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The Quick 10: 10 Amazing Discoveries by Kids

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It’s all over the news the past couple of days: some astronomers spend a lifetime looking for a supernova, but a 10-year-old-girl found one on her first try. Here’s Kathryn Gray’s story and the stories of nine other talented (or lucky) kids who have made important discoveries at shockingly young ages.

1. Kathryn Gray was checking out some images her dad had taken on New Year’s Eve, comparing them to previous pictures of the same location to see if anything had changed. Spotting a difference, she asked her dad if she had found a supernova. He told her it looked pretty good and sent the images off to be analyzed. It was confirmed the next day, making Miss Gray (whose middle name is Aurora, by the way) the youngest person to ever discover a supernova.

2. Matthew Berger’s dad was working on an archaeological dig in South Africa last April and brought nine-year-old Matthew along for the ride. Perhaps bored with his dad’s digging, Matthew wandered about 15 yards away to do a little investigating of his own – and discovered the collarbone of a little boy roughly two million years older than him. It ended up being one of the most complete sets ever found, with another amazingly intact set believed to be the boy’s mother discovered right next to it.

3. Some people dream of discovering a cache of ancient doubloons buried in the sand – this toddler actually did it. So it wasn’t exactly doubloons on a beach, but it was a 500-year-old pendant worth about $4 million in a British field. James Hyatt and his dad were out messing around with metal detectors in a field when James’ detector “went beep beep beep” (his words), uncovering the rare find.

4. Sometimes a nature walk turns up more than leaves and bugs. That was the case in 2009, when a preschooler in Maynard, Mass., was looking for cool rocks and found himself a plummet instead. Archaeologists believe plummets were once used about 4,000 years ago to weigh down fishing nets. Marshall, the five-year-old who found it, was pretty impressed with its age: “It’s like 70 years old. I wasn’t there. … [Maybe] when they had it, there were dinosaurs and volcanoes!”

5. Most 15-year-old boys are thinking about girls and driver’s licenses… and OK, 15-year-old Tony Hansberry probably thinks of those too, but when he’s not, he’s discovering a medical technique to make hysterectomies less invasive. Hansberry, a student at the Darnell Cookman School of the Medical Arts, found a way to do post-surgery stitching that would lessen the chance of harm or risk to the patient.

6. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are bad news for the environment. Luckily, 13-year-old Larry Caduada is on the case. In 2006, Larry found that a substance in celery called selinene that can be used as a coolant instead of the environmentally-unfriendly Freon. He even published a paper about it called "Selinene: An Organic Alternative to Chlorofluorocarbon as Coolant and Refrigerant.”

7. Giving Kathryn Gray competition in the astronomical discovery category is Shay Bloxton. Although Shay is about five years older, her 2010 discovery of a pulsar is still pretty impressive. The high school sophomore was participating in a program with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory when she found the pulsar. And that’s not the only amazing discovery to come out of the program – in 2009, another high school student found a rotating radio transient, an object similar to a pulsar.

8. Five-year-old Emelia Fawbert was helping her dad at an excavation a couple of years ago when she turned up a vertebra bigger than her head. Although the excavation turned up a couple of other bones as well, Emelia’s was the best. It once belonged to a giant rhinoceros that roamed the Gloucestershire area of England about 50,000 years ago.

9. Kids find bugs every day, but the furry moth little Katie Dobbins found on the windowsill in her house was no ordinary moth - it was an Euonymus Leaf Notcher, native to Asia. That may not seem unusual until you hear that Katie lives in the U.K. where the moth had never been sighted before. Six-year-old Katie was said to have been very excited about all of the hubbub surrounding her find.

10. Four-year-olds and sharp objects are usually things to keep far from one another, but this time, it worked out beautifully. The son of a Denali National Park ranger, the boy was playing near Teklanika River when he turned up a barbed object that ended up being an arrow point made of caribou antler. It was uncertain how ancient the piece was, but some estimates placed it up to 1,100 years old.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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.