Original image

The Scientists Behind the Movies

Original image

Without science, there would be no science fiction. Here are some stories of real life researchers whose work was the inspiration for literature and eventually the Hollywood treatment.

John C. Lilly was a physician, psychoanalyst, and scientist who studied sensory deprivation, dolphins, and LSD over his lifetime. His early work for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) included the development of the isolation tank for the study of sensory deprivation. He later added the use of LSD to the isolation experiments, using himself as a guinea pig. These experiment inspired the Paddy Chayefsky novel and 1980 movie Altered States starring William Hurt as a professor who does the same thing.

In 1955 Lilly began research on the brains of dolphins. He became convinced that one of his subjects was trying to imitate the speech of the humans around him. Lilly quit working for the government and threw his entire life into dolphin research, particularly in communication. In 1961 he published Man and Dolphin, Adventures of a New Scientific Frontier in which he was the first to theorize that dolphins are highly intelligent and can be taught to communicate with humans. Lilly's 1967 book The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence was the book that inspired French novelist Robert Merle to write Un animal doué de raison (A Sentient Animal) which was adapted into film as The Day of the Dolphin. The plot was changed significantly for the movie, which involves talking dolphins. As Lilly almost single-handedly popularized dolphins as intelligent beings, he is also indirectly the inspiration for the 1963 movie (and later TV series) Flipper.

Dr. Joseph Bell was a physician who lectured at the University of Edinburgh during the second half the 19th century. He taught his students the art of forensic pathology, which was in its infancy. Bell encouraged them to look for clues and deduce what they meant in order to know all they could about the patient before producing a diagnosis. In 1877, Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student in Edinburgh and eventually worked as a clerk in Bell's clinic. Conan Doyle received his medical degree in 1881. When Conan Doyle first wrote about the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes in 1887, Dr. Bell's technique was transferred to forensic police work, with Conan Doyle putting himself in the place of his colleague and student Dr. Watson. Dr. Bell was rather proudto be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus in 1817, she was inspired by quite a few doctors and scientists. Erasmus Darwin, a friend of her father, wrote about animating muscles with electricity, a practice known as galvinism. James Lind, one of her husband's teachers, also experimented with electrical stimulation of muscles and early electroshock therapy. Another inspiration may have been Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist who was born in castle Frankenstein and was rumored to have robbed graves for his experiments. Several other scientistsmay have also influenced the the story of reanimation of the dead.

Colonel John Alexander was one of group of paranormal researchers that inspired the 2009 The Men Who Stare at Goats. After years of service in the Special Forces in Vietnam, Alexander received a PhD from the New Age school Walden University in 1979, and started working for the Pentagon developing non-lethal weapons, which included mind experiments: psychokinesis, remote-viewing, and mind reading. Alexander wrote about the work in his 1990 book The Warrior's Edge.

Journalist and filmmaker John Sergeant produced a documentary series for the BBC about the army's paranormal experiments, which inspired Jon Ronson to write the 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted into the 2009 movie of the same name starring George Clooney. Alexander retired from the military in 1988 and went to work at Los Alamos developing non-lethal weapons. He is now a private consultant and is working on a book about UFOs.
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
Original image

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”