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11 Body Parts Named After People

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Who is Paul Langerhans, and how did his islets wind up in your pancreas? Good question. Although lots of body parts take their names from Greek or Latin, more than a few are named after people. How well do you know the folks whose names are all over your body? Let's take a look at a few of these scientists and their anatomical namesakes.

1. Canals of Schlemm

Schlemm's canals are tiny channels in the eye that move aqueous humor, the watery fluid that resides between the lens and the cornea. The canals are named after 19th-century German anatomist Friedrich Schlemm, a University of Berlin professor who also discovered corneal nerves.

An interesting story about Schlemm: according to recent historical research, when Schlemm was a 21-year-old medical student he teamed with a classmate to disinter a recently deceased woman with rickets. Schlemm and his buddy took the corpse back to their lab to study how the disease had affected the woman's bones, but they were eventually caught and had to spend four weeks in jail for the grave robbery.

2. Fallopian tubes

As anyone who's passed a sex ed class might remember, Fallopian tubes are the thin tubes that lead from the ovaries to the uterus in female mammals. They're named after 16th-century Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, who also went by the Latin name Falloppius. Although Falloppio focused on the head in most of his own research, he also did some work with the reproductive tract.

In addition to discovering and describing the tubes that bear his name, he also studied syphilis and gets credit for sponsoring what may have been the first clinical trial of condoms around 1546. Falloppio's contraceptives were made of chemically treated linen that wearers tied on with a ribbon; he wrote that they helped decrease the rate of syphilis transmission.

3. Islets of Langerhans

No, it's not a tiny archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland. The islets of Langerhans are actually the parts of the pancreas that contain endocrine cells. Although they only make up 1 to 2% of the pancreas' mass, they have a lot of important functions, like secreting insulin. The islets are named after Paul Langerhans, a precocious 19th-century German pathologist. Langerhans made his breakthrough discovery at the age of 22 when he described "islands of clear cells" in the pancreas.

4. Langerhans cells

We weren't kidding when we called him precocious. When he was just 21, Langerhans also discovered and described Langerhans cells, a subset of skin cells concerned with immune responses. Although he mistakenly hypothesized that the cells had something to do with the nervous system, Langerhans was the first to isolate them, so they bear his name.

5. Organ of Corti

The tiny organ in mammals' inner ears that contains the hair cells that make hearing possible is named after Italian anatomist Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare Corti, who discovered it in 1851.

6. Cowper's glands

These small exocrine glands—also known as bulbourethral glands—are located at the base of the penis and help optimize conditions for sperm in the urethra during sexual arousal. The Cowper's glands are named after William Cowper, a 17th- and 18th-century British anatomist who made an early description of the glands.

Don't think for a second that an anatomist in Cowper's time had a boring life, either. In 1698, he published the watershed text The Anatomy of the Humane Bodies, which featured dozens of painstaking illustrated plates and quickly turned Cowper into a superstar anatomist. The only problem was that the plates weren't really Cowper's; he had lifted them from an earlier commercial flop by Dutch physician Govard Bidloo and written new copy to go with them. Unfortunately for Bidloo, Cowper didn't acknowledge his Dutch counterpart's contributions, and a bitter feud ensued that lasted for the rest of Cowper's life.

7. Bartholin's glands

Women may not have Cowper's glands, but they do have the homologous Bartholin's glands. These two glands lubricate the vagina in much the same way the Cowper's glands prepare the urethra for sexual activity. Their name comes from Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin the Younger, who was active in the 17th and 18th centuries and first described the glands.

Discoveries like this must have come naturally to Bartholin. His grandfather, Caspar Bartholin the Elder, published the first description of the olfactory nerve, and his father, Thomas, wrote the first comprehensive study of the human lymphatic system. His uncle Rasmus also has a body part named after him: the major sublingual duct, part of the sublingual salivary glands, is known as the duct of Bartholin.

8., 9. & 10. Bowman's capsule, membrane & glands

Bowman's capsules are cup-shaped structures around the glomerulus of each nephron in a kidney. The capsule helps filter out waste and excess water. Bowman's capsules are named after 19th-century English anatomist and ophthalmologist Sir William Bowman, who identified the structures in 1842 when he was 25 years old.

Not content to rest on his laurels after making one major discovery, Bowman pressed on with his work, and Bowman's membrane—a smooth, thin layer of the eye—also bears his name. Bowman's glands, a set of olfactory glands, are named for him, too. People in high places took notice of Bowman's prodigious research output; Queen Victoria created him a baronetcy in 1884.

11. Eustachian tubes

Everyone's familiar with "popping your ears" to equalize pressure after a flight, but fliers aren't actually popping anything. Instead, they're opening their Eustachian tubes to equalize the pressure between their ears and the atmosphere. These tubes, which also help drain mucus away from the middle ear, are named after 16th-century Italian scientist Bartolomeo Eustachi, also known as Eustachius.

Eustachi discovered all sorts of new information about the structure of the ear, and today he's known as one of the fathers of human anatomy. But he didn't get too much credit in his day. In 1552, Eustachi completed the text Anatomical Engravings, which showed an ahead-of-its-time understanding of the human body. Eustachi didn't dare publish his work, though, for fear of excommunication from the Catholic Church. The manuscript hung around for decades, and eventually reached publication in 1714, when it became a bestseller and illuminated just how much progress Eustachi made.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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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]