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The Quick 10: Pluto, We Never Knew Ye

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It was a mere 79 years ago that we discovered Pluto and embraced it as one of our nine planets. "Pluto!" we said. "We love you! You're so tiny and cute!" And then in 2006, we dumped it like a bad boyfriend. But to celebrate the anniversary of the day we first laid eyes on Pluto, we'll bring it back into the spotlight today.

tombaugh1. Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, a researcher at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was supposed to be looking for the mysterious Planet X, a planet that was only hypothesized by some other scientists who figured there must be another planet out there to explain the weird orbits of Neptune and Uranus. Upon discovering Pluto, Tombaugh announced to his superior, "Dr. Slipher, I have found your Planet X." For various reasons, though, including its small size and strange orbit, it was discovered that Pluto couldn't possibly be the Planet X they were looking for. But it was a planet (at least, it was then), and as a planet, it needed a name.
2. The planet was given its name by 11-year-old Venetia Phair of Oxford, England. Her grandpa read about the discovery of this new planet in The Times and suggested that she give the name a go. Venetia thought Pluto would be a fitting name, after the Roman God of the underworld who had the power of invisibility. But that was only part of the reason the name was picked - Tombaugh liked the name because it started with the letters P and L, which were the initials of Percival Lowell, the man behind the whole Planet X theory. Lowell passed away in 1916. Venetia is still around and doesn't really care if Pluto is a planet or not - she recently said she's been pretty indifferent to the whole debate, but if she had to pick one way or another, she supposes she'd have to lean toward planet. Oh, and her reward for naming the planet? Five pounds from her grandpa. She also has an asteroid named after her.

3. Yep, Mickey's best pal Pluto was probably named after the planet.

The planet was officially named on May 1, 1930, and the dog was first mentioned by his name in the 1931 cartoon "The Moose Hunt." One Disney animator claims he has no idea where the name came from, saying "I honestly don't remember why [we named him Pluto]. I think we were stoned."

jupiter4. The New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to fly by Pluto in 2015 to do a little exploring. So far it has already passed Mars, a small asteroid, studied the Little Red Spot on Jupiter as it went past, and passed Saturn's orbit. It should pass Uranus' orbit in March, 2011, and Neptune's in August, 2014. After it passes Pluto and one of Pluto's moons, Charon, it might observe some Kuiper Belt objects on its way out of the solar system. By 2029, it will be out of our solar system entirely. That picture is Jupiter via New Horizons' infrared camera.
5. We won't be living on Pluto any time in the foreseeable future. That's because not only is the surface of the planet entirely ice, the surface temperature of is about 350 degrees below Fahrenheit, and the air is made up of a lot of carbon monoxide and nitrogen.
6. Pluto is so little, it's only about half the width of the United States.

charon7. Pluto's three moons are Charon, Nix and Hydra, with Charon being the main one. Charon is the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, so it ties in with the Roman God of the underworld pretty nicely. Charon was discovered in 1978; Nix and Hydra were just discovered in 2005. Since the reclassification, though, there's some debate whether to consider Charon a moon or a dual dwarf planet along with Pluto. Nix and Hydra are just considered satellites. Pluto and Charon orbit around one another about every 6.387 days.

8. A hundred-pound person would weigh a mere seven pounds on Pluto and you'd have to live 248 Earth-years to celebrate your first birthday on Pluto.

kuiper 29. Pluto is now thought to be the biggest object in a big mass of Kuiper belt objects (KBOs). The Kuiper belt is just a section of the solar system - that's it and all of its known objects in the picture. Objects with properties and orbits similar to Pluto's within the Kuiper belt are called Plutinos. Before this theory was decided upon, another one floating around is that Pluto was once a moon of Neptune that had been somehow knocked out of orbit by the moon Triton. Most scientists scoffed at that theory, though.
10. Plutonium was named after the dwarf planet, not after the god. Pluto had only been around for a little more than 10 years when Plutonium was discovered and was named because the previous transuranium element was named after Neptune. It only made good sense to name the next in the series after the next then-planet. The name "plutium" was kicked around a little bit, but one of its discoverers, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, basically decided that "plutonium" sounded cooler. He suggested "PU" as its periodic table letters as a joke, but apparently no one else got the joke because they went ahead and approved it. Other names considered for Plutonium included "Ultimium" and "Extremium" because they thought they had discovered the very last element on the periodic table.

And hey, if you're still in mourning for Pluto, we conveniently have your cure: A Revolve in Peace shirt. Pay tribute to your favorite ex-planet today!

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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