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The Origins of the Periodic Table

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It's Elemental

Contrary to schoolyard rumors, no one created the periodic table just to torture you—it all started with the elements. As early as 330 BCE, Aristotle created a four-element table: earth, air, fire, and water. (We'd sign up for a test on that periodic table, no problem.) But it wasn't until the late 1700s that Antoine Lavoisier wrote the first list of 33 elements. He classified them as metals and nonmetals, though we now know that some were compounds or mixtures. Other chemists found 63 elements through the mid-1800s, including their properties and compounds, and during that time, scientists also started noticing unexpected patterns in the properties.

For example, Johann Dobereiner discovered that the atomic weight of strontium fell exactly between the weights of calcium and barium, and all three had similar properties. From this, he created the Law of Triads, which said that in triads of elements, the properties of the middle element would be the average of the other two, if you ordered the elements by atomic weight.

When other scientists tested the theory, they basically found that the triads weren't really triads but parts of larger groups. (For instance, fluorine was added to the halogen "triad.") The main drag on their research was inaccurate measuring tools—if you're trying to order the elements by weight to figure out their relationships, it would have helped to know the correct values.

Shoddy measuring tools didn't stop progress, though. Enter French geologist A.E. Beguyer de Chancourtois, who lined up the elements on a cylinder in order of increasing atomic weight. By stacking the closely related elements, he noticed that their properties repeated every seven elements. The chart had one major flaw: it included ions and compounds as well as elements. A year later (in 1864), John Newlands created the Law of Octaves. Newlands noticed the same pattern that de Chancourtois did—repetition within columns. He also arranged the elements in order of atomic weight and observed similarities between the first and ninth elements, third and eleventh, etc. Much like de Chancourtois, Newlands had one major oversight in his table: he didn't leave any spaces for elements that hadn't been discovered yet.

Symbol Minded

Five years later, we got not one, but the first two, full-fledged periodic tables. Working independently, Lothar Meyer and Dmitri Mendeleev both developed periodic tables. Meyer had published a textbook in 1864 that included an abbreviated version of a periodic table, demonstrating periodic changes in relation to atomic weight. He completed an extended table in 1868 and gave it to a colleague—who obviously took a bit too long to review it. During the review time, Mendeleev's table was published (1869), and Meyer's didn't appear until the next year.

To be fair, Mendeleev's thought process also appears to have been a little bit different than Meyer's. After noticing several patterns, he decided to create a card for each of the 63 known elements that would include the symbol, atomic weight, and chemical and physical properties. He arranged the cards on a table in order of atomic weight and grouped elements with similar properties. The table ended up showing not only group relationships, but vertical, horizontal, and diagonal relationships as well. (Alas, poor Mendeleev came only one vote away from being awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize for his work.) Unlike Meyers, Mendeleev was able to use the gaps in his table to make predictions about yet-to-be-discovered elements, and remarkably, many turned out to be true.

[See Also: Name the Noble Gases in 1 Minute]

This article was written by Liz Hunt and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store. Also available in our store is the Periodic Table shower curtain.

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