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Lectures for a New Year: Neil deGrasse Tyson on Pluto

Neil deGrasse Tyson is ridiculously distinguished: the man holds at least fourteen honorary doctorates, not to mention his real doctorate in astrophysics. He was also declared "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive" by Time Magazine in 2000. But he's most (in)famous for leading the charge to demote Pluto from its planet status to a "dwarf planet." (We made a shirt about that.) As Wikipedia explains:

As director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson bucked traditional thinking to keep Pluto from being referred to as the ninth planet in exhibits at the center. Tyson has explained that he wanted to look at commonalities between objects, grouping the terrestrial planets together, the gas giants together, and Pluto with like objects and to get away from simply counting the planets. He has stated on The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and BBC Horizon that this decision has resulted in large amounts of hate mail, much of it from children. In 2006, the I.A.U. confirmed this assessment by changing Pluto to the "dwarf planet" classification. Daniel Simone wrote of the interview with Tyson describing his frustration. "For a while, we were not very popular here at the Hayden Planetarium."

In this talk, NDT talks to Google employees about his book The Pluto Files. I went through a lot of NDT lectures to find this one -- it stuck out partly because it's actually about Pluto, and partly because the tone is so wonderfully fun, smart, and I daresay geeky. All of his lectures are smart -- but this one is full of stories that make sense of planets, their history, and the work of scientists.

Topics: the history of planets, their discovery, and some of Tyson's own history, presented in conversational fashion with jokes. Also, the Q&A touches on The Matrix.

For: everyone, but especially people who are interested in space or history.

Representative quote:

"[In Roman times,] there were seven objects that would move against the background sky [including the sun]. ... Unambiguous! Everybody could agree that those were the planets." [Then everything got weird when Planet George showed up.]

Further Reading (and Viewing)

NDT is everywhere. He's about to host a reboot of the classic science program Cosmos, his Nova scienceNOW episodes are on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and free from PBS (albeit in slightly lower video quality). He even hosts a radio show. He has various books out (including Death by Black Hole), and the latest Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier lands in February, and of course the book he discusses above is The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet (you might enjoy the brief 4-star Amazon review on that page...by Clyde Tombaugh's son!).

You'll almost certainly enjoy this Q&A with Tyson (he's feisty) and Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson in discussion.

Transcript

I haven't found a transcript of this lecture, but the YouTube/Google auto-captioning system works fairly well. It frequently mixes up proper nouns, but it's better than nothing.

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
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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