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11 Cold Hard Facts About Antarctica

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If you're planning a trip to Antarctica, here are some things you should know.

1. Nobody owns Antarctica.

Although a few nations, including Australia, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, have tried to lay claim to it over the years, it remains free of government and ownership. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was drafted, designating the land as "a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science." 48 nations have signed the treaty.

The Admiral Richard E. Byrd Memorial at McMurdo Station. Photo via the US Embassy New Zealand's Flickr account, from the album of the ambassador's trip to Antarctica.

2. Antarctica is the only continent without a time zone.

The scientists who reside there go by either the time of their home land or the supply line that brings them food and equipment.

3. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth.

The annual average temperature is -58° F. And the lowest temperature ever recorded there was -128.5° F, in 1983.

4. There's a very good reason to hope Antarctica remains that cold.

If global warming were to cause its ice sheets to melt, ocean levels across the world would rise by 200-210 feet.


A large melt pool (a shallow pool appearing on an ice surface in summer) in the sea ice. Photo by Flickr user Eli Duke, from his Antarctica: All Photos set.

5. Not only is it the coldest place, but it's also the driest.

The average precipitation is about 10 cm per year. Yet for all its dryness, Antarctica holds about 70% of the earth's water... in the form of solid ice, of course. (That amounts to 90% of all the ice on the planet.) Antarctica's Dry Valleys are where the combination of cold and dry is the most intense. It hasn't rained there for more than 2 million years. The ground and climate so closely resemble the surface of Mars that NASA did testing there for the Viking mission.

6. There are no permanent residents in Antarctica.

The only people who live there are visiting scientists. During the summer, the number averages about 5,000. In the winter, it drops to 1,000.


Photo of Antarctica residents by Flickr user Eli Duke, from his Antarctica: Week 1 set.

7. One of the things that the scientists study are ice cores.

These long cylindrical samples of Antarctica's ice, with dust and air bubbles trapped inside, can provide a wealth of information about the earth's climate over the past 10,000 years. If the scientist melted one of the ice cores, he could give you a drink of water that was frozen during the Middle Ages, or even during the life of Jesus Christ.

8. If you're interested in meteorites, Antarctica is for you.

For one, meteorites that crash there are easily seen against the ice. They are also better preserved, as they quickly get covered by ice, protecting them from corrosion. Since 1970, there have been more than 10,000 meteorites discovered in Antarctica, a few up to 700,000 years old.


An iron meteorite at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Photo by Flickr user brookpeterson, from his Antarctica 2011 - McMurdo Life set.

9. Icebergs are also big in Antarctica. Literally.

In 2000, one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded broke free from the Ross ice shelf. It was 183 miles long and 23 miles wide, with a surface area of 4,250 square miles above water – and 10 times bigger below. Imagine if Connecticut was solid ice. That's about the size of it.


Aerial photo of the birth of an iceberg from NASA's IceBridge mission from the NASA's Earth Observatory Flickr account.

10. Remember the documentary film March of the Penguins?
It was shot in Antarctica.

The native Emperor Penguins return to the same ancestral breeding ground there every winter. They are the tallest and heaviest of all penguins, and, because they breed almost exclusively on ice, they are thought to be the only species of bird that never sets foot on land.


Emperor penguins in Antarctica. Photo via the US Embassy New Zealand's Flickr account, from the album of the ambassador's trip to Antarctica.

11. Antarctica grows bigger in the winter.

How? Its sea ice expands about 40,000 square miles per day, adding up to an extra 12 million square miles of ice around the land mass (the equivalent of 1.5 United States). In effect, it doubles the size of the continent. In summer the new ice breaks up and melts.


Antarctica pressure ridges, where the permanent ice shelf and seasonal ice shelf join. Photo by Flickr user Eli Duke, from his Antarctica: All Photos set.

Have any of you ever been there? Is anyone reading this in Antarctica right now?

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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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