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The Quick 10: 10 Animals in Space

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1. Laika. You might have heard of little Laika, the first animal to enter the final frontier. Not much was known about space at the time "“ we weren't even sure if humans could withstand entry beyond a certain point. So poor Laika the 11-pound stray dog was sent to test that out aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. The world didn't really know what had happened to Laika until relatively recently "“ reports in 1999 and 2002 revealed that the dog died just several hours after takeoff, from overheating and from stress. Although scientists said that they had planned to euthanize the dog with a bit of poisoned food after a certain amount of time or when it appeared that she was suffering, the recent reports indicated that no such thing ever happened. Poor dog. And it turns out that she pretty much died in vain "“ Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for Laika's journey, later said, "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.

gordo2. Gordo. About a year after Laika's demise, the U.S. sent up Gordo the squirrel monkey because his genetic makeup was so similar to that of humans "“ he could withstand similar temperatures and pressures. Gordo passed the original test with flying colors "“ on December 13, 1958, he made a 15-minute flight, traveling 1500 miles laterally and 310 miles into the air. Unfortunately, it was the crash landing that did Gordo in. His parachute failed and he didn't survive, although NASA maintains that his vitals were still OK at the time of impact, meaning he likely drowned in the Atlantic and didn't overheat upon reentry.

able3. and 4: Able and Miss Baker. A rhesus monkey and a squirrel monkey respectively, these two were sent into space just a few months after Gordo to continue his experiments. Happily, the duo survived the round trip, withstanding speeds in excess of 16,000 km/h. Able didn't get to enjoy life back on solid ground for too long, though "“ one of the electrodes used to monitor his vital signs during the trip had become infected and he reacted badly to anesthesia during the resulting surgery. He's now on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Miss Baker lived to the ripe old age of 27, passing away in 1984.

5 and 6: Belka and Strelka. You might have heard of this pair for a couple of reasons - first of all, they were among the first living things to actually go into orbit and come back alive. They were accompanied by a vast menagerie of creatures, including a rabbit, mice, rats, flies and plants. When they came back, Strelka celebrated by having a litter of puppies with her colleague Pushok, another dog who participated in Russian space experiments. Nikita Khrushchev gave Caroline Kennedy one of the puppies "“ Pushinka "“ as a gift the following year. When Pushinka hooked up with a Kennedy dog named Charlie and had puppies, JFK liked to refer to their spawn as "pupniks."

CATS IN space7. Felix. It was France who launched the first cat into space in 1963. Some reports maintain that the cat was actually a female named Felicette, but whatever gender the cat was, it came back from its mission alive and well but probably very resentful (aren't cats resentful of most things?). Felix/Felicette isn't pictured here "“ this is actually a picture from NASA "“ but I thought this photo was too entertaining to pass up.

HAM8. Ham. Ham the Chimp was the first chimpanzee in space. His mission was to prove that he could complete tasks and thus show that people would be able to conduct experiments and move around and do things during flight, not just be passengers. Ham was trained to push a lever when he saw a flashing blue light, which he successfully did just a fraction of a second slower than he did on Earth. He made it back safe and sound on January 31, 1961, suffering nothing more than a little bruise on his nose from bumping around during landing. Thanks to Ham's heroic efforts, Alan Shepard was able to go into space just three months later. Ham lived a happy and healthy life, dying in 1983 of natural causes.

9. Anita and Arabella. Technically they should count as #9 and #10, but since they're so small I'll lump them into one. Anita and Arabella were spiders who were guests on SkyLab in 1973. Their purpose? To see if the gravity changes would allow them to spin webs as usual. After a day or so of being freaked out (wouldn't you be?) they did, but it was noted that the silk produced by the spiders was finer than the samples they had spun in their pre-launch test environments, and the thickness of the web was more erratic than on the ground. Both spiders died during the mission from what appeared to be dehydration.

10. A tortoise. An unnamed tortoise, as far as I can tell, but if anyone knows the name of this dude, it will be our _flossers. On September 18, 1968, the tortoise became the first living thing to go into deep space. It orbited the moon and made its way back to Earth safely.

There's plenty more "“ it easily could have been a list of 10 dogs or 10 monkeys, actually. There's long been debate over whether this is animal cruelty or a necessary evil of space exploration "“ what do you think? I have to say Laika breaks my heart a little bit.

And because I can't resist a good Muppet tie-in:

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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]