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5 Scientific Theories About What Aliens Might Look Like

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We’ve seen them portrayed in a vast variety of Hollywood films, from the nasty, slimy suckers shown in Independence Day to the precious, teddy-bear-esque creature that charmed us in E.T. But which is closer to the truth? As our understanding of the universe grows and the outlook on our existence is in turn humbled, scientists are beginning to theorize what these extraterrestrials might look like. While opinions can certainly vary (we all have them, no doubt), scientists are forming theirs on the basis of environmental and biological clues rather than science fiction. Does that mean we’re closer to the answer? Of course not! Read on below to see the various forms of life scientists are predicting.

1. Jellyfish

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who works for space firm Astrium, believes that aliens would be marine-type animals with “pulses of light for communication with other aliens, mouth type openings to scope chemicals from atmosphere for growth and reproduction, bodies that enlarge in sunlight, metallic surfaces for absorbing light, lenses for detailed viewing of their surroundings, orange undersides for camouflage, buoyancy sacks to maintain altitude." She bases this on her theory of how life began in the ocean here on earth and draws the conclusion that creatures could interact with a foreign atmosphere the same way organisms in our oceans interact with water.

2. Bugs

Cockroaches are among our planet’s most indestructible creatures thanks to their thick exoskeleton, able to survive a very large range of intense conditions (including, some say, nuclear war). This makes a bug-style life form (intelligent or not) with strong armor a good bet when it comes to the myriad of environments which our universe contains.

3. Just Like Humans

Simon ­Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary ­paleobiology at Cambridge University, thinks that aliens would be “just like humans,” not only in appearance and biology but in weaknesses, such as “greed, violence and a tendency to exploit others' resources.”

"My view is that Darwinian evolution is really quite predictable,” Morris says, “and when you have a biosphere and evolution takes over, then common themes emerge and the same is true for intelligence.”

Whether aliens being “just like us” would be a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate!

4. Non-Carbon Life

Based on what we know about life as it exists on Earth, it’s understandable why many scientists, including Morris, would subscribe to the idea that aliens will look like humans. But while most of the life found on planet Earth is composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur, scientists found multicellular organisms that do not need oxygen back in 2010 (only bacteria were thought to have this trait prior). This obviously opened up a few questions about the way we view life and how it can exist. Scientific hypotheses exist today that suggest non-carbon based life could exist in the universe—the trendy pick is now silicon-based life forms—and if this turns out to be true, chances are that it would look nothing like that found on our planet.

5. Creatures of the Extremes: Deep Sea and High Air

For example, in the Discovery Canada show Aliens: The Definitive Guide, Dr. Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at University College London, laid out a few possibilities for aliens that might come from planets unlike our own. Creatures from “water worlds” might develop along the lines of the organisms we find in the bowels of our oceans, and a planet with a heavy gravity could support bigger, larger, and more powerful “flying creatures” that take advantage of the thick and dense atmosphere.

Have any ideas of your own about what E.T. might look like? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]