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AMNH/D. Finnin

22 Things We Learned from AMNH's Whales: Giants of the Deep Exhibition

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AMNH/D. Finnin

Tomorrow, New York City's American Museum of Natural History opens up its newest exhibition, Whales: Giants of the Deep. The exhibit, which was developed and originated at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, explores whale evolution and biology, the human relationship with whales, and the history of whaling in New Zealand and beyond. It has two articulated sperm whale skeletons (one nearly 60 feet long), a life-sized replica of a blue whale heart, and numerous interactive exhibits that allow visitors to hear whale sounds, hunt like a sperm whale, and find out how whales eat. Here are just 22 things we learned from our visit. 

1. The 3-foot-long skull below is the only part of an ancient whale relative, Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, that has ever been found. (AMNH's Kan Chuen Pao made the discovery in Inner Mongolia in 1923.) This land-dwelling creature, which lived 45 million years ago, walked on all fours and probably had hooves. Photo courtesy of AMNH/R. Mickens.

2. Scientists have conducted genetic research to confirm that whales and hoofed mammals are related.

3. Another ancient whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, heard through its lower jawbone; sound passed through the bone into soft tissues that led to the ear.

4. The earliest known ancestor of modern whales is Pakicetus attocki. This wolf-sized creature lived about 50 million years ago near a large shallow ocean and ate fish. Photo of whale ancestors' skeletons courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

5. Whales typically mate belly to belly.

6. Male beaked whales have a tusk-like tooth; scientists use the tooth’s characteristics to determine what species of whale it is.

7. At just 5 feet long, the Hector’s dolphin—native to New Zealand—is the world’s smallest dolphin. 

8. Male sperm whales have teeth lining their lower jaws, but they don’t use them for eating—they use them for fighting. Photo courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

9. Humpback whales’ flippers can grow up to 19 feet long.

10. A male sperm whale’s head can account for a third of its fully grown size—and its head is mostly nose. (They have the world’s largest.)

11. To produce sound, dolphins force air through flaps of fat and gristle called “monkey lips.” Sound goes out into the water through the fatty tissue of the forehead, called the "melon." 

12. Baleen comes in two flavors—fine and coarse—and its texture is determined by what a whale eats. Right whales, for example, have finer baleen, because they eat tiny zooplankton; Gray whales have coarser baleen, because they sift through sediment from the ocean bottom in search of crustaceans. Photo courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

13. In the ancient Middle East, ambergris—a substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales—was used as a spice.

14. Sperm whales don’t vomit up ambergris, as you may have heard. Since it's formed in the intestines, it's usually passed as fecal matter. 

15. In Māori culture, whale bones are used to make weapons, combs, and other status-signaling accessories.

16. Before he penned Moby Dick, Herman Melville hunted whales in the South Pacific. The logbook below belonged to the William Rotch, of New Bedford, Massachusetts. When the sailors spotted whales, they drew them. Photo couresty of AMNH/D. Finnin. 

17. Whalers used a tool called a mincing knife, or "Blubber slicer," to cut whale fat into thin slices for boiling into oil.

18. Sperm whales yielded the highest quality oil; it burned brightly and had no odor.

19. By the 1950s, whaling had changed dramatically—helicopters were used to spot a whale and to direct chaser ships to its location.

20. Factory ships could process a 110-ton whale in as little as 20 minutes.

21. The only global break in whale hunting was World War II.

22. The blue whale's heart weighs 1410 pounds and is large enough for a child to craw through—something they'll get to do at the exhibit, which has a full-scale model. Photo courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]