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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Albert Einstein

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Did Einstein show any signs of future greatness as an infant?

His first impression wasn't one of fame, no. Born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, Albert was the first child of Pauline and Hermann Einstein. And to say the couple was less than impressed with their newborn son would be an understatement; they thought his head was grotesquely oversized. His parents described Albert to the delivering physician as a "monstrosity." The doctor convinced them that all infant heads appeared larger than normal and that Albert's body would grow to become more proportionate to his cranium. Of course, once that happened, his grandmother clucked over him and complained to his parents that the boy was "much too fat!"

Was he really a slow learner?

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Yes and no. The youngster didn't start to speak until he was two years old, but when he did chatter, he skipped all that "mama, dada" bunk and started off using full sentences. In 1881, Albert's parents presented him with a new little sister, Maria (called "Maja" by family and friends). When two-year-old Albert saw her for the first time, he presumed that she was some sort of toy, and asked "Where does it have its small wheels?" Despite his original skepticism, Maja and Albert soon became best friends.

Did Einstein suffer from a neurological disorder?

Einstein's primary-school teachers reported that the child had a powerful and lingering distaste of authority. Coupled with his late-developing speech, some medical professionals have suggested this behavior as symptomatic of either autism or Asperger's Syndrome. Throughout his childhood and adult life, however, Albert did not exhibit any other behavior that would have been typical of such a diagnosis. He had no difficulty communicating with others, for example. He also demonstrated the emotional capacity to develop both close friendships and passionate relationships.

Is it true that Einstein failed math class as a primary-school student?

This "fact" has circulated for many decades, presumably as encouragement to those of us who actually did struggle with long division. In 1935, a Princeton rabbi showed Albert Einstein a Ripley's Believe It or Not! column that included the anecdote.

Einstein laughed and claimed that he'd been at the top of his class, even in primary school. "Before I was fifteen," he added, "I had mastered differential and integral calculus."

Aside from his theorems and formulae, did Einstein pursue anything else in his laboratory?

In a scenario fitting for a genius, love first bloomed for Albert in the physics lab at the Swiss Polytechnic School in 1901. There, he quickly attached himself to Mileva Maric, a brilliant young Serbian girl who was the only female physics student at the institute at that time. Soon, the two were inseparable. But Pauline, Albert's mother, did not approve of the girl. She felt Mileva was bookish and unattractive. Worse, she belonged to a different faith. "If she has a child," Pauline warned her son, "you'll be in a pretty mess." That was all the prompting Albert needed, and a year later, Mileva returned home to give birth to a daughter. They named the girl Lieserl and left her with Mileva's parents in Serbia, telling no one else of her existence. Some sources indicate that Lieserl was mentally handicapped at birth and then went blind after a bout of scarlet fever at age one. While her ultimate disposition is uncertain, researchers hypothesize that she was put up for adoption and ultimately raised by a friend of Mileva's.

Albert wasn't a particularly warm and fuzzy guy, then?

It doesn't seem so, based on a cache of letters and other papers he bequeathed to Hebrew University. He did marry Mileva in 1903, but continued to have extramarital dalliances throughout their time together. While the couple went on to have two sons, their relationship was a tenuous one. Eventually, Albert drew up a "contract" that required Mileva to keep his clothes and study clean, prepare and serve his meals, and renounce all personal relations with him. He openly discussed his various liaisons with other family members and confided that of all the "dames" he frequented, he liked the "decent, discreet, and harmless" ones best.

Was Al strictly business, or did he enjoy a hearty laugh now and again?

Einstein was known to have a downright bawdy sense of humor, and he enjoyed teasing his wife. While entertaining a group of esteemed and intellectual guests, he'd purposely try to shock Mileva by launching into a risqué story. This would prompt her to cut him off with a sharp "Albert!" followed by a coquettish giggle. He also treasured a gag gift given to him by an engraver friend "“ a tin nameplate inscribed Albert Ritter von Steissbein, which roughly translates to "Albert, Knight of the Backside." Einstein proudly affixed the tag to the door of his apartment.

Did he have any hobbies?

Albert Einstein worked in the Swiss Patent Office from 1902 until 1909. He studied for his doctorate degree during those years, and also published several scientific papers in his spare time. One of these demonstrated how radiation converts mass to energy: the Theory of Special Relativity. Einstein's years in the patent office resulted in a lifelong interest in inventions. He enjoyed tinkering with electronics, which led to a few patents of his own, including one for a noiseless refrigerator and another for a transistorized hearing aid.

What was Einstein's involvement with the Manhattan Project?

His only direct participation in developing the atomic bomb was to solve a theoretical problem posed to him by the bomb's developers, who requested his input on their key task of using gaseous diffusion to separate fissionable material. Einstein did write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, to encourage him to accelerate the development of such a bomb. Albert believed that the Nazis (who were responsible for his hasty emigration to the U.S.) were on the brink of unleashing their own nuclear weaponry.

Did Einstein show any musical aptitude?

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Yes, indeed. In fact, music was one of the few ways that he expressed himself artistically. His mother, a talented pianist, gave little Albert a violin when he was five years old. The young perfectionist was 13 before he finally felt that he'd mastered the instrument. From then on, the violin was his constant companion. Einstein's eldest son, Hans, recalled that his father would take refuge by playing the fiddle when he found himself "stuck" on a difficult challenge. After the session, he'd find a way to resolve the problem.

Did the man own a comb, for heaven's sake?

Yes, but his mind was so busy with other things that he regularly forgot to use it. Einstein's overall neglect of personal appearance began shortly after the birth of his first son, Hans. The baby would keep the entire household awake by crying throughout the night. Albert couldn't miss a day of work, of course. He had to support a family of not only a wife and son, but also his widowed, aging mother.

On an almost daily basis, as he made his way to work at the Swiss Patent Office, he would see his reflection in store windows and realize "I forgot to comb my hair again." In later life, the über-efficient Einstein's attitude was obvious. "Long hair minimizes the need for barbers."

Was he a snappy dresser?

Not so much. As a child, Einstein noted that his big toe would eventually poke a hole in every sock he wore. "Why bother?" the genius thought. He only "dressed up" when it was absolutely necessary.

Albert's typical head-to-toe attire consisted of an undershirt, baggy pants held up with a rope, and sandals.

His attitude was either people knew and accepted him, or they didn't. Case closed.

What's the deal with that tongue picture?

0101-cover.jpgThe photograph in question was taken on his 72nd birthday — March 14, 1951. Einstein was leaving an event held in his honor at Princeton University, and got into the back seat of a car along with Dr. Frank Aydelotte, the former head of the Institute for Advanced Study. The paparazzi were coaxing Mr. Einstein through the car windows to "smile for camera" for the umpteenth time that day. A weary Albert responded by sticking out his tongue. UPI shutterbug Arthur Sasse snapped the iconic image, which originally included the faces of Dr. and Mrs. Aydelotte in the car as well. The classic photo was cropped to its current format by none other than Einstein himself, who liked it so much that he sent his friends greeting cards decorated with the image.

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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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May 23, 2017
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