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Library of Congress

15 Highlights from Carl Sagan's Archive

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Library of Congress

Recently, the Library of Congress acquired and began to digitize The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, a compilation of the personal papers, books, and correspondence of noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Through more than a dozen books, as well as his groundbreaking 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage—soon to be remade in March featuring equally awesome astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson—Sagan used his wondrous spirit to urge people to look at the planet and our place in the universe in different, dynamic ways. Here are a few awesome things we found in the collection.

1. Home Movies of a Young Sagan

The video above shows a series of silent home movies, starting off with the young Sagan joking around while playing piano. Other clips—with appearances by his mother Rachel, his father Samuel, and his younger sister Carol—show Sagan horseback riding, on vacation, and documenting a family trip to the zoo.

2. The Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight

This wonderful drawing was created by pre-teen Sagan, and is a collage of proposed newspaper headlines from the future. One headline boasts of technological developments like atomic space ships that can travel 5 miles per second, while another imagined advertisement promotes “Interstellar Spacelines," encouraging people to travel to and inhabit a planet in another solar system called "Altair 8."

3. Wawawhack, the Rahway High School student newspaper, Vol. VI, No. 5.

This issue of Wawawhack, the Rahway High School student newspaper, contains a student spotlight section describing Sagan's accomplishments as a high schooler. “If you wish to gain information concerning anything,” the article says, “go to Carl Sagan.” The short piece also describes his ambition to become an astronomer when he grows up, lists his hobbies as reading and playing basketball, labels his pet peeve as “lettuce sandwiches,” and names his favorite song—“My Foolish Heart, the title song from the film adaptation of the JD Salinger short story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.”

4. The sounds of Earth

This is Sagan’s personal copy of the gold-plated copper record disc that NASA produced in 1977 to accompany the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft into interstellar space for potential alien civilizations to discover. The disc includes 115 images of Earth cultures, natural sounds, music, and spoken greetings in 55 languages. The phrase “To the makers of music—all worlds, all times” is etched around the center of both sides. Also found in the archive is a 1986 birthday greeting to Chuck Berry by Sagan and his eventual wife Ann Druyan (Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the record), and a thank-you letter to famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax for helping compile the music for the disc.

5. The Pale Blue Dot

Sagan dictated many of his science-related thoughts and much of his official correspondence. This 4-minute audio recording is the abstract for his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot, and ponders the primary concepts gained from the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo taken, at Sagan's request, more than 4 billion miles from earth by the Voyage 1 spacecraft in 1990. “Consider that dot,” said Sagan, “That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” The archive also includes the second of 20 drafts of Sagan’s book.

6. Diagram of all space and time

This diagram, drawn by Sagan in 1985, represents all of space and time. The X-axis illustrates past and future time, while the Y-axis illustrates scale from the minute size of electrons to the distance to the “M31” or Andromeda Galaxy. Note the relative size of the small box that represents the “Realm of Direct Human Experience” to the huge space given to the realms of Quantum Physics and Special Relativity, and also the ominously titled “Forbidden Zone.”

7. Jovian radio organisms

Throughout his later career, Sagan would keep a file composed of initial concepts for writing projects that piqued his interest that he called his “Ideas Riding” file—a play on the phrase “Ideas Writing.” In this one-page document, the astrophysicist contemplates the “very speculative idea” that large plantlike organisms on Jupiter could communicate using radio waves like “a vast sing-along or the noise leakage from an immense cocktail party.” Pretty trippy. Other documents from this file include everything from notes on the nature of the clouds on Venus to an observation about how whale songs sound like cello music to asking “why are clouds white?”

8. Briefing notes for President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale

This handwritten note—on Watergate Hotel stationery—was used for a presentation by Sagan to brief then-President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale on concepts like the origin of life; the Voyager record; “cosmic catastrophes” like pulsars, quasars, and black holes; and CETI, or ”communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.”

9. Letter to Brown University Admissions Office

This college recommendation letter was written by Sagan and sent to the admissions office of Brown University, endorsing a student named David Grinspoon for admission to the school. Sagan declares that Grinspoon “would rank in the upper one percent of the students in my introductory astronomy course at Cornell,” and notes that the young student is an “accomplished tennis and guitar player.” Grinspoon would eventually attend Brown, and would even get a second recommendation letter from Sagan—also in the collection—when he was trying to get into graduate school at the University of Arizona. Additional correspondence between the two includes a letter Sagan wrote to the undergrad asking him to help him find an astronomy book written by sci-fi author H.P. Lovecraft.

10. Viking Lander images of the surface of Mars

These photographs are Sagan’s personal copies of the images sent back to earth from the Viking lander in 1977. Sagan was obsessed with the Red Planet, and the collection also includes a photo of Sagan with a model of the lander taken in Death Valley, California.

11. Idea for Contact video game

Sagan wasn’t content working in just literature, academia, or television. In this document, he chews over how to create a video game that could teach astronomy “in a context as exciting as most violent video games.” The premise of the video game would involve creating a young galactic civilization “in order to help it before it destroys itself—which most of them generally do.” Ever the optimist, Sagan also considered how the video game could be a tie-in to his novel Contact, which would be published in 1985. The collection also includes a dictated first draft of chapter three and a full draft of the novel.

12. Candidate list of Why? books

Sagan connected with so many people thanks to his knack for making audiences easily understand some pretty difficult scientific concepts. This list from later in his life contains about 150 potential titles for a series of instructional books for children called “Why?” Some examples include “How High is the Sky?”, “Why Don’t I Feel the Earth Spin?”, “If a Baby Was Raised by Mutes, What Language Would it Speak?”, “Could there be an Undiscovered Number Between 1 and 2?”, and “Why is it Warm in Summer?”

13. Scientists tithe time to science education

Anticipating the contemporary lack of funding and support for potentially costly scientific endeavors, Sagan proposed that scientists themselves should donate ten percent of their time towards public education in science. As a way for these scientists to contribute to a better public understanding of science, Sagan suggests they should write articles in local newspapers, give public lectures, and hold open houses at observatories.

14. Lecture notes

Though he was the most high profile astrophysicist of his time, Sagan was still a university professor with coursework, exams, and research papers to assign. The collection give us a little look into just what it might have been like to be enrolled in—or to teach—one of his classes.

One document for the “Astronomy 490” course he taught at Cornell in the '80s features lecture notes written by Sagan himself, which encourage students to push their critical thinking between “what feels good versus what is true,” and explains that the course will follow the logical idiom “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” One of the course’s final exams features an essay question asking students to describe the ways culture may change in the years following a major event involving UFOs, while another asks students to create a thought experiment for or against sun sign astrology.

For his 1965 “Astronomy 170” course at Harvard, his lecture notes outline topics such as the possibility of life on Mars and his desire to spend class time contemplating Saturn’s rings.

15. Correspondence between Sagan and a young Neil deGrasse Tyson

Perhaps my favorite discovery in the collection is a series of correspondence between Sagan—who was at the height of his popularity—and a young Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who has now taken over Sagan’s mantle in bringing popular science to the masses.

The banter starts with a letter from Sagan to Tyson—who was a senior at The Bronx High School of Science at the time—inviting the young man to visit him at Cornell and praising his decision to major in physics. Following their meeting and some time later, Tyson responds to Sagan informing him he has decided to attend Harvard because they have a larger astronomy department, to which Sagan cheekily responds that he’s sure Tyson has “not made a serious error in going there rather than Cornell.”

The formal friendship gives way to casual communication when Tyson send Sagan a letter about his first year as an undergrad at Harvard, and how he sublet an apartment in Cambridge for the summer so he could work full time at the Center for Astrophysics until school started up again. The pièce de résistance is a letter Tyson sent Sagan asking him how he would go about finding a publisher for turning a series of Q&A articles he wrote into a full-length book. The message includes a newspaper clipping about Tyson to remind Sagan of his accomplishments. It also features Tyson wearing a particularly goofy, but great astronomy-themed t-shirt.

The digitized collection is only in the preliminary stages, and the entirety of the documents from Sagan’s estate numbers in the hundreds more. If you’re as much of a Sagan fan—or science geek—as I am, let’s hope they put them online sooner rather than later.

Can't get enough Sagan? Check out this awesome print in the mental_floss store!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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