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The Super Bowl of Science

Are you a high school senior with an interest in math or science? Then you owe it to yourself to check out the Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition for young scientists. Older readers like myself may know the program better by its former name, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search -- the competition has been running annually for 68 years, though Intel has sponsored it since 1999. In his 1991 speech to STS finalists, President George H.W. Bush famously called the competition the "Super Bowl of science."

STS winners get scholarships, a trip to Washington to network with other finalists (including a meet-and-greet that generally features the President, Vice President, and/or First Lady), laptops, and a chance to work directly with scientist mentors on their projects. This year's top winner (who received a $100,000 scholarship) was Erika DeBenedictis of New Mexico, whose project was described thusly:

Working at home and building on existing research, Erika developed an original optimizing search algorithm that discovers energy minimizing routes in specified regions of space and would allow a spacecraft to adjust its flight path en route. She believes her novel single-step method of repeated orbit refinement could work with essentially autonomous spacecraft, and may be a practical step forward in space exploration.

Not bad for a high school student, right? DeBenedictis's home page reads like a CV already.

Here's the "highlight reel" from this year's awards ceremony:

After the jump: updates on past winners, and a bit more about the history of the competition.

What Past Winners Have Done

Many STS winners have gone on to illustrious careers in science. 1950 finalist Sheldon Glashow, best known for predicting the charm quark and creating the first grand unified theory, went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. You can see him in this adorable slideshow of the STS through the years. According to Intel, "Seven have gone on to win the Nobel Prize; others have been awarded the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship." The STS has also been called the "Baby Nobels," and for good reason -- it's an incubator for young scientists, and has awarded nearly $4 million in scholarships over its roughly seven-decade history.

Intel has also published a nice by the numbers comparison, which includes these fun stats:

2 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists who are varsity athletes

6 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists with perfect SAT scores

10 - Number of MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants awarded to Science Talent Search finalists

70 - Percentage of Science Talent Search finalists who go on to complete an M.D. or Ph.D.

History of the STS

Founded in 1942 in partnership with Westinghouse, the STS is the most prestigious science competition for high schoolers in the US. The Society for Science & the Public gives us some perspective on the scope of this competition:

Over six decades, more than 130,000 students from U.S. high schools in all 50 states and territories have completed independent science research projects and submitted entries. Each completed entry consists of a written description of the student's independent research, plus an entry form that elicits evidence of the student's excellence and accomplishments. Over 2,600 Finalists have received more than $3.8 million in awards to support their college educations, and 18,000 Semifinalists have received millions more.

Here's a video slideshow about the STS, going back to 1942. Lots of US Presidents show up here, including Eisenhower, Nixon (when he was a congressman), Obama, and more. Bonus points for the shot near the end showing STS finalists at the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences (sadly, Einstein's statue is not sticking its tongue out).

How to Enter

Check out the Compete in the Intel Science Talent Search page for more info, or try the STS homepage for more, including sample submission forms for 2010. While 2010's competition is closed, 2011 is wide open....

If you're not in high school, check out this competition for middle schoolers. It appears to be on hold at the moment, seeking a sponsor, but the site suggests a possible restart in 2011.

For much more: check out the Society for Science & the Public's YouTube channel.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
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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