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A Physicist Weighs In On Whether Scrooge McDuck Could Actually Swim in a Pool of Gold Coins

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Batman has the Batcave, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, and Scrooge McDuck has his money bin. For 70 years, the maternal uncle of Disney’s Donald Duck has been portrayed as a thrifty—some might say miserly—presence in cartoons and comics, a waterfowl who has such deep affection for his fortune that he enjoys diving into his piles of gold and luxuriating in them.

It’s a rather gross display of money worship, but is it practical? Can anyone, including an anthropomorphic Pekin duck, actually swim in their own money, or would diving headfirst into a pile of metal result only in catastrophic injury?

According to James Kakalios, Ph.D., a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and author of the recently-released The Physics of Everyday Things as well as 2005’s The Physics of Superheroes, the question really isn’t whether someone could swim in a mass of gold. They could not. It’s more a matter of how badly they’ll be injured in the attempt.

Diving into a gold pile the Scrooge way—hands first, prayer-style, followed by your head—is the most efficient way to begin breaking bones. “Keeping his arms stiff and his elbows rigid, he’s definitely going to break his wrists,” Kakalios tells Mental Floss. “Gold is a granular material like sand, a macroscopic object. You can’t swim through sand or dive into it easily.” Launch yourself off a diving board from 3 or 4 feet up and you will meet a solid surface. Landing with your feet, a far better bet, is unlikely to result in injury—provided you try to bend your knees.

In that sense, diving into gold is not dissimilar from “diving” into a concrete floor. But with gold being granular, it might be possible to break the surface and “swim” if the friction were low enough. “A ball pit is a good example,” Kakalios says. “The balls are lightly packed and have low friction relative to one another. The key is to have objects in front of you move out of the way in order to advance.”

Despite being a fictional character, McDuck hasn’t totally ignored the impossible physics of his feat. His creator, Carl Barks, has written in repeated references over the years to the implausibility of using his money vault as a swimming pool and has depicted the villainous Beagle Boys trio as getting hurt when they tried to emulate the stunt. Scrooge smirked and said there was a “trick” to making the gold dive.

That’s led to one fan theory that McDuck has used his fortune to coat the gold coins in some kind of lubricant that would aid in reducing friction, allowing him to maneuver inside the vault. Ludicrous, yes. But is it possible? “You would need a massive amount of lube to slide your body past the coins with minimal effort,” Kakalios says. “The ball pit is easier because the weight of the elements is low. Gold is a very dense material.” Diving and swimming into it, even with lubricant, might be analogous to trying to shove your hand into a deep bowl of M&Ms, he says. “M&Ms have a low friction coating. Continuing to move is really the problem.”

Presuming McDuck could somehow maneuver himself deeper into the pile, his delicate duck bones would almost surely succumb to the crushing weight of the gold above him. By one estimate, diving under one of his 5-foot-tall gold piles would put 2492 pounds of pressure on his bill.

We'll see if he tips his top hat to any further gold-diving tricks—or if he's in a full-body cast—when Disney XD relaunches DuckTales this summer.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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