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12 Things You Didn't Know Were Named After People

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1. Mesmerize

Franz Mesmer wasn't a cheap vaudeville hypnotist. He was a doctor in the 18th century. And … he was sort of a quack. But just about everyone was a quack in those days; medical successes were measured by the least amount of people killed. So when Mesmer began to advocate a new healing technique he'd discovered, the use of what he called "animal magnetism," people were open-minded. He believed that simply by sitting with a patient, looking in their eyes, and touching them in various medically appropriate places, he could cure them through natural magnetic force. The medical community didn't buy it, but the public liked it. In the mid-1800s, long after Mesmer's death, the term "mesmerize" had morphed into a synonym for hypnosis, and then later gained an even more fantastical definition, as "mesmerizing" became a popular stage act for magicians and vaudevillians.

2. Decibel

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Alexander Graham Bell, man. He's everywhere. Since he revolutionized how sound is transmitted and recorded, it seems fitting that his name should be used to help measure it. A "decibel" is one-tenth (deci) of a little-used unit of measurement called a "bel," named, of course, after the Great One himself.

3. Galvanize

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Luigi Galvani's original work had nothing to do with covering metal with zinc to prevent rusting. It was actually much cooler. Galvani was an 18th century Italian scientist who electrocuted dead frogs to see their muscles twitch, which was pretty amazing at the time. So "to galvanize" originally meant to cause something to jolt into action, as if shocked by electricity. Then it meant shocked by electricity. Which is the base of electroplating, which is an earlier iteration of the chemical process we know as galvanization. See? It all checks out.

4. Fuchsia

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Leonhart Fuchs didn't discover the fuchsia genus. He liked plants, though. He wrote a book called an herbal in 1542 about using plants as medication. His book was arguably the most highly regarded herbal of the Renaissance. So in the late 1600s, when French Botanist Charles Plumier discovered a new kind of flower in the Caribbean, he named it in honor of what must been have the botany version of Elvis, Fuchs. The subsequent color, which interestingly is interchangeable with the one called "magenta," was coined in 1859.

5. Maverick

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The word makes you think of fighter planes and shoot outs and police chiefs shouting, "You're a loose cannon!" over their desks at someone. But no. A maverick is a cow. A cow with no brand burned onto its hide, but still, just a cow. The name comes from Samuel Maverick, who was a lawyer, land baron, and politician in 19th century Texas. Though he was a piece of work himself, the term came into our language through his cows. He said he didn't want to hurt them with branding. Other people thought he just didn't care all that much about cattle ranching. Still others thought he was using that Maverick guile, employing a strategy that allowed him to claim any unbranded cattle he found as his own.

6. Saxophone

Adolphe Sax invented and improved on a lot of horns during the 19th century. But you know him for the saxophone, which in itself represents an entire family of instruments. He wanted to make an instrument that blew like a horn but could be manipulated with the agility of a woodwind. Other designers attacked his patents and, despite inventing an instrument that altered modern music as we know it, he was declared bankrupt twice before his death in 1894.

7. Bakelite

If there is even a bit of antique-lover in you, you know how giddy the word "Bakelite" can make a collector feel. Bakelite was the first incarnation of synthetic plastic as we know it. It was heavy, rich-textured, held a vibrant color, and as a bonus, was non-flammable. It was a revolution in the 1920s, used for everything from jewelry to pipe stems. Though marketing couldn't have come up with a more delicious name than "Bakelite" for its product, it was named for its inventor, Leo Baekeland. Baekeland was a brilliant chemist who patented more than 55 inventions and processes in his life. He died shortly after his son pressured him into retirement, after selling Bakelite to Union Carbide.

8. Macadamia Nuts

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Macadamia nuts come from Australia, and the indigenous people there were eating them long before western botanists ever heard of them. They're named for a famous 19th century chemist/politician John Macadam, but he didn't discover them or introduce them to the west. His friend Ferdinand Von Mueller named them after him. That was after, as the story goes, Mueller sent the plant to be studied at the Botanical Gardens in Brisbane. The director told a student to crack open the new nut for germination. The student ate a few and said they were delicious. After waiting to see whether or not the young man would die in the following days, the director tasted a few himself and declared Macadamias the finest nut to have ever existed.

9. Shrapnel

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Shrapnel, metal debris that flies at lethal speed from explosions, can be useful in warfare even when it's not lethal. This is because shrapnel wounds more often than it kills, and it takes two solders to drag one wounded soldier off the battlefield. That might have been what Major General Henry Shrapnel had in mind when he began designing a new kind of bomb in 1784, what he called "spherical case" ammunition. It was a cannonball that contained lead shot, turning a cannon fire into an enormous shotgun blast. Forms of the shrapnel bomb (called an "anti-personnel" bomb) were used clear into WWI. The name eventually came to mean any fragmentation resulting from an explosion.

10. Graham Crackers

Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century diet proponent, felt that people should ingest mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while avoiding meats and any sort of spice. The upside of all of this bland food sounds a bit curious to the modern reader: Graham thought his diet would keep his patients from having impure thoughts. Cleaner thoughts would lead to less masturbation, which would in turn help stave off blindness, pulmonary problems, and a whole host of other potential pitfalls that stemmed from moral corruption. Graham invented the cracker that bears his name as one of the staples of this anti-self-abuse diet.

11. Salisbury Steak

James Salisbury was a 19th-century American doctor with a rather kooky set of beliefs. According to Salisbury, fruits, vegetables, and starches were the absolute worst thing a person could eat, as they would produce toxins as our bodies digested them. The solution? A diet heavy on lean meats. To help his diet cause, Salisbury invented the Salisbury steak, which he recommended patients eat three times a day and wash down with a glass of hot water to aid digestion. Apparently the only people paying attention to the doctor's orders were elementary school lunch ladies.

12. Nachos

Yep, there really was a guy named Nacho. In 1943 Ignacio Anaya—better known by his nickname "Nacho"—was working at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, just over the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. As the story goes, there were a lot of American servicemen stationed at Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass, and one evening a large group of soldiers' wives came into Nacho's restaurant as he was closing down.

Nacho didn't want to turn the women away with empty stomachs, but he was too low on provisions to make a full dinner. So he improvised. Nacho Anaya supposedly cut up a bunch of tortillas, sprinkled them with cheddar and jalapenos and popped them in the oven. The women were so delighted with the nachos especiales that the snack quickly spread throughout Texas.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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