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11 Ways We Used Radiation in Everyday Life

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Radiation as a medical cure has valid uses and definite dangers to the human body. We use radiation for diagnosis (as in x-rays) and for therapy (as in cancer treatment), but the benefits must be carefully weighed against the costs. Once upon a time, radiation in different forms was new and wondrous and had a million uses -medications, cosmetics, industrial applications, and even entertainment. It was only later that the danger became evident.

1. Radioactive Toothpaste

What could possibly make your smile brighter than radioactive toothpaste? A German firm called the Auer Company (Auergesellschaft) diverted thorium supplies from the Nazi atomic program in 1944 when it became clear that Germany would not win the war. The forward-thinking company saw the future of nuclear materials in cosmetics and developed Doramad radioactive toothpaste. Besides the usual wonderful benefits of radiation, the marketing mentioned that radiation would hinder bacteria in the mouth.

2. Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope

The radiation from x-rays was not considered particularly dangerous to humans when the machine was first invented. Despite injuries to scientists and technicians, the miracle instrument found its way into doctor's offices, military labs, and even shoe stores. From the 1930s to the 1960s, children were encouraged to have their shoe size determined "scientifically" by putting their feet into an x-ray fluoroscope at the shoe store. The shoe salesman and the customer could both see the bones in the foot (and be bombarded by leaking radiation). By 1950, these machines were recognized as dangerous, but they were only gradually banned state-by-state until 1970, when remaining states restricted the machines' use so strictly that the manufacturers stopped supplying them. They continued to be used in Europe for years afterward.

3. Tho-radia Cosmetics

Dr. Alfred Curie was no relation to either Marie or Pierre Curie, but his name sold French women on the idea of radioactive cosmetics. Curie along with Alexis Moussali developed a line of beauty products under the name Tho-radia. The line included face cream, soap, powder, and even toothpaste containing thorium and radium. Although they were expensive, Tho-radia product were a hit in Paris, and therefore popular everywhere else.

Dorothy Gray Salon Cold Cream was not marketed as containing any radioactive material, but this television ad is a bit shocking to modern audiences. The model is covered with radioactive dirt to show how well the cold cream removes it. At least we hope it did.

4. Radithor

Radithor was a cure-all patent medicine consisting of distilled water and two isotopes of radium. Advertisements called it "Perpetual Sunshine". Radithor was only one of many radioactive elixirs sold to alleviate pain and cure all manner of maladies. According to this article from 1932, a popular advocate of Radithor developed holes in his bones and skull, and his entire jaw had to be removed as it had deteriorated badly, just before he died of radiation poisoning. Image by Flickr user Somewhat Frank.

5. Radium Emanators

If you needed more radioactive water than could be supplied by patent medicines, you could make your own with any of dozens of devices produced to add radiation to water. This Radium Emanator was sold in the 1930s. It had uranium embedded in the cement core, which would leach into the water overnight.

6. Radium Clock Dials

Radium paint was special in that it tended to glow in the dark. The obvious use for this was for clock dials, so they could be seen with the lights out. Young women were hired in the 1920s to paint the numbers and hands on these clocks. The painters needed a very fine point on their brushes, so they would pull the brush fibers between their lips to keep the point. The amount of radium in each clock or watch was rather weak, but the painters in the factories absorbed so much that many died of radiation poisoning and related cancers, and others suffered from various radiation-induced disorders, particularly bone loss in the jaw. Five of the "Radium Girls" sued the company, U.S. Radium for damages, a case which led to stricter safety standards for the use of radium in industry.

7. Radon Health Mines

Although natural radon emissions have been designated as a health hazard and limits of safe exposure are set, some people still believe in the health benefits of radon. For these people, a vacation to a spa just for this purpose can be arranged. These spas were opened in the 1950s at abandoned mining sites in Montana where radon seeps out in unusual amounts. Spas include the Sunshine Health Mine in Boulder, Montana and Earth Angel Health Mine in Basin, Montana. Similar facilities are open in Europe as well. Image by Landon Nordeman/National Geographic.

8. Home Experiments

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was one of many children's chemistry sets that included radioactive materials, in this case four kinds of uranium. The Gilbert lab was recommended for "only boys with a great deal of education", and was priced at $50.00, an astronomical sum in those days. The high price was the reason for the disappearance of these kits rather than the danger of the materials. You could buy less expensive kits for your youngster in the sixties, such as the Atomic Energy Lab which only had one kind of uranium, but also contained radium.

9. Radiendocrinator

In the 1930s, anyone with $150 could purchase a radiendocrinator to place over your endocrine glands to expose them to therapeutic radium. The device came with paper soaked in radium, which you inserted into the case and exposed, screen-side up, to your testicles or other glands.

10. Vita Radium Suppositories

Another way to introduce radium to your vital glands was in a suppository form. Vita Radium Suppositories were guaranteed to contain radium, which sounded like a good thing at the time. Some ads contained euphemisms such as "vitality" alluding to a promised increase in sexual potency, while other ads targeting both men and women promised global benefits for anything that ailed you.

11. Uranium Glass

Beginning around 200 years ago, uranium salts were combined with silica before it was melted to create pretty yellow-green glass dishes. Most of these uranium glass dishes are valuable antiques now, and this is why you may see people carry black lights into an antique shop or flea market -they are testing for actual uranium content as opposed to later recreations. Image by Wikimedia Commons user Z Vesoulis.

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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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