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18 Complicated Scientific Ideas Explained Simply

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In 2012, Randall Munroe of the webcomic xkcd published a description of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most frequent words in English. Under this restriction, the rocket was called "up-goer five," the command module was "people box," and the liquid hydrogen feed line was "thing that lets in cold wet air to burn." The comic inspired Theo Anderson, a geneticist who supports accessible science education, to build a text editor that would force the user to write with only the 1000 most frequent words. He then invited scientists to describe what they do using the editor.

Geologists Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan created the Tumblr "Ten Hundred Words of Science" to collect examples of scientific text rendered into up-goer five speak. From the site, here are examples of up-goer simplified science from 18 different fields.

1. Olfactory biology

"I watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it, or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies." Jennifer Wang, research technician in a lab studying fruit fly olfactory behavior

2. Web development

"Computers are used to share pictures, words, and movies (usually of cats) with other computers. The computers need to show the cats on boxes with tiny lights in them, but don’t know how. People like me tell the computer many words so that it knows how to change the tiny lights to look like a cat. We try to make the lights change very fast so that you don’t have to wait for your cats. Some days the lights are all wrong, and we have to tell the computer more words to make them look like cats again." Brandon Jones, Google Chrome GPU Team

3. Political economy

"I try to see if bad people with power let bad people in business do bad things for easy money. Also I try to see if this hurts good people and their money." Warren Durrett, political economist

4. Paleomagnetism

"Deep inside our world is a huge ball of hot stuff. This is the stuff that turns the black rock we use to find our way when we go far away. I used to study tiny bits of the same black rock, inside real rocks, to know the pull of the deep hot under world ball long, long ago—before people, or animals, or trees, or almost any living things were here. I studied bits of the black rock, like the pieces we use to find our way, inside other rocks that formed in fire under the ground. The hot under ground ball gave these black rock pieces a direction long ago, and they did not forget." Peter Selkin, paleo/rock-magnetist

5. Biological Anthropology

"I study old human stuff. We look at the old stuff to see when and where humans came from and why we look and act so funny instead of acting like other animals." Meagan Sobel, Biological Anthropology student

6. Environmental science

"I look at how water from the sky reaches the ground when there are trees in the way. Especially trees that are burned or dying. I try to figure out if the trees change: (1) how much water gets to the ground, and (2) what happens to the water when it's on the ground. I also try to figure out what will happen to this water in the next tens of years. This is important for things growing on the ground and living in the water, and for the water we use and drink." Sarah Boon, environmental scientist

7. Particle physics

"Where I work, we slam together small things to break them into even smaller things until we have the smallest things possible. This is how we know what matter is made of." Paul Sorenson, Physicist studying Quark-Gluon Plasma with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory

8. Planetary science

"I tell space buses on a big, cold red rock in space to take pictures of the rocks and the sky. I look at the small rocks that go around the big red rock. The small rocks tell us about what it is like inside the big red rock. I like to look for ice water in the sky. I also take pictures of the Sun to learn about how much ice water and other stuff is in the sky. My favorite thing to do with the space buses is look at the stars in the night sky to look for ice water in the sky." Keri Bean, planetary scientist

9. Linguistics

"I look at how numbers play with other words when we speak. I think a lot about the way we mark words (like marking 'eats' different from 'eat'), and what that tells us about what they mean, and what other words around them mean (I show that it tells a lot). I also think a lot about whether the things we say allow more than one meaning. Like if someone says 'twenty boys ate a hot dog,' if it means they all shared one hot dog or if it means each one ate a hot dog, or if it means both." Sarah Ouwayda, Linguist (syntax, semantics, Arabic, Semitic languages)

10. Information security

"There are bad people who want to make the things you see on the computer go away. Sometimes it is for money and sometimes it is a game. The simple way of making computer stuff go away is like shouting very loud so no one can hear. This makes it so you can not see the things on the computer you want until they stop shouting. I try to make them be quiet." Christian Ternus, information security researcher

11. Cognitive science

"If we want to know how the brain makes memory and uses memory, we need to make people do things like learn stuff and then remember it. I want to know how we imagine things, and how memory makes this possible. So, I ask people to imagine things, and see how good they are with different words. Then, we look at their brains at work using a big noise box that takes pictures inside the head. We also ask people who are missing a piece of brain to also do stuff to see what they can and can’t do. Then we’ll know what different brain pieces do, and one day put all the pieces together to understand the mind." Kristoffer Romero, PhD student at the University of Toronto

12. Astrophysics

"So imagine this. You are holding a bright thing and pushed by a friend so hard for so long that it seems to her that you are nearly as fast as the light leaving the bright thing. To her, the light is moving just a little bit faster than you, so only getting away from you slowly. But to you, the light is still moving away from you faster than anything else can ever move. You and your friend don’t agree on how quickly you and the light are moving away from each other. What’s going on?" Euan

13. Aerospace engineering

"My job is fun! I make a car that will go in space and meet with a house that is in space. People and things will be able to ride in my space car. I work on the keep cool and breathe part of the space car." Nicole Resweber

14. Circadian rhythm biology

"Little flying animals can tell time of day. Little flying animals can tell time of year. It’s all in their heads." Bora Zivkovic

15. Immunology

"Our body doesn’t like to have visits from other things that don’t look like friends. When they come inside us, our cells look at them with many different types of eyes. Different eyes see different figures and forms, so they can find out what they are and what to do with them. They are not usual eyes, they work like little hands too and grab things. I am studying one of these eyes that sees weird stuff, like those things that grow on your food when it goes off. But this eye doesn’t do it alone. And that makes it exciting. It has some other friends helping; the more eyes the better! All-in-one they catch the stranger and they eat it. Once eaten, they show the left-over little pieces to their cell-friends. So that they know what kind of bad guys to fight. They also call more friends in if there is a lot of it to eat. This is how our body keep us free from being sick and stay happy, isn’t it amazing?” @Analobpas, talking about C-type lectins

16. Sea ice physics

"When it is cold the Big Water becomes ice. In the long night the Big Water near the place of the long night which has no big white animal becomes ice more quickly than it does in the place of the long night which does have big white animals. I felt the ice and the big water under the ice with better senses than people have, and now know why the ice that grows from the big water sometimes grows with ice leaves on its bottom." Alex Gough, PhD Thesis, University of Otago

17. Number theory

"People ask how many of a kind of thing there are; the thing might be a kind of number, or something like a number. I, together with others, work out how many of those things there are by understanding the way some kinds of spaces look; these spaces are, in a way, the same as the things about which we ask, 'how many,' but in another way they are different. This allows us to use different ideas when we think about them, and answer some questions about numbers which could not be answered before."
Jordan Ellenberg, number theorist. (Blog, professional homepage.)

18. The scientific method itself

"Now, you have your two things that you think will help the sick people get better. Give one to the people in group one, and the other to the people in group two. If you can, it’s a really good idea to make sure that the sick people don’t know which group they are in, or what they are having to make them get better. The same is true for the people working on the problem. This is for a good reason: we have found that people get better faster when they think they have been given something that works well to make them feel better, even if they haven’t really.

"Now: you know what is wrong with your sick people, so you know how long it will take for them to get better. Wait a while, and then look and see if people get better faster (or more better!) in group one, or group two. This will tell you which of the things that you did helped people the most.

"Looking at a big number of sick people will help you to be sure that you have got the right answer. If you have friends who have tried the same idea, you can add their numbers to your numbers and get an even clearer idea of what works best. Don’t let anyone hide their numbers!" Ben Goldacre, a doctor/researcher who writes about problems in science

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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