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How the Big Ten Schools Got Their Nicknames

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From Badgers and Boilermakers to Hoosiers and Hawkeyes, the Big Ten Conference boasts an interesting set of school nicknames. Here are the stories behind the monikers of the conference’s 11 teams, as well as future Big Ten member Nebraska.

Illinois Fighting Illini

According to the University of Illinois archives, the first documented use of the term Illini was in January 1874, when the campus weekly newspaper changed its name from The Student to The Illini. An editorial in the first edition of the renamed newspaper indicated that Illini was a new term. The Illini nickname wasn’t regularly applied to the school’s athletic teams until around 1915.


The Fighting Illini nickname was most likely introduced during the fundraising effort for Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1923 and honored the Illinois men and women who served in World War I. Chief Illiniwek, the school’s longtime Native American mascot, wasn’t adopted until 1926. The mascot was a nod to the loose confederation of Algonquin tribes that once lived in the region. A student played Chief Illiniwek and performed at Illinois athletic events until 2007, when the mascot’s name and image were retired after much controversy.

Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana’s athletic teams are named after the state nickname, for which there are as many explanations as there are candy stripes on the famous warmup pants of the IU basketball team.

There are theories that the nickname is derived from locals asking “Who’s here?” when visitors rolled into town, or from early settlers—some of whom evidently served as an inspiration for Mike Tyson—asking “Whose ear?” after a particularly gruesome brawl. Two other theories are that the nickname originated as a derogatory term for a country bumpkin, derived from the Saxon word “hoo,” meaning hill, or that the nickname comes from a contractor named Samuel Hoosier, who built a canal in the region in the 1820s. Whatever the origin, the nickname was popularized during the 19th century and eventually lost any derogatory connotations.

Iowa Hawkeyes

People living in the territory that would become the state of Iowa adopted Hawkeyes as their nickname in 1838. Hawkeye was the name of the white scout who lived among the Delaware Indians in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which was published 12 years earlier. James Edwards, editor of the Fort Madison Patriot, moved his paper to Burlington in 1843 and renamed it the Hawk-Eye, adding to the popularity of the nickname. The University of Iowa borrowed the state nickname for its athletics teams and later introduced a cartoon mascot, Herky the Hawk, in 1948.

Michigan Wolverines

Michigan was not nicknamed the Wolverine State because a large number of the largest member of the weasel family roamed within its borders. In fact, the first verified sighting of a wolverine in Michigan wasn’t until 2004. Instead, the state nickname may date back to a border dispute between Ohio and Michigan in 1803 known as the Toledo War. It’s unclear whether the Ohioans applied the nickname to their rivals as a derogatory term or if Michiganders coined it themselves as a source of pride. Wolverines were well known as a fierce and ornery species that would kill much larger prey. Regardless, Michigan would become known as the Wolverine State and the University of Michigan adopted the nickname for its athletic teams.

Michigan State Spartans

When Michigan Agricultural College changed its name to Michigan State College in 1925, the school sponsored a contest to select a new nickname, as Aggies was no longer appropriate. The winning entry, Staters, wasn’t good enough for George S. Alderton, the sports editor of the Lansing State-Journal, so Alderton took it upon himself to choose another nickname. Alderton inquired about some of the other nicknames that had been submitted and settled on Spartans, which he used while covering the Michigan State baseball team’s southern training tour in 1926. After initially spelling Spartans with an ‘o,’ Alderton corrected the spelling and started using the Spartans nickname in headlines. “It began appearing in other newspapers and when the student publication used it, that clinched it,” Alderton said.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

In 1857, the year before the Minnesota Legislature introduced the “Five Million Loan” bill to fund the construction of railroads, R.O. Sweeny’s political cartoon depicting local politicians as gophers pulling a locomotive circulated throughout the state. Minnesota soon became known as the Gopher State and the University of Minnesota’s athletic teams the Gophers. Sportswriter and announcer Halsey Hall first referred to the team as the Golden Gophers in the early 1930s, a reference to Minnesota’s yellow jerseys and pants, and the moniker stuck.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska’s football team was known by a variety of nicknames before 1900, including the Old Gold Knights, Rattlesnake Boys, Antelopes, and Bugeaters. There are conflicting stories as to how the Bugeaters nickname originated. One theory links the nickname to a bull bat indigenous to the plains that ate insects. Another account traces the name to an East Coast reporter who was convinced that there was nothing for Nebraskans to eat during a drought other than the bugs that devoured all of their crops. No matter the origin of Bugeaters, Charles Sumner “Cy” Sherman, sports editor for the Nebraska State Journal, was not a fan of the moniker. In 1899, Sherman, who would later help develop the Associated Press poll, suggested Cornhuskers instead. The nickname had been used by the Nebraska student newspaper as a derisive nickname for Iowa’s football team in 1894, but was soon adopted as a replacement for Bugeaters. In 1946, Nebraska became officially known as the Cornhusker State.

Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern’s school colors were selected in 1894, but it didn’t adopt its current nickname until 1924. That season, Northwestern played a particularly spirited game against the heavily favored University of Chicago. While NU lost 3-0, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Wallace Abbey referred to Northwestern’s defense as a “Purple wall of wildcats.” The nickname stuck and the school’s athletic teams would be known as the Wildcats. Before 1924, Northwestern’s teams were known as the Purple, or Fighting Methodists.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State also borrows the state nickname for its athletic teams. A buckeye is a tree prevalent in the Ohio River Valley that produces shiny brown nuts with tan patches that resemble the eye of a deer, or buck. By 1800, Buckeye was being used as a term to refer to residents of the area. William Henry Harrison popularized the nickname by using the buckeye tree as a campaign symbol during the election of 1840.

Penn State Nittany Lions

According to the school website, Penn State’s nickname was introduced in 1904. While on a road trip to Princeton, the Penn State baseball team was shown a statue of a Bengal tiger as “an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field.” Harrison D. “Joe” Mason, a Penn State player, proclaimed the Nittany Lion “the fiercest beast of them all.” It was the first mention of such a creature. Penn State defeated Princeton that day and the Nittany Lion was soon adopted as the school’s mascot. Mount Nittany, derived from the Native American term meaning single mountain, is a prominent landmark at Penn State.

Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue's moniker dates to 1889, when the school’s dominant football team traveled to Crawfordsville, Ind., and defeated rival Wabash College, a liberal arts school, 18-4. Angered by the humiliating loss, Wabash supporters resorted to insulting their rivals’ academic focus on engineering and agriculture. Purdue’s players were referred to as “rail-splitters,” “pumpkin-shuckers,” “farmers,” and “log-haulers.” After Purdue blanked Wabash 44-0 in 1891, a headline in the Crawfordsville newspaper read, “Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.” Of all the supposedly derogatory nicknames bestowed upon Purdue, the school embraced the Boiler Maker moniker and adopted the Boilermaker Special, a locomotive, as its mascot.

Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin’s school nickname is borrowed from its state nickname, which is derived from the lead miners who built temporary shelters into the southwest Wisconsin hillside during the 1830s. The term was initially applied to settlers in the mining area, and then to the entire state. The Badgers nickname was adopted by the school’s football team when it began play in 1889. The school had a live badger mascot for a few years, but after it escaped its handlers too many times, it was retired to the Madison Zoo. Today, Bucky Badger is one of the most beloved mascots in college sports.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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