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6 Things You Should Know About Isaac Newton

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by Brian Gottesman

There are few areas of learning and scholarship that haven't been touched by Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). And while you've probably heard some of the colorful stories (that he served in Parliament, but never spoke a word except to ask that a window be closed, he may have invented the cat flap, etc.), here are a few things you probably didn't know about the founder of modern science.

1. He didn't play well with others

Newton was a man of great ego and great temper, and had few close friends. His dispute with German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz over the invention of infintesmial calculus is the stuff of legend, but Newton's less famous academic feuds were both bitter and many. His fellow scientists John Flamsteed, Robert Hooke, and Henry Oldenberg were just a few of those who at times felt the sting of Newton's viciousness. Sir Isaac's most famous quotation may well have been an exercise in sarcastic, spiteful anger. In February 1676 Newton wrote to Hooke "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Often taken as a sign of Newton's great humility, this famed quote was almost certainly intended as an insult to Hooke, who was hunchbacked and may have suffered from a form of dwarfism.

2. He had Mommy Issues

Newton's father died before he was born, and his mother, Hannah Ayscough, remarried when he was three, leaving him in his grandmother's care. Young Isaac hated his stepfather. He also had a troubled relationship with Hannah, confessing in his journal that he had once threatened to burn the house down with the couple inside. Later in life, Newton desperately sought his mother's approval, but she was bewildered by his scientific successes. In fact, she would have preferred it if he'd stayed home to manage the family estates. It may be for this reason that Newton never married; it's believed by many that he remained celibate throughout his life.

3. He liked that Olde Time Religion (Very Olde Time!)

Newton was born into a Puritan-leaning Anglican family. By the time he was thirty, however, he was a secret heretic. While Newton was a deist and believed fiercely in a single God who created the universe and its natural laws, he could not reconcile traditional Christian trinitarianism with reason. Although he conformed outwardly with the Church of England for the sake of his social and academic positions, most scholars agree that Newton believed in Arianism - an ancient, virtually extinct Christian sect that denied the equal divinity of Jesus and God. Newton believed that worshipping Christ was a form of idolatry, and denied the existence of the Devil. Ironically, Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey - the spiritual heart of the church whose doctrines he rejected, even though he refused the sacrament on his deathbed.

4. He was good with his hands

Unlike many intellectuals, Newton was famously dextrous and could work skillfully with metal, wood and glass. He constructed, among other things, his own telescopes and even the tools with which he made them. The development of these skills was probably spurred on by his arrogance. In old age, he confided to his friend John Conduitt that he he made his own tools because "if I had stayed for other people to make my tools and things for me, I would have never made anything of [my theories]."

5. He was a law and order kind of guy

In 1696, Newton was made warden of the Royal Mint, and promptly set about recoining Britain's currency. He quickly found to his dismay that 20% of the coins taken into the Mint during the recoinage were counterfeit. Newton conducted an investigation, had himself appointed a justice of the peace, and successfuly prosecuted 28 people for counterfeiting, a capital crime. He famously put the coiner William Chaloner on trial a second time (Chaloner had used his powerful friends to secure acquittal the first time around). After his second trial, Chaloner was put to death, but don't feel too badly for him - he had made his fortune by setting up fake Catholic conspiracies, entrapping Catholics into revealing their beliefs and turning them over to the government for prosecution.

6. He believed in magic

The image of Newton as hyperrational man of science is somewhat difficult to reconcile with some of his extracurricular activities. In addition to his more respectable scientific pursuits, Newton was a student of alchemy and the occult. He conducted numerous experiments attempting to create the mythical Philosopher's Stone, a substance that could be used to transmute base metals into gold and create an elixir of immortality. His experiments with mercury may have led to the eccentricity that characterized his later years. Newton was obsessed with eschatology, the study of the end of the world, but was positive the end would not arrive prior to the year 2060 (many of his contemporaries believed Armageddon was much more imminent). He may also have been a member of the Rosicrucians, a mystical secret society. Fans of The Da Vinci Code, however, are sure to be disappointed; the Priory of Sion, and Newton's leadership of it, are based entirely on modern forgeries.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]