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9 Child Prodigies (Who Actually Ended Up Doing Something)

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By Rick Chillot

The road from kid genius to adult dud is a well-traveled one. But if you or someone you love happens to be a budding brainiac, don't despair. Here are some wonder boys and girls who bucked the trend and grew up to be smart cookies.

1. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Areas of Expertise: Math, physical science, and philosophy
Notable Achievement: Making a bet with God
Secret to His Success: Doing geometry when his dad wasn't looking

The great French thinker Blaise Pascal began studying geometry at age 12, even though his father had forbidden such academic endeavors and removed all mathematics textbooks from the house. But even Pascal senior couldn't help but be impressed when his son recreated the geometry theories of Euclid, so he started taking young Poindexter to weekly meetings with the elite mathematicians of Paris. By age 19, Pascal had begun to develop a hand-held, mechanical calculator, which might have made him rich if it hadn't proved impractical to mass produce (a big relief to the abacus industry). Fortunately, that didn't send him spiraling into child-burnout depression, and he went on to many more years of scientific achievement. Besides publishing influential treatises in geometry, Pascal made significant contributions in physical science, like experimenting with atmospheric pressure and determining that a vacuum exists outside Earth's atmosphere. His contributions to philosophy include the famous "Pascal's Wager," which states that believing in God costs you nothing if you're wrong, and wins you everything if you're right.

2. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Areas of Expertise: Painting, drawing, sculpture
Notable Achievement: The most famous name in modern art
Secret to His Success: Quantity and quality

Everyone knows that Picasso achieved artistic fame and success as an adult, but little Pablo was quite the prodigy, too. In fact, it's said that Picasso had an interest in drawing even before he could speak. Perhaps that's why, once he finally could talk, he immediately started demanding that his father (an artist himself) give him his paintbrushes. And when he became old enough to go to school, pushy little Pablo said he would only go on the condition that, while there, he could draw as much as he liked. Fortunately, the headmaster and the other students recognized Picasso's gift, and more or less allowed him to come, go, and work as he pleased. Years later, the adult Picasso attended an exhibit of children's drawings and commented that he could never have been in such a show because at age 12, he "drew like Raphael." A little modesty might have done him some good, but in fact, drawings that survive from his childhood suggest that prepubescent Pablo could indeed have given the great Renaissance artist a run for his money. Picasso's many contributions to modern art—including cubism, "Guernica," and people drawn with two eyes on one side of their face—are too exhaustive to list here. By the time of his death, he'd created over 22,000 works of art.

3. Maria Agnesi (1718-1799)

Areas of Expertise: Mathematics and astronomy
Notable Achievement: Proving that chicks are good at math, too
Secret to Her Success: Time management; she was known to write the solutions to difficult math problems in her sleep (literally)

When Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan in 1718, girls in upper-class Italian society were taught dressmaking, etiquette and religion, but not how to read. Thankfully, her father, himself a mathematician, recognized Maria's amazing memory and talent for languages and decided that something like literacy might be a good thing for his daughter. By the time she was nine, Agnesi was impressing party guests with speeches she'd translated into Latin. By age 13, when a visitor would ask her for a waltz, Agnesi would treat her dance partner to a discussion of Newton's theory of gravity (a second waltz was a rare request). But thanks to her father's second and third marriages, Agnesi eventually found herself in charge of a household of 20 brothers and sisters, and since she was the oldest, she ended up utilizing more of those Home Ec skills than she had anticipated. Fortunately, in between breaking up slap fights and doling out bowls of spaghetti, the 30-year-old Agnesi managed to compose a highly influential, two-volume manual on mathematics that included cutting edge developments like integral and differential calculus. Afterward, Pope Benedict XIV wrote Agnesi, commending her work and suggesting her for a post at the University of Bologna.

4. Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Areas of Expertise: Physics, chemistry and radioactivity
Notable Achievement: The first woman to win a Nobel Prize; and just for good measure, she won two
Secret to Her Success: Wanted to be in her element, so she discovered it

Born in Warsaw, Poland, Marie Sklodowska was the child of two teachers who placed great importance on education for all of their children. This wasn't a problem for four-year-old Marie, who, just by hanging around her four older siblings, taught herself how to read (Russian and French) and was known to help her brothers and sisters with their math homework. It was also at age four that she began to freak people out with her incredible memory, as she was able to recall events that had happened years before ("Remember that time when I was three months old and you put my diaper on backwards, idiot?") As a teenager, Marie was anxious to attend college, but her family couldn't afford it since her father had lost his teaching job, so she spent five grueling years earning money as a governess (it wasn't like The Sound of Music at all; the kids were stupid, and there was no singing or dancing). But her time came in 1891, and she headed for the Sorbonne in Paris. There, she discovered future husband Pierre Curie, along with the radioactive elements radium and polonium. In her thirties, Marie worked closely with her husband, and together they devised the science of radioactivity, for which they were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. After Pierre's death in 1906, Marie continued her work, winning her second Nobel (this time in chemistry) at age 44.

5. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Areas of Expertise: Piano, organ, and orchestra (performance and composition)
Notable Achievement: His "Wedding March," which has survived over a century of rising divorce rates and overpriced wedding planners
Secret to His Success: Nicest guy in classical music

Widely regarded as the 19th-century equivalent of Mozart, German composer Felix Mendelssohn was musically precocious at an early age. Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons at age six, made his first public performance at age nine, and wrote his first composition (that we know of) when he was 11. By the time he turned 17, he had completed his Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of the Romantic period's best-known, most-loved works of classical music. Then, in 1835, Mendelssohn's father died, which (just like Wolfy) came as a crushing blow to the composer. But rather than sending him into an alcohol-induced stupor, the experience motivated Felix to finish his oratorio, "St. Paul," which had been one of his father's dying requests. From there, he went on to compose important and popular works, including the "Wedding March." In 1843, at age 34, Mendelssohn founded the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, where he taught composition with fellow musical great Robert Schumann.

6. Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

Area of Expertise: Violin maestro
Notable Achievement: Setting the standard for 20th-century violinists
Secret to His Success: When he played the violin, it made his teachers cry (in a good way)

Little Jascha's interest in music was noticeable at only eight months of age, when he reportedly smiled at his father's violin playing, but winced in pain whenever Dad hit the wrong note. When Jascha turned three, he asked for—and received—his first violin and promptly started taking lessons. So naturally, Heifetz was giving public concerts by the age of five (about the same time the rest of us started eating paste). At age 16, Jascha's family moved to the United States to dodge the Russian Revolution, and before long, he had his debut at Carnegie Hall, where he wowed critics and became an overnight musical idol. Musical burn-out seemed almost inevitable, but Heifetz continued touring into his sixties and kept recording into his seventies (take that, Keith Richards), racking up Grammy after Grammy without releasing a single music video. Heifetz once called being a child prodigy "a disease which is generally fatal," and one that he "was among the few to have good fortune to survive."

7. John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Areas of Expertise: Quantum mechanics, information theory, computer science
Notable Achievements: Developing the hydrogen bomb and a few early computers
Secret to His Success: Not too bookish to enjoy a good kegger

As a child in Budapest, Hungary, János von Neumann amazed adults and annoyed fellow six-year olds by dividing eight-digit numbers in his head, speaking in Greek, and memorizing pages out of the phone book. He published his first scientific paper while still a teenager, but because of Hungary's rising anti-Semitic atmosphere, he decided to pursue his mathematics career elsewhere. Unfortunately, he chose to go to Germany, which clearly didn't turn out to be such a hot idea. After he was offered a position at Princeton University, von Neumann headed to the States, choosing to adopt the first name John. In America, he was free to hang around with other expatriate eggheads, including future magazine cover model Albert Einstein. In between throwing raucous parties, ogling secretaries, and getting into car accidents (he was a notoriously reckless driver), von Neumann worked on theoretical mathematics and various real-world projects, including the development of the hydrogen bomb and construction of one of the first working computers.

8. JEAN PIAGET (1896-1980)

Area of Expertise: Child psychology
Notable Achievement: Changing the way we think about the way children think
Secret to His Success: The ability to hold conversations with three-year-olds

Does it take a child who's interested in psychology to make a child psychologist? Apparently not. When Jean Piaget was growing up in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, his area of expertise was zoology. He talked his way into a job at the local Museum of Natural History at the age of 10, where he developed a keen interest in mollusks (especially snails). By high school, he'd published so many papers on the subject that his name was well known among European mollusk experts (most of whom assumed he was an adult). So later in life, when his interests turned to psychology, Piaget's zoological background led him to seek out the "biological explanation of knowledge." Suspecting that observing children might lead to an answer, he came up with an earth-shattering new way to explore how children think: by watching them, listening to them, and talking to them. Piaget deduced that a child's mind isn't a blank slate, but is constantly imagining and testing new theories about the world and how it works. This revelation, plus his 75 years of scientific research, spawned whole new fields of psychology. He might even have had an explanation for why your kid put that peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich in the VCR.

9. Paul Erdös (1913-1996)

Area of Expertise: Mathematics
Notable Achievements: It would take a mathematician to explain them
Secret to His Success: Loved numbers, tolerated everything else

Paul Erdös was multiplying three-digit numbers for kicks when he was three. At age four, he started playing around with prime and negative numbers. Not much later, he developed a cute little habit of asking people their ages and then computing how many seconds they'd been alive. Never able to shake his passion for numbers, Erdös grew up to become arguably the most prolific mathematician in history, authoring or co-authoring almost 1,500 mathematical papers. In fact, collaborating with Erdös was such a point of prestige that—to this day—to this day—mathematicians assign themselves “Erdös numbers,” which works sort of like the fabled Kevin Bacon game. An Erdös number indicates how closely a person has worked with the great one: Those who co-authored a paper with him have a number of 1, those who wrote a paper with one of his co-authors have a number of 2, and so on. Never had the pleasure of writing a mathematics paper? Congratulations, you have an Erdös number of infinity. Now go balance your checkbook.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine

All images courtesy of Getty 

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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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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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