Original image

6 Complicated Concepts Explained Using Kitchen Items

Original image

1. THE BIG BANG THEORY explained by a muffin

Around 13.7 billion years ago, not a single element of the entire known universe existed. There was no space, no matter, no time, no wonderful magazine for knowledge junkies. Then, for an unknown reason, an infinitesimally small point called a singularity started to expand. Boom! That’s the Big Bang. Both blazing hot and unimaginably dense, this tiny point started expanding and cooling, and to this day the universe is still doing both.

The Big Bang theory was first proposed by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître in 1927. Realizing that objects in space were moving farther apart, Lemaître hypothesized that if everything in the universe is now expanding, it originally must have been smaller. His idea: that it all originated from one intensely hot “primeval atom.” While the notion is generally accepted today, not everyone bought into Lemaître’s theory; the Big Bang gets its name from a sarcastic remark made by Fred Hoyle, an astronomer, science fiction novelist, and Big Bang skeptic.

Imagine a muffin tin with one cup half-full of blueberry batter (the singularity). Inside this batter are all the building blocks of a blueberry muffin. As the batter’s temperature changes, it begins expanding, just like the universe started expanding with the temperature change of the Big Bang. The blueberries in the batter are analogous to the planets, stars, and other matter, moving right along with the rest of the muffinverse. But they’re not floating at random inside the batter—they’re moving with it, getting farther apart as the muffin bakes. And that muffin? It represents the entirety of the universe. Beyond the edge of the muffin lies a vast abyss of nothingness. All that exists are blueberries, sugar crystals, and, if the baker got a little creative, a hint of nutmeg.

2. Stirring the pot with KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS

When the impressively mustachioed economist John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, it was a watershed moment for modern macro-economic thought. The book launched the revolutionary idea that government spending is the best way to stimulate the economy. In Keynes’s now commonly accepted view, money flows in a circle, meaning one person’s spending provides income for another. In a recession, people slow their spending, thereby slowing someone else’s earning. To grease the cycle, Keynes proposed something radically different from other free market economists—he called on the government to inject money into the economy and kickstart the cycle by “priming the pump.” His argument was that the government should solve economic problems rather than waiting for markets to self correct in the long run because, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

A Keynesian cook would be a big fan of risotto, a dish that requires a fair bit of intervention on the part of the cook (the government). Unlike regular rice, which is dumped into a free market pot of boiling water and left to fend for itself, risotto must be regulated. The cook adds ladlefuls of hot stock to a pot, allowing the rice to absorb it. When it begins to dry during a stock recession, he intervenes with another ladleful, refusing to let the free market forces of unregulated Arborio rice dry out and ruin dinner.

3. The bitter taste of OFFSIDES

Every four years, America briefly cheats on football, baseball, and basketball during the FIFA World Cup. Though we refuse to call soccer by its given name, Americans can’t resist the pull of one of the world’s most viewed sporting events. But that doesn’t mean we understand it. While the no-hands part is simple enough, the “offside” call is another matter. Basically, offside is all about an offensive player’s position on the field. A player is offside if there aren't two defenders—the goalie is usually one of them—between him and the goal line at the moment the ball is played toward him. (If you draw a line across the field, the player has to be even with the next-to-last defender until the moment when the ball is passed to him.) But as soon as it’s passed, he can race past the defenders to receive it. Being called offside comes with a slight penalty—when a player is whistled, play is stopped, and possession is awarded to the other team. The offside rule exists to make the game more fun—i.e., to make sure players don’t just camp out in front of the goal for an easy score—as well as to confuse those who drop in for quadrennial viewings.

Think of an offside call as that unpleasant taste produced when drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. It’s a penalty assessed for getting ahead of yourself. You must drink the orange juice (have the ball passed to you) before brushing your teeth (running past the opponent). If you confuse the order of those things, you’re punished with a mouthful of face-distorting flavor (a whistle from the referee). If you do it in the proper order, though, you stand a good chance of scoring some vitamin C. Important to note: Brushing your teeth and holding a glass of OJ is just fine—you can be in the offside position without being called offside. It’s only when you take a sip that it becomes a penalty.

4. A forkful of STRING THEORY

In Sir Isaac Newton’s day, physicists believed the basic building blocks of all matter looked like tiny, zero-dimensional points (see below). Then, in the 1960s, string theory came along like the Beatles of physics and changed everything. String theory suggests that quarks and electrons, two of the smallest known particles, are actually vibrating strings, some of which are closed loops and some of which are open. This revolutionary idea allowed physicists to consider all four forces of the universe— gravity (the attractive force of an object’s mass), electromagnetism (the push/pull between electrically charged particles), strong interaction (the glue that binds quarks together), and weak interaction (the force responsible for radioactive decay)—as part of a single theory for the first time. And while it sounds small, the idea has the potential to be big. Some believe that string theory will prove to be the elusive “theory of everything,” a yet-to-be-discovered model that solves all of the mysteries about the forces of the universe and answers the most fundamental questions about where the cosmos came from and why it’s so perfectly tuned to support life.

Prior to string theory, it was assumed that the smallest pieces of matter were like bowls of dry cereal. But string theory sees them more as big bowls of mismatched pasta. Some of the pasta has two distinct end points (spaghetti) and some is in a loop (SpaghettiOs). A forkful contains several of these strings, just as a proton or neutron is made of several quarks. And unlike dry cereal, which makes sense only with milk, spaghetti can tackle a variety of sauces (forces of the universe). If physicists are right about string theory, the movements exhibited by the pasta can help explain the origin of the universe. And if they’re ultimately wrong, well, the idea’s still delicious.

A Quick Primer on Dimensions
The concept of “zero dimensional” might sound confusing at first. At its most basic, a dimension refers to the minimum number of axes you’d need to identify a particular spot. On a line, you just need one, while in a square you need two. A single point needs zero—there’s only one spot!

Or, in kitchen terms:

0 DIMENSIONAL = a crumb

1 DIMENSIONAL = a toothpick

2 DIMENSIONAL = a sheet of aluminum foil

3 DIMENSIONAL = a loaf of bread

4 DIMENSIONAL (a tesseract) = Tupperware housed inside larger Tupperware
(While a tesseract can’t exactly exist in a three-dimensional plane, its shape is created by three dimensional objects, just like a cube is made of squares and a square is made of lines.)

5. The sticky business of FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES

Of all the instruments of financial doom made famous by the crisis of 2008, none is as notorious as the derivative. Broadly defined, a financial derivative is a contract whose value is tied to something else, like a stock, bond, commodity, or currency. The value of the derivative fluctuates with the price of that underlying asset.

For sellers, one common use of derivatives is to hedge, or insure against an adverse outcome. A simplified example: A farmer might lock in a good price for his corn by selling a futures contract. This contract insulates him from risk, in case the market price for corn crashes.

Derivatives can also be used by buyers as bets on the future price of an asset. Consider a speculator who determines corn prices are about to rise dramatically. He buys a futures contract enabling him to buy corn at a low price. When the market soars, he gets to buy the corn at the cheap price guaranteed by his contract and sell it at a profit. However, there’s risk; if he’s wrong and the market price craters, he has to eat the loss.

An agreement to sell your brother a jar of peanut butter is the perfect culinary equivalent of a derivative: The jar’s value is based on what’s going on around it. Say you agree to sell him a jar of Skippy in a week for $1. The value of that agreement will change depending on what else is in the pantry. If it’s time to make the transaction and your mom has just bought bread and raspberry preserves, the peanut butter becomes more desirable and the value of the contract to your brother has increased tremendously. It’s a good thing he locked down the low price when he did. If, on the other hand, the sale date arrives and the only thing in the house is celery, the demand for peanut butter may have gone down. In that case, it’s a good thing you decided to sell when you did!

6. 57 varieties of EXISTENTIALISM

Though the philosophical groundwork for existentialism was around during the late 19th century, this line of thought didn’t truly come into its own until the mid-1940s. That’s when French philosopher Gabriel Marcel gave the philosophy a name and Jean-Paul Sartre began saying things like, “Existence precedes essence.” Less rigid than many other philosophical strains, existentialism generally holds that the individual is responsible for giving his own life meaning. Existentialists believe that people should live according to their own consciences instead of by a moral, religious, or cultural code. And the ability to live that authentic life is only achievable when the meaninglessness of existence has been accepted.

To understand culinary existentialism, you need only look at a popular but forlorn condiment: ketchup. Everyone knows it, but not as itself. To some it’s a tasty dip for fries, to others a meatloaf ingredient, and, to the British, it’s a pizza topping. In order to live a truly existential existence, ketchup must consider its own desires and not those of the dishes it serves. Only then will ketchup approach an authentic existence.

This article appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Illustrations by Ana Benaroya.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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!

Original image
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image

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]