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Gifs Explained: Exploding Coffee

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A few months ago, Buzzfeed posted a list called “21 Reasons Why You Should Have Paid Attention In Science Class,” composed of a bunch of cool, weird sciencey gifs. My initial reaction was, “Okay, pretty neat, but what am I actually seeing here?” Plenty of comments on the post echoed that thought, but Buzzfeed still hasn’t answered the cries of the writhing, curious masses.

I figure it's about time to take matters into my own hands and start explaining these things, starting with the ones from the original list that I can figure out or trace back to their source. Best case scenario, that gives us 21 cool gifs. Obviously, that’s not all the cool science gifs out there, so if you find any sciencey gifs or images that make you say, “Huh? What the heck is going on there?” send them my way!

Anyway, here’s our first gif, featuring what appears to be a cup of coffee exploding into a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So, what the heck is going on here?

Well, to start, that’s not coffee in there. It’s actually p-nitroaniline and sulfuric acid, which I cannot recommend drinking for a morning pick-me-up. When brought together and heated, the two go through what chemistry textbooks dryly refer to as a “vigorous reaction,” where they decompose and form a solid black-brown foam.

NASA studied the reaction in the 1970s because the foams which are formed have a low density and are flame-retardant, and had potential as a fire-control measure in the tight confines of spaceships. Here’s what they had to say about the reaction:

“The first, or pre-expansion, stage is the interval up to about 230°C. Water is the major gaseous constituent, with some nitroaniline subliming at higher mole ratios; sulfur dioxide is absent. Dehydration and sulfonation are the main chemical processes; some deamination also takes place.

“The second, or aphrogenic (intumescent), stage begins at about 230°C for 4- nitroaniline…and is over within a 50° interval when the heating rate is 6°/min. Sulfur dioxide and water are major gaseous products. [This is when the foamy tentacle bursts forth - Matt].

“The third stage, in air, represents oxidative decomposition of the residue (the primary product of the exothermal reaction) and dissociation of variable amounts of ammonium salts present in the residue.”

In layman’s terms, as the nitroaniline and acid climb in temperature, they experience some different chemical processes—losing water and amines and gaining sulfur compounds—and then explode into foam, which then breaks down.

You can see the buildup to the explosion in this video, which the gif was taken from.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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