, after nearly 100,000 women had the modified version implanted, the FDA announced that the polyurethane in the implants could break down into the body and form a carcinogen. As a result, many U.S. surgeons turned to the safer, but less natural feeling, saline implants (pictured) designed in France back in the 1960s.

This piece was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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