CLOSE
Original image

11 Brilliantly Inaccurate Scientific Explanations

Original image

A few years back we wrote about a hilarious blog called Fake Science, which deals in intentional pseudo-science. Now, the creator of that blog is unleashing Fake Science 101, a 272-page textbook for the fake-fact-loving science nerd in all of us. We've teamed up with the man behind Fake Science, Phil Edwards, to share some snippets of the book.

1. The Wheel


Scientists' first objective was to invent an easy way to transport goods: the wheel. It would be much easier than rolling things over children who were lying down. However, the round shape of the wheel always gave the cave men difficulty. Their engineering was undercut by the absence of circular objects and the inability to remember exactly what a circle was. This stalled development of both transportation and the coaster.

2. Sir Isaac Newton


Born in the 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton was a renowned physicist. One day, he was sitting under a tree when a round object fell on his head. Like any great scientist, Newton did not run away. Instead, he sampled the round object. It had a red hue and brown stem. He bit into it and was pleasantly surprised. He had just discovered the apple.

3. The Enlightenment


The Scientific Revolution culminated in the Age of Enlightenment in the 1600s and 1700s, during which thinkers and scientists realized they could be far more productive if they turned on the lights. This early American poster demonstrates an Enlightenment era scientific discovery: a chopped-up snake usually dies.

4. The Umlaut Galaxy


There are countless galaxies in the universe, largely because the person in charge of counting them gets distracted around the billion mark. These galaxies each have different traits but are all bound by their gravitational fields and a common cultural background. After German scientists discovered the Umlaut Galaxy, they decided to incorporate it into their own language.

5. The Sun


For millions of years, the sun has been nature’s tanning bed. Perfectly calibrated to give humans a soft brown coating and great highlights, the sun’s function is not purely cosmetic. As this diagram shows, the sun’s triangular rays are always at exactly 46 degrees.

6. Makin’ Babies


Sperm invade the egg, unless this is a leftover picture of Mars. These sperm contain a male’s genetic information and are strongly sexually attracted to the egg. The egg contains a female’s genetic information and is less attracted to the sperm but chooses one anyway because it’s too lazy to keep waiting. If the sperm and egg are in love, based on a relationship of mutual support and respect, they create a new baby.

7. The Statue of Liberty


Did you know that the Statue of Liberty wasn’t always green? Her color changed because of age, but not the same way an old person’s skin does. In the Statue of Liberty’s case, it was something called “rust” that turned her skin green. Before the copper in the Statue of Liberty rusted, she was a brownish hue and wore a lovely gingham.

8. Oil

Known for its use in the manufacture of gasoline, oil is also popular in the hair of executives who sell it. Found underground and undersea, oil is easily detected through a little digging, explosion, more digging, refining, and a second series of explosions. Brave cowboys tamed the oil fields of Texas so we could drive ATVs.

9. The Ocean


Oceans have been important in the past and will become more important in the future, as we continue to melt the polar ice caps so the water doesn’t get too hot. When one ocean covers the entire Earth, geography will require much less class time.

10. Rivers


There are far too many rivers in the world to include in this article, especially since they would get your computer wet. However, notable rivers are so large they can be seen from space, which gives you something to look at once the moon gets boring. This map from the 1800s shows the importance of mapping rivers for navigating trade.

11. Friction


Friction occurs when things get in the way of moving objects or otherwise slow their passage. Low-friction objects can make things slide longer, which is why you’re encouraged to drive on icy roads in order to save gas. High friction can also have positive effects, since sandpaper slides help playtime last longer.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES