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Smithsonian Institution

10 Priceless Smithsonian Artifacts You Can Print Out At Home

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Smithsonian Institution

If you have a 3D printer, the Smithsonian has a surprise for you. The institution has scanned more than 20 artifacts (with more to come), creating 3D models that you can download and print at home. Calling it the end of "do not touch," the Smithsonian says the prints are exact replicas of the objects, and are ready for you to handle and manipulate however you want. Heck, they even encourage it.

1. Wooly Mammoth Skeleton

The Wooly Mammoth went extinct 10,000 years ago. This 3D model was taken from a composite skeleton of several animals that were recovered from Alaska in 1952. This hairy relative of the African elephant stood as high as 11 feet in real life, and now you can print its skeleton out in any size your printer will allow.

2. Abraham Lincoln’s Life Masks

It’s a myth that a death mask was made of Abraham Lincoln’s face after he was killed. In fact, Lincoln had two life masks made: one in 1860 when he was 51 years old and one in 1865 when he was almost 56. Both models are near duplicates of Lincoln’s face, including lines and pockmarks. The second life mask, made only two months before Lincoln was assassinated, shows how much the Civil War aged him.

3. Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

In person, this Buddha from 6th century China is a life-sized statue of a monk’s body minus the head and hands, which were lost years ago. The monk is wearing a robe covered with intricate carvings of the Realms of Existence, a symbolic representation of the Buddhist universe. The laser scanner revealed details of the carvings thought worn away centuries ago, demonstrating one of the advantages of 3D modeling for researchers: It allows for deeper study of an object with no risk of harming it.

4. Cassiopeia A Supernova Remnant

You can print out a supernova remnant? Apparently so. This is a 3D model of the youngest supernova in our galaxy, which exploded 330 years ago. It’s located 10,000 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

5. Dr. Livingstone’s Gun

The Scottish explorer David Livingstone wasn’t a very good shot. Once, in Africa, he tried to shoot a lion. He missed, and the lion proceeded to maul Livingstone’s left arm. Luckily for him, his assistant shot the lion down. This isn’t the same gun, but this 10-gauge shotgun was placed in Livingstone’s coffin when he died from dysentery in 1873.

6. Amelia Earhart’s Flight Suit

Amelia Earhart wore this flight suit in 1932 when she flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, setting the record as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The wool-lined leather suit provided essential protection from the icy air she encountered 20,000 feet up.

7. Pergolesi chair

Italian silversmith and engraver Michelangelo Pergolesi designed this side chair circa 1785. The back is elaborately carved with flowers and griffins and made out of polychromed and gilded wood. The ornamental design is meant to hearken back to classical antiquity and Renaissance decoration by the artist Raphael. Print one out for your dollhouse today.

8. Embreea Herrenhauser Orchid

This large orchid from Ecuador puts out a fragrance that the male euglossine bee uses to make itself sexier to the female euglossine bee, much like cologne is used to attract some human women. The company Sugar Lab printed out sugar versions of the orchid, which Todd Blatt at Make said “tasted a bit chalky, but much better than eating an orchid.”

9. Blue Crab

Although known as part of the Chesapeake Bay region, the blue crab’s habitat extends from as far north as Nova Scotia to as far south as Uruguay. A relative of the lobster and shrimp, they can get up to 9 inches long and are proficient swimmers. They are also quite tasty to many people. This 3D model wasn’t taken off a priceless artifact—it was taken off crabs purchased from the nearby seafood market.

10. Wright Flyer

The Wright Flyer was the first plane to take flight. The Wright brothers flew it four times on December 17, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This iconic vehicle is now located in the National Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian hasn't provided a print-ready model of the Wright Brother’s plane yet, but it’s too cool not to mention here. Technically, you could open the existing 3D model in CAD software, export it to a print-ready model, and print out your own copy. But would it fly?

All images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.