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Hulton Archive / getty images

6 Crazy Science Experiments That "Worked"

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Hulton Archive / getty images

From Dr. Frank-N-Furter to Dr. Doofenschmirtz, we've all grown up hearing about our fair share of mad scientists and their crazy experiments. A trip through history teaches us that these insane geniuses aren't just works of fiction. Let's look back at six scientists and their experiments that spawned from both dedicated wills and disturbed minds.

1. Nikola Tesla's Death Ray

Shrink rays, heat rays, and ray-guns have long been the rage in science fiction, but that doesn't mean they can't work in the real world. In 1931, Nikola Tesla claimed to have built a working "death ray." He wasn't the first to try to perfect this kind of invention, but Tesla's death ray stood out from the competitors' because it might have actually worked. His death ray employed charged particles shot from a vacuum chamber rather than rays, which he believed would not be able to cause any harm. 

"There are a few details to be finished—my calculation might be perhaps 10 per cent off at present," he said in 1934. But, had it been perfected, he insisted that "a country's whole frontier can be protected by one of the plants producing these beams every 200 miles."

2. Vladimir Demikhov and the Two-Headed Dog

WARNING: THIS FOOTAGE IS DISTURBING.

Vladimir Demikhov experimented with vital-organ transplants, starting off with animal-to-animal heart and lung transplants before he moved on to the tough stuff: Heads. In 1954, Demikhov successfully transplanted the head, shoulders, and front legs of a puppy onto the side of an adult dog's neck. Both heads remained conscious and active, eating and drinking until the creature died a few days after the operation. Demikhov repeated this frightening experiment several times, with the longest-surviving subject living for one month.

3. Gabriel Beaurieux's Decapitated Head Obsession

Gabriel Beaurieux's work is sure to bring back fond memories of learning about Henry VIII and his many, many, wives. In 1905, Beaurieux attended the execution of a prisoner by the name of Henri Languille. The scientist made note that, after his decapitation, the head still possessed consciousness and movement for several seconds, and even opened its eyes twice when his name was called. From Beaurieux himself:

The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.
...
the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds.
...
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up.

Kids, don't try this experiment at home.

4. Sergei Brukhonenko's Dog-Headed Cyborg

WARNING: DISTURBING FOOTAGE.

Sergei Brukhonenko, a Soviet physician, developed what he called an "autojector," a heart-lung machine intended to keep alive the head of a dog while separated from its body. When presented, the dog head responded to stimuli of sound and light, and even ate a piece of cheese. Brukhonenko claimed he was able to drain the dog head of blood, let it sit for ten minutes, and then restart the machine to bring it back to life. Good dog.

5. Stubbins Ffirth's Toxic Vomit Cocktail

In the early 19th century, a young man named Stubbins Ffirth was training to become a doctor in Philadelphia. He closely studied yellow fever, a disease that had decimated the area only a few years prior. Ffirth believed that yellow fever was not contagious, and set out to prove it by pouring the vomit of a yellow fever patient into his eyes, open wounds he created specially for the experiment, and down his gullet. Yellow fever, it turned out, is contagious through transmission into the blood stream, and it was quite surprising that Ffirth never fell ill himself. Better lucky than right, apparently.

6. Winthrop Kellogg's Chimpanzee Daughter

Mad Science Museum 

Tarzan taught us what it might be like for a boy to be raised by apes. But have you ever wondered what really happens to apes raised by humans? In 1931, Winthrop Kellogg took a seven-month-old chimpanzee, Gua, into his home and raised her alongside his 10-month-old son, Donald, as if the chimp were human herself. Kellogg regularly tested the pair to track their development. Surprisingly, Gua tested better than Donald in all categories except one: language skills. In an interesting twist of "human see, human do," nine months into the project, Donald began to imitate Gua's "food bark" to signal his hunger instead of using words. Kellogg cut his experiment short, and Gua was sent back to the primate center from which she came.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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