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Hannah Keyser

11 Awesome Things You Can See At The Explorers Club

Original image
Hannah Keyser

The Explorers Club headquarters on East 70th Street might be New York's best kept secret. In spirit and purpose, it is the meeting place and physical center for an international association of scientists and explorers. In aesthetics, it resembles a Jacobean manor house crossed with a natural history museum, complete with wood paneled walls, elaborate molding, and a terrace marked by a colonnade from a monastery in France that matches the one in the Cloisters.

The Club first met in 1904 as an unofficial gathering of like-minded men (women weren't allowed until 1981). By the following year, the Explorers Club was incorporated, though it bounced around several locations—first on the Lower East Side and then up by Columbia University—before ending up at its current location in 1965. The house was originally built in 1910 for Stephen Clark, heir of the Singer Sewing machine fortune, with the intention of mimicking a historical style. Clark lived there with his family until he passed away in 1960. Five years later, the entire multistory townhouse was purchased for the Club with the help of member Lowell Thomas.

These days, the Club serves as a fellowship that awards grants and provides a social and professional network for continuing generations of explorers. Entry into that network, which includes dozens of chapters around the world, requires a background of extensive travel and a number of recommendations from current members. The house retains certain functions of its own: Members give lectures on their research and travel; relevant films are shown; and independent organizations from charities to documentary filmmakers make use of the stunning setting. The Club invites passersby, perhaps intrigued by the heavy iron doors or the personalized flag, to pop in and get a feel for the place. But those interested in getting a closer look, either at any of the objects mentioned here or the vast research collection of exploration documents, should make an appointment with the Club's curator, Lacey Flint.

1. USS Explorer Table

One of the first remarkable artifacts in the Club is hidden in plain sight. A sumptuous sitting room centers around a heavy wooden coffee table with a rich history. It's built from a hatch cover for the USS Explorer, an unarmed research vessel that was one of only seven ships in the area to survive the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time of the bombing, the Explorer was out to sea—in fact, it was the nearest American ship to the Japanese fleet responsible—which was how it was spared a violent end.

2. Dowager Empress Chair

In the same room as the table above is a chair with royal origins. Not much is known about the intricately-carved wooden seat, but it is rumored to have belonged to Empress Wanrong, the wife of Puyi, last Emperor of China.

3. Matthew Henson's Mittens

Matthew Henson, who became the first African American admitted to the Club in 1937, was Robert Peary's first mate on a number of arctic explorations, including the one recognized as the first to reach the geographic North Pole. The Club displays sealskin mittens with polar bear cuffs made for Henson by an Inuit woman who accompanied them on their voyage. On the gloves is inscribed: Matthew A Henson, May 5, 1934… To -- Explorers Club … worn by me from Cape Sheridan to it -- North Pole, April 6, 1909.

4. Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Globe

In 1947, Club member Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove that early South Americans could have originally settled the islands of the South Pacific as far back as 500 AD. Heyerdahl set sail with a 5-man crew from Peru aboard a raft, called the Kon-Tiki, made of balsa logs and other indigenous materials and techniques consistent with what would have been available at that time. One hundred and one days and 4300 miles later, the team landed in Polynesia. The expedition was first proposed and partially planned using this globe, which was at the time located in the Explorers Club headquarters on West 72nd Street.

5. Albert Operti's Rescue at Camp Clay

In 1881, Adolphus W. Greely—a decorated Civil War veteran who would become the Explorers Club's first president in 1905—set off with a crew of 24 men to explore the arctic reaches of Canada. The so-called Lady Franklin Bay Expedition made numerous scientific contributions and observations, reaching farther north than anyone before them. However, during the expedition, heavy ice stranded the explorers and prevented relief vessels from reaching them for several years. By the time a rescue ship found the crew on June 22, 1884 at Cape Sabine on Ellesmere Island, two-thirds had succumbed to starvation, exposure, scurvy, drowning, suicide, and even execution. And, in the aftermath, the survivors were plagued by rumors of cannibalism.

The painting, commissioned by the U.S. government to hang in the Capitol Building, depicts a scene of the rescue. Artist Albert Operti did extensive research, interviewing the survivors as well as those who were part of the rescue team for details about the tents and other materials. He even studied pre-expedition portraits of the deceased crew members. The Club purchased the painting in 1946 for $105.00.

6. Bell from the Bear

The Bear was a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter that was part of a three-ship mini fleet responsible for finding and rescuing Greely's surviving crew. The bell was presented to the Club in 1933 and since then has traditionally been rung to mark the start of Club functions.

7. Mariana Trench/Mount Everest Flag

The Club's flag is an iconic part of its tradition. Each flag produced is assigned a number, and members must apply for the honor of carrying one on their expeditions, submitting a thesis-style report to be included in the flag's file upon return. A database tracks all of the flags' voyages; often, explorers who have been granted the privilege seek one that has been to similar locations or was carried by an idol. On the occasion of some particularly admirable voyage, or because of damage sustained, flags are retired to be part of the rotating collection on display in the Club. The Flag Room provides a sense of the Club's wide-ranging purview in the world of exploration and notable historical events—the Apollo 13 Flag was returned unopened in the non-flammable plastic casing in which it was packed, with a note explaining that since "plans were disrupted" it was never planted on the moon's surface.

Not all explorers opt for flags that have been to similar locations—in fact, an instance of just the opposite created a unique artifact. Flag 161 accompanied 19 voyages during its active tenure from 1955 to 2012. Among those was a trip to the top of Mount Everest, and the last one was a descent with James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. Along with a host of other accomplishments, this means that Flag 161 is the only object in the world to have traveled to both the highest and lowest points on the planet.

8. Yeti Scalp

Or, more accurately put, "yeti scalp." Tales of an abominable snowman called the Yeti inspired Explorers Club members Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins to travel to Nepal in 1960. Among the evidence for this mythical monster cited by locals was a supposed scalp, which had been housed at a temple in Khumjung for over 200 years. Unfortunately for Yeti enthusiasts everywhere, Perkins, a zoologist, concluded that the "scalp" was made from the hide of a Himalayan serow—a goat antelope. To substantiate this claim, he had a local villager help to create an exact replica using goat hide, which is what you see here.

9. Description de l'Égypte

Despite suffering an ignominious military defeat in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign up the Nile in 1798-99 provided the world with one of the most important documents in Egyptology. Along with his army, Napoleon brought nearly 200 scholars and scientists known as savants to compile ethnographic information about ancient and modern Egypt. The result was 22 volumes called Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée française. Or in English: Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army. The texts are, of course, written in French, but the oversized volumes that include hand-colored pictures are stunning and worth a few more pictures. Definitely call or email ahead if you're hoping for a peek—these first editions require white gloves and supervision for handling.

10. Double Elephant Tusk

These four tusks all belonged to the same elephant, a fearsome looking rare genetic mutation. The tusks were collected by Club member Armand Denis, an adventurer and filmmaker who led a famous expedition across Africa in 1934, but they were donated by the estate of Sally H. Clark, wife of James L. Clark, who served as Director for Preparations at the American Museum of Natural History.

11. Stuffed Whale Penis

Not much is know about this stuffed whale penis, which was given to the Club in 1977 by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick S. Schauffler, but it is a favorite among visitors. Worth checking out, if only for a better sense of scale.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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]