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New Scientist

5 Extremely Emo Scientific Phenomena

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New Scientist

Know someone who still thinks science is boring? Tell them to get a load of these five phenomena, which prove science can be as painfully poetic as a ghost falling in love with a cirrus cloud.

1. The Moth That Drinks Tears of Sleeping Birds

A Madagascan moth called Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica occasionally slips its proboscis into the eyes of sleeping birds (above), possibly to glean water, sodium, or proteins lacking in its environment during certain times of the year, scientists hypothesize. Despite the vicious-looking barbs on the moth’s proboscis, the process doesn’t seem to induce any pain; but then, sleeping birds are less likely to fly off or fight back. Before the discovery of H. hieroglyphica, scientists had record of moths and butterflies drinking tears from “large, placid animals” elsewhere in Africa, but large placid animals are in short supply in Madagascar. Tear-drinkers sipping on crocodiles or camels ... that sounds less emo and more like a They Might Be Giants song.

2. Beautiful Women Remind Men of Death

Poets have likened sexual attraction to death for centuries, and modern social scientists think they know the reason why. It begins with something called Terror Management Theory (TMT), which basically suggests that humans constantly struggle to balance the fact that they want to stay alive with the fact that they know they’ll someday die. That conflict (AKA terror) is so strong, scientists say, anything that threatens a person’s self esteem/and or reminds them of the limitations of their physical body, also reminds them of their own inevitable death. Things like sexy, fertile, life-giving ladies, for instance. Even if you’re of the belief that social science isn’t as rooted in hard fact as other sciences, National Institutes of Health published a number of studies examining TMT and the different ways it might explain why babes make men totally hulk out.

3. Dew-Covered Webs Are Pretty, But They Don't Catch Bugs

Okay, everyone knows spider webs glisten with dew. But do you know why spider webs glisten with dew? Even the over-simplified answer is complicated: Spider web silk isn’t uniformly smooth, as it appears to the naked eye. Rather, it features teensy tangles of nanofiber (well, nanofibril, actually) which knot up when they get wet from water vapor—like the vapor that forms when night air cools over warm earth. The smooth silk between those knots allows the moisture to slide toward the knots and collect around them, thereby creating the magical shimmering effect that so enchants us. Even scientist Lei Jiang from the Beijing National Laboratory for Molecular Sciences, author of the study examining spider web mechanics, describes the phenomenon by saying: "Bright, pearl-like water drops hang on thin spider silk in the morning after fogging.” But what’s lovely to us isn’t good for the spiders: A wet spider web means a lower likelihood of catching dinner.

4. Jilted Birds Sing the Loudest Songs

No, we’re not going so far as to say birds communicate their innermost feelings in song, but researchers studying a population of rock sparrows (Petronia petronia) in the French Alps have discovered a correlation between a sparrow’s song and his reproductive history. Males who sing less frequently and have a higher maximum frequency tend to sire more chicks—even chicks outside of their main mating pair (scandaleux!). To put it another way: Males who sire chicks outside of their mating pair sing higher, and less often. But even more dramatically, males who lose their social mates to other males consistently sing more loudly. Scientists don’t yet know the exact biological causality behind the amplified song of the jilted sparrow, nor even if the louder song has any effect on getting the mate back. Poor P. petronia.

5. Part Man, Part Flower

Okay, this science story is so emo, it’s actually part art. In 2000, “transgenic” artist Eduardo Kac became famous for conceiving of and commissioning the creation of Alba, an albino rabbit whose fur glowed green in the dark thanks to the genetic addition of DNA from a fluorescent jellyfish. Then in 2003, Kac began a project that would ultimately take six years, combining his own genes with that of a beautiful pink petunia. Kac had a genetics lab isolate a gene that helps produce his antibodies—you know, those proteins in your immune system which distinguish what is you and what is “other.” Minnesota plant biologist Neil Olszewski combined those genes with a bacteria that could affect gene expression in plants, and Edunia was “born,” part Eduardo, part petunia.

True, scientists have implanted flora with fauna for some time now—including plants that have been fitted with human antibody DNA for the purpose of disease research. But few have been as lovely as Edunia, with blood-red veins that beg comparison to our own. “That is pure poetry,” Koc told one journalist.

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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]