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Ape Women: 10 Dedicated Primate Researchers

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Women are doing amazing work in primatology, the study of monkeys, apes, prosimians, and even humans. Although many are working on furthering our understanding of our closest relatives, we will take a look at just a few of them.

1. Vanessa Woods

Vanessa Woods is a native of Australia, a research scientist at Duke University, a writer for The Discovery Channel, and an advocate for bonobos, apes that closely resemble chimpanzees. Read about Woods research in the Congo at Bonobo Handshake and follow her blog at Psychology Today.

2. Francine Patterson

Francine "Penny" Patterson began an experiment as a graduate student in 1972. Almost 40 years later, the experiment is still going! Patterson received permission from the San Francisco Zoo to work with a one-year-old gorilla on language acquisition. So Patterson began training little Koko to use American Sign Language. The gorilla began using words within a couple of weeks, and now has a vocabulary of over a thousands words in "Gorilla Sign Language", a slightly modified form of American Sign Language. Work with Koko led Patterson to found The Gorilla Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the lowland gorilla.

3. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh spent 30 years as a language researcher at the University of Georgia, during which time she taught a bonobo named Kanzi to communicate through the use of pictograms. Savage-Rumbaugh is now doing language research at The Great Ape Trust, a research center in Des Moines, Iowa. The trust is home to six bonobos and six orangutans.

4. Claudine Andre

Claudine Andre is a Belgian researcher who grew up in the Congo. She volunteered at the Kinshasa Zoo and became enamored with bonobos. In 1994 she founded Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 60 bonobos sheltered there were mostly confiscated from poachers. Andre also founded Friends of Bonobos to support the sanctuary and is trying to find ways to return orphaned apes to the wild.

5. Sarah Hrdy

Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist with the University of California at Davis. Her research into human evolution led her to study primates, starting with the behavior of Hamuman Langurs in India. Since then, Hrdy uses other primates as well to develop theories that contribute to the investigation of human sociobiology and evolution. Despite a shortage of vowels, she has written a half-dozen books on the subject of motherhood in human and other primates.

6. Sally Boysen

Sally Boysen is a psychology professor at Ohio State University. She studies cognitive development in great apes, particularly the mathematical abilities of chimpanzees. She began teaching chimpanzees to count in 1984. She later worked on teach several chimps to read, including one named Sheeba, who lived with Boysen for almost all her life.

7. Mireya Mayor

Mireya Mayor is an anthropologist who studies primates and other wildlife in Africa. In 2000, she discovered a mouse lemur that is the world's smallest primate, a find that led to the establishment of a national park in Madagascar to conserve the tiny animal. A former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, Mayor received her PhD from Stony Brook University in 2008. She is a host at Nat Geo Wild where her show Mystery Gorillas is now running. Mayor's new series Wild Nights will premiere in August. Her adventures will be chronicled in a forthcoming book.

8. Birute Galdikas

Birute Galdikas has dedicated her life to orangutans; their study, protection, and conservation. She was born in Germany to Lithuanian parents and grew up in Toronto. Galdikas received her PhD in anthropology at UCLA. She launched her dream of studying orangs in Borneo with the help of renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey in 1971, and became one of "Leakey's Angels". Since then, Galdikas has been based in Asia. She founded The Orangutan Foundation International in 1986 to fund orangutan research. Galdikas isn't a hero to everyone in Indonesia, where she fights for acreage to be set aside for the apes, and fights against those who wish to use the land for more profitable endeavors. She is now a citizen of Indonesia, but spends a few months every year teaching at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. She is also a full professor at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta.

9. Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was another of Leakey's Angels. Fossey lived in Rwanda for 18 years studying the mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. She approached and befriended a colony of gorillas, gaining their trust over time, and was even accepted as a member of their group. Over the years, Fossey wrote about her relationship with the gorillas, which led to the supporting of her work through the Digit Fund (named after her favorite juvenile gorilla), which later grew into the organization The Gorilla Fund. Fossey's conservation efforts were not welcomed by Rwandan poachers, whom she fought tooth and nail. She was found murdered in her cabin in 1985. The crime was never solved. Fossey had already written the book Gorillas in the Mist, which became a major motion picture in 1988.

10. Jane Goodall

The third member of Leakey's Angels here, Jane Goodall is currently the premier authority on chimpanzees. Goodall first traveled to Africa from her native England in 1957. There, she met and impressed Louis Leakey, who hired her to do research on chimpanzees. Goodall began her research at Gombe, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Over the years, she documented the social structure of a chimpanzee colony and reported on it for National Geographic Magazine. Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977. The foundation works to conserve areas where chimpanzees can flourish, and funds research into our understanding of these apes who are so closely related to us. In 1994, Goodall also founded TACARE, an organization dedicated to helping the people of Tanzania. Now 76, she travels the world to educate people about apes and raise funds for chimpanzee conservation.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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