CLOSE
Original image
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The 14-Year-Old Who Convinced People to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

Original image
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

In the spring of 1997, a 14-year-old’s school science fair project made a convincing argument to ban a dangerous chemical compound: dihydrogen monoxide, known as DHMO. Nathan Zohner, a junior high school student in Idaho, gave 50 of his fellow students a report called "Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” which accurately laid out the dangers of DHMO, convincing the majority of students to call for its ban. The experiment caused enough of a splash that it was picked up by The Washington Post.

The compound can corrode and rust metal and cause severe burns, the paper correctly argued. If you consume it, it can cause bloating and excessive urination and sweating. Thousands of people in the U.S. die from its accidental ingestion every year. If you are dependent on it, going through withdrawal can kill you. It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain, tumors, and more. Armed with this information and asked what the world should do about the threat of DHMO, 43 of Zohner’s classmates voted to ban the compound, citing its deadly nature. Lucky for them, no lawmaker would agree: DHMO is the chemical formula for water. Zohner—whose project won the grand prize at the regional science fair that year—wasn’t the first person to drive people into hysterics over the (real) dangers of DHMO, which can in fact burn, drown, and otherwise harm you in its various forms.

One of the earliest iterations of the hoax came from a Michigan paper called The Durand Express, which ran a piece decrying the harms of DHMO as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1983. Zohner’s experiment highlighted how easily young students—even those who had taken chemistry—could be taken in by misleading, fear-mongering scientific information. But scientific illiteracy isn’t just an issue with kids, and the widespread ability to Google basic facts hasn’t kept similar hoaxes and conspiracy theories from taking root in the public imagination today.

People still believe that fluoride in the water is a result of the government trying to poison them (fluoridation has been called one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, causing a major decline in dental cavities and tooth loss across populations) or that vaccines cause autism (an idea, widely disproven, that was based on a 12-person study that used falsified data) or that deodorant can cause breast cancer (no scientific evidence supports this claim, according to the National Cancer Institute).

Consider the recent trend of “detoxing” propagated by publications like Goop. Most people don’t know what “toxins” they’re trying to filter out with their expensive juice cleanses to begin with, but doctors point out that the human body is pretty well equipped to handle the damaging materials you throw at it—like, say, alcohol. With no real scientific evidence to back it up, it’s the modern equivalent of leeching, experts have pointed out.

No doubt Gwyneth Paltrow would be as worried about DHMO as she is about underwire bras causing cancer (don’t worry, they don’t). The lesson of Zohner’s project, two decades later? Chemicals aren’t always bad. Everything is made of chemicals, and just because it has a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. It’s easy to get taken in by doomsday pseudoscience—because hey, pollution is truly dangerous and most of us haven’t taken a science class in decades. But with a little bit of skepticism and some basic research skills, we can all learn to sort through the false facts. In moderation, a little DHMO is a wonderful thing.

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
iStock
arrow
Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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