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Scaling Glaciers to Study Minuscule Worms

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By Roman Dial, as told to Jed Lipinski

Bhutan, August 2012.

At 16,000 feet above sea level, the air is shockingly clear. Fields of rock and herds of Himalayan blue sheep stand in sharp relief against distant white peaks. Our team—two Bhutanese cooks, two horsemen, a guide, and my 25-year-old son and part-time research assistant, Roman Jr.—has set up base camp on Gangla Karchung mountain beneath a receding glacier. As night falls, a few of us strap on our crampons and headlamps, grab our ice axes, and head up the mountain. The temperature is hovering around the freezing point: perfect for an ice worm sighting.

These worms aren’t easy to find. They look like black threads a few centimeters long, and they spend much of their lives buried in glacial ice. The best time to find them is monsoon season, when they thrive in the glacier’s meltwater pools.

I’m a biology professor at Alaska Pacific University. I became interested in ice worms while hiking and skiing in the Alaskan wilderness, and I noticed these tiny worms living on the ice. Technically, nothing should survive there. “How did they adapt to such an unforgiving environment?” I wondered. It seemed like a simple question. But ice worm research moves slowly—at a glacial pace, you might say! Although an American geologist first documented them on Alaska’s Muir Glacier in 1887, there’s a lot we don’t know about them.

Here’s what we do know: They only come out at night because they’re susceptible to UV rays. They feed on pink-colored snow algae and pollen grains that collect on a glacier’s surface. We think they get around by using tiny bristles on their sides to cling to ice crystals and propel themselves forward. And they’re very temperature-sensitive but also rugged. At temperatures above 41°F, their bodies melt, but they can survive temperatures as low as 20°F.

It’s this ability to live at subfreezing temperatures that makes ice worms valuable to science. Harnessing the mechanisms that enable them to survive could allow us to keep donated organs alive for longer periods or even help NASA understand how life could exist on colder planets. But before we can do that, we need to know the basics. Almost nothing is known about their reproductive biology, overwintering behavior, or geographic range.

Looking for ice worms is risky. A few years ago, I was searching for them with my two kids on the Harding Icefield, a featureless expanse of ice on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. One night, a winter storm blew in, flattening our tent with howling 100-mile-per-hour winds. Another time, after poring over Google Earth for potential ice worm habitats, I visited the Yunnan Valley in southwestern China. While hiking up a forested hillside alone, I stumbled across a rotten wooden bow with a rawhide string. “Cool bow,” I thought. Then I saw the bones: three fleshless human skeletons splayed out beneath the boulders. Apparently, they’d been hunting when a rock slide hit them. I quickly hiked back down the mountain.

Bhutan is similarly spooky. Most of the glaciers are unstable and full of crevasses. Each morning, our Buddhist guide burns incense and prays for our safety. As far as I know, no one has ever found ice worms here. In the 1970s, a Chinese taxonomist described an Asian ice worm species from Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo Valley, whose sacred waterfalls are thought to have inspired the fictional paradise Shangri-la. But the original sample was lost, and the Chinese won’t let foreign scientists look around. Rumors abound that the valley conceals a secret military base or a downed World War II plane full of gold or a criminally vast logging operation. Regardless, we’re not invited. Northern Bhutan, which sits on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, is as close as we can get. So that’s where we go.

As soon as we step onto the ice, my son halts. “These look like worms,” he says, bending down to examine a meltwater pool. It’s one of dozens spread across the glacier, and it’s writhing with activity. Thirty seconds on the glacier and we’ve found the fabled Tibetan ice worm? I crouch down for a closer look. My son scoops the tiny creatures into his hand.

Then he frowns. “I don’t think these are annelids, Dad,” he says, referring to the phylum ice worms belong to. “They look like ... midges.”

He flips his binoculars around, using them as a microscope. He’s right. What looked like ice worms are in fact the larvae of glacier midges, a kind of wingless fly. As adults, they crawl up the glacier, mate, and crawl back down to lay eggs in the pools. They’re fascinating insects—but not what we’re here for.

Over the next two weeks, we come across other glacial biota, including snow fleas and a mite that looks like a daddy longlegs. But there’s no sign of ice worms. Without Asian ice worm samples, we can’t do genetic analysis to determine whether they differ from the North American worms. Are they more durable? Less? How do they live inside the Himalayan ice?

So much of the natural world has been explored and demystified. The elusive ice worm? It’s one of the planet’s enduring secrets—which is what keeps me on its trail.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”