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The Quick 10: How 10 Works of Art Were Discovered

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It was this month in 1820 that a peasant farming the fields stumbled across one of the greatest artistic finds in history: the Venus de Milo. Seriously, all I ever find when I'm digging in my yard are pieces of broken toys and copious amounts of cigarette butts. Maybe you'll be luckier than me... read how these 10 works of art were "discovered" and then go and do a little digging of your own. And if you find anything, you have to give me 10 percent for inspiring you. ...No? Well, I tried.

1. The Venus de Milo was discovered in 1820 by a Greek farmer digging in his field. He found a cavity in the ground with the Venus inside; it also contained three statues of Hermes and a marble fragment that didn't belong to any of them. There was some debate over whether the statue belonged to Turkey or France, but Venus ended up being presented to the King of France (Louis XVIII) and she's been in the Louvre ever since.

winged2. Another Louvre treasure, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (AKA Nike of Samothrace), was discovered in 1863. Charles Champoiseau, an archeologist, found her shattered into more than 300 pieces - not including her head and arms, which are still missing today. Almost a century later, a fingerless right hand was found along with one severed finger. Jean Charbonneaux, the curator of the Louvre said he had no doubt that it belonged to Nike, but would probably never have it attached, even if the corresponding arm was found. "A statue without a head and with only one arm looks rather awkward."
3. The Mona Lisa is thought to have been one of da Vinci's last works; he finished it not long before his 1519 death (side note: yesterday was da Vinci's birthday). Afterward, the King of France, who had invited da Vinci to work at a mansion near his castle, bought the painting and kept it in his personal collection until it was given to Louis XVI. Louis moved it to the Palace of Versailles until the Revolution was over, and after that it was sent to where it resides now - the Louvre. But it hasn't been there consistently - Napoleon had it placed in his bedroom; it was hidden away during the Franco-Prussian War and again during WWII, and it has been stolen several times.

sphinx4. The Great Sphinx. Legend has it that the Sphinx was rediscovered by Napoleon's troops in 1798. In fact, the story of the Sphinx's missing nose is sometimes attributed to a stray cannonball from his army, but older depictions show that the Sphinx's nose has been missing for a looooong time. The truth is, people have known about the Great Sphinx for quite some time before Napoleon - we have a written description of "the great colossus" from as early as 1546. It's probably safe to say, though, that Napoleon and his men brought newfound worldwide attention to the Sphinx.

5. The Venus of Willendorf, despite dating back to 24,000 BCE or so, was only discovered in 1908. Austrian archaeologist Josef Szombathy was excavating a paleolithic site near the city of Krems, Austria, when he stumbled upon the old gal. She was carved from a limestone that isn't native to the area, so lots of speculation as to how she got there has been flying around ever since. If you want to see her in person, the Venus of Willendorf is at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

disk6. Coyolxauqui bas-relief. In the '70s, some electrical workers did some accidental excavating while installing power lines in Mexico City. At 8.5 tons, this bas-relief disk of the Aztec moon goddess was quite the find. It's now housed in the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City.
7. The "discovery" of Still Life with Flowers by Van Gogh is like something you dream about. A retired couple in Milwaukee had a reproduction of this piece hanging on a wall in their living room... or so they thought. It turned out to be an original. Can you even imagine?! They sold it for $1.4 million in 1991.

8. The Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 by Gustav Jequier, an Egyptologist and part of the excavation crew of Jacques de Morgan. It had been hidden since about the 12th century BC when it was stolen by the then-King of Elam, Shutruk-Nakhkhunte when he defeated the Mesopotamian Empire (we think).

laocoon9. Laocoön and His Sons was discovered in Rome in 1506 near the Golden House of Nero - it's thought that the statue may have belonged to the Emperor. The Pope at the time, Julius II, was an avid patron of the arts and immediately laid claim to the sculpture. The sculpture was missing its arms when it was discovered, so new, outstretched versions were made and attached. Then, in 1906, an archaeologist discovered a piece of a marble arm that, 44 years later, was determined to belong to the Laocoön. The funny thing is, the new arm proved that the position of his arms were bent, which is what Michelangelo had argued when the replacement arms were made in 1506. Take that, Raphael!!

constantine10. The Colossus of Constantine was discovered in Rome in 1487, but not the whole thing - poor Constantine looked like Dexter had his way with him. So far, the only pieces to surface are his head, the right arm with elbow, both kneecaps, the left shin, the left foot, and two right hands. Two right hands? Yep - it's hypothesized that at some point, the right hand was reworked so Constantine could hold a Christian symbol instead of a sceptre. Based on the measurements of the pieces that have been found, the Colossus was probably about 40 feet tall. Aren't those eyes haunting? Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

Have a good Q10 suggestion for me? Send me a Tweet!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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]