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Lectures for a New Year: God, the Universe, and Everything Else

Ready for a spectacular late-80s treat? Here we have Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke in discussion with Magnus Magnusson shortly after Hawking's A Brief History of Time was published. This discussion was sparked by the book (Sagan wrote the introduction), and it shows three visionaries at a time in history when Hawking's book was a massive bestseller. In addition to the men on stage, Sagan joins via satellite (which we're reminded was nominally invented, or at least envisioned in great detail, by Clarke in his writing), and a desktop computer (possibly an Amiga?) sits next to Clarke, displaying the Mandelbrot set -- and he gives a demo of his favorite regions of the set at one point during the discussion. This is geeky in the extreme.

I should point out that during this discussion, the men continually refer to the possible impending doom of the human species. They frequently discuss future work as being possible "if we don't destroy ourselves." It's important to understand that in 1988, the world was still gripped by the Cold War, Soviet forces were in Afghanistan, and the USSR was on the brink of collapse. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen. It was a tense time. You can perceive a mixture of wonder, hope, and mild existential dread in the faces of these luminaries.

Topics: how Hawking's voice synthesizer works (remember when that had to be explained?), the school system discouraging fundamental questions, the Big Bang, the scientific method applied to the science of cosmology, astrology (briefly), infinity, black holes, imaginary time, fun with mathematics at their most abstruse, fiddling with fractals, is there a limit to the small-scale complexity of the universe?, the role of science fiction, Voyager's Golden Record, optimism from an emerging civilization, the Cold War, Mars, religion, and poetry.

For: anyone interested in science. Really -- if Sagan, Hawking, and Clarke in the same program doesn't interest you, this isn't your thing. If the concept does interest you, it's fifty minutes of wondrous contemplation.

Representative quote:

"We are the product of a grand evolutionary sequence -- cosmic evolution -- about which we are only occasionally aware. One of the great accomplishments of Doctor Hawking is to plug us better in to the knowledge of this long evolutionary sequence." -Carl Sagan

Further Reading

All three of these men wrote extensively, and I could point to dozens of books here. But the relevant one for this particular discussion is the (updated) classic The Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition.

Transcript

I haven't located a transcript, and for some reason the YouTube/Google auto-caption function is disabled for this video. That's a shame, as the audio here is quite good, so auto-captions should work well if they could be enabled. It would be amusing to see how well the system could re-convert Hawking's speech synthesis back into text, but alas, not today.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we’ll check it out!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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!

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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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