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11 Teeny Units of Measurement for Tiny Things

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There are things in the world that are too small to perceive directly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t measure them. Here are 11 teeny units of measurement used to describe tiny things.

1. The Shake

When someone tells you they’ll be “back in two shakes!” they are guaranteed to take much, much longer than that—at least if we’re talking shakes in the sense used by physicists. The shake is a unit used to describe the time it takes for one step in a nuclear chain reaction, or 10 billionths of a second. 

2. The Jiffy

Even faster than the shake is the jiffy, a unit used to describe the time it takes for light to travel a distance the size of a nucleus. Light takes a little more than a second to travel from the moon to Earth, so to travel the span of a nucleus? Yeah, very fast. The jiffy is also used in other fields, like computer engineering, where it has to do with the computer's clock cycle. But in that case it represents a yawningly slow 10 milliseconds.

3. The Planck time

A unit of Planck time is how long it takes for light to travel a unit of Planck length. These Planck units were named for the physicist Max Planck, who introduced them in order to provide a way to more simply describe the universe in terms of universal constants. Or something. Let’s just say it’s useful for quantum physics. A unit of Planck time is a about a sextillion times faster than a jiffy.

4. The Barn

Physicists also need ways to measure area, but in the world of atoms something we think of as tiny might be seen as pretty huge in relative terms. I mean, have you seen a uranium nucleus? Really, if you're looking at nucleuses all day, it's huge! That's why nuclear scientists named its size after a barn. Compared to all those other puny nucleuses, it really is as big as a barn. One barn is 10^(-28) square meters. There's also the megabarn, the kilobarn, the millibarn, the microbarn—also commonly referred to as an "outhouse"—all the way down to the teeny little yoctobarn, also known as a "shed." 

5. The Angstrom

The Angstrom, named for physicist Anders Ångström, is a unit of length used for measuring light waves. An Angstrom is one tenth of a nanometer, which is to say one ten-billionth of a meter. The human eye can perceive light in the 4000 to 7000 Angstrom range. Describing the range of electromagnetic radiation in terms of Angstroms really brings home how large the range is and how much of it we can’t see. Ultraviolet goes all the way down to 10 Angstroms and infrared goes up to a million.

6. The Attogram

About 10 years ago scientists figured out how to weigh things at the attogram level, one attogram being 10^(-18), or a quintillionth, of a gram. A small virus weighs about 10 attograms, much less than a typical bacterium, measurable in comparably giant (10^(-12) gram) picograms.

7. The Becquerel

Named for Henri Becquerel, who, along with the Curies, was awarded the Nobel Prize for work on radiation physics, the becquerel is a measurement of radioactivity. When atoms change and emit particles, the process is called radioactive decay. One becquerel is the radiation of one decay per second. Another unit of measurement for radioactivity is the curie, but a curie represents 37 billion decays per second.

8. The Jansky

The jansky is a unit used by astronomers to characterize a source of light (or other energy). It was named for physicist Karl Jansky. One jansky is 10^(-26) watts per square meter per hertz. Things in the sky that we can see will have measurements in the thousands of janskys (or millions in the case of the sun), but most of what’s out there is only measureable in exceedingly tiny fractions of that, which is why it’s useful for astronomers to have the jansky be so small.

9. The Centipawn

Chess programs need a way to measure the relative strength of different moves or players’ positions, and this is achieved with centipawns. If you lose a pawn, you are down one pawn, but the cost of that loss is divided into 100 parts for purposes of evaluation. In comparing two possible moves that don’t differ by much, a slight advantage for one can be represented by a few centipawns.

10. The Micromort

The micromort is a unit for measuring the statistical probability of death. One micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. Smoking 1.4 cigarettes or spending an hour in a coal mine increase your risk of death by one micromort each. Going skydiving increases it by 7 micromorts. You incur 39 micromorts just by living another day. Micromort units can be useful in the insurance industry, but you probably don’t want to think about them too much in your day-to-day life.

11. The Quasihemidemisemiquaver

The Quasihemidemisemiquaver is a British term from musical notation for what Americans boringly call the 128th note. Actually, most people don’t call it anything, because it’s almost never talked about. Most musical compositions don’t have anything higher than a 32nd note, or demisemiquaver, which is about the length of a note in a trill or a fast run. Every once in a while, a run of hemidemisemiquavers, or 64th notes, will show up. But the quasihemidemisemiquaver is rare enough to merit a truly extraordinary 10-syllable name. It’s even better if you try to say it to a quasihemidemisemiquaver beat.

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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]