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Let's Get Neurological!: 11 Really Smart Athletes

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Fitness doesn’t only apply to the body. Mental fitness is just as important, and while the world’s elite athletes are certainly physical specimens, many are elite brainiacs, as well. Here is a list of some of the smartest athletes out there, from the NFL to Ultimate Frisbee. 

1. Marion Bartoli, Tennis

Marion Bartoli isn’t just a Wimbledon champion—she’s a genius. It has been reported that the French-born tennis ace has an IQ of 175, which is higher than Albert Einstein’s, but below Bobby Fischer’s, and her interests include classical ballet and art. But Bartoli isn’t the only well-rounded tennis player: Daniela Hantuchova is a classically trained pianist and speaks four languages, while Roger Federer speaks five.

2. and 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Myron Rolle, Football

Ryan Fitzpatrick is not only quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, he’s also a Harvard graduate. Upon joining the NFL, Fitzpatrick scored a 48 on the Wonderlic test, the exam the league uses to evaluate its players’ ability to comprehend and process information. The QB’s score was the third highest in NFL history. Oh, and he also had a 1580 on the SATs (out of 1600, the old-school SATs).

Former Tennessee Titan Myron Rolle might have Fitzpatrick beat, though. Rolle, who played college ball at Florida State, earned a bachelor’s degree in 2.5 years. He then studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and earned a master’s degree in medical anthropology from the English university in 2010. He now serves as chairman of the Myron L. Rolle Foundation, a nonprofit benefitting children and families in need.

4. Joe Ogilvie, Golf

Joe Ogilvie graduated from Duke with a degree in economics in 1996. During his time on the PGA Tour, he has become the go-to guy for other players’ business questions. He is the founder and CEO of Ogilvie Capital, an investment firm, in addition to serving on the tour’s player advisory council and policy board. Many tout Ogilvie as a future commissioner of the tour. “I'm a policy guy,” he told ESPN in 2011. “I study it a lot and while that may make me a nerd, I like coming up with ideas. I continually want to find ways to make things more efficient. I try to do that with my golf game and I try to do it in other aspects of my life.”

5. Craig Breslow, Baseball

Craig Breslow, a pitcher for the Red Sox, graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He was accepted to medical school at NYU, and also scored a 34 on the MCAT. According to Yale Alumni Magazine, Breslow used to have a picture of Albert Einstein above his locker. Or was that just a mirror?

6. Sarah Hughes, Figure Skating

After extraordinary triumphs, most athletes say they're going to Disneyland. But shortly after Sarah Hughes came from behind to win gold at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, the figure skater went to Yale University. After graduating with a degree in American studies, Hughes worked in the nonprofit sector, largely focused on organizations that promote female involvement in sports.

7. Shannon Miller, Gymnastics

As the most decorated American gymnast of all time, Shannon Miller was always working to master the uneven bars. Now, as a lawyer, she is a master of the legal bar. After her gymnastics career was over, Miller studied marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Houston. She then went on to Boston College Law School, graduating in 2007. Unfortunately, her professional life was put on hold in 2011, when Miller was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but she responded well to treatment and has been healthy since.

8. Sócrates, Soccer

Brazilian soccer player Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, who passed away in 2011, would have to be smart just to remember his long name. To simplify, he was known around the world as Sócrates, and he was a doctor, a political activist and a philosopher, just like his namesake. According to his BBC obituary, Sócrates refused to dedicate himself entirely to soccer until he had finished earning his medical degree. After retiring from the sport, he practiced medicine in Brazil. He’s also credited with starting a political movement called the Corinthians Democracy.

9. Shane Battier, Basketball

Shane Battier has had a smarty-pants reputation since his days playing for Duke. But the Miami Heat forward does truly have a good head on his shoulders. According to Sporting News, Battier graduated from college with a degree in religion, he speaks German, and his off-court interests include sabermetrics, or the statistical analysis of baseball data. He also runs the Battier Take Charge Foundation, which focuses on education for underserved youth and teens.

10. Ryan Newman, NASCAR

Racecar driver Ryan Newman graduated from Purdue University with a degree in vehicle structure engineering (obviously). Newman says his education helps make him a better driver, since he can clearly articulate his needs and questions to race engineers. Newman was NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 2002, and he currently ranks seventh in the Sprint Cup Series.

11. All Players, Ultimate Frisbee

In a 2006 study, the University of Washington found that participating in Ultimate Frisbee was an indicator of academic success. The decade-long study showed that, among all 86 private national universities, those ranking in the top half for Ultimate Frisbee have a graduation rate of over 85 percent, compared to a graduation rate of 60 percent among schools in the bottom half. The top half schools also had 208 Rhodes and Marshall scholars, versus 15 from schools in the bottom half. Thank you, University of Washington. 

In sports and in life, it's helpful to have a brain that can process things quickly. As a part of our Let's Get Neurological! initiative, we recommend games and puzzles as a fun form of brain exercise. Get smart like these athletes with games like Smart Mouth; the bioengineering-based strategy game, Strain; Wordie Wars; and Distraction.

And make sure to shop our online store for lots of other ways to pump (clap) your brain up! PLUS, this week in the mental_floss store, 10% off all games and puzzles for FUNdamental brain training!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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