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6 Medical Theories From 1900 That Didn't Pan Out

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The early years of the 20th century were a crucial time in the history of medicine, as breakthroughs in surgical techniques, sanitation, and scientific rigor helped doctors become far more effective at saving and improving lives. Not every theory these pioneers had panned out, though. Here are six that missed the mark.

1. Bicycles Distort Women’s Faces

Throughout the 1890s an increasing number of women began riding bicycles, which gave them the freedom to travel and explore under their own power. Some members of the male medical establishment felt threatened by these women’s newfound independence and began warning of “bicycle face,” a permanent distortion of the features brought on by the strain of bike riding. These quacks’ ominous pronouncements appeared in medical journals and mainstream newspapers alike throughout the late 1890s before giving way in the early 20th century to the related non-illnesses “automobile face” and, in 1908, “aeroplane face.”

2. Electrified Jockstraps Can Cure Erectile Dysfunction 

Women weren’t alone in being targeted by questionable science. In the early 20th century, some of the country’s largest mail-order catalogues offered men the chance to cure everything from kidney disease to impotence to back issues by wearing an “electric belt,” which was basically an expensive jockstrap wired to give wearers small electrical shocks. While they might have sold well, these devices certainly didn’t solve any of the conditions they claimed to cure.

3. Heroin Is a Great Tool for Kicking Your Drug Habit 

When heroin first appeared on pharmacists’ shelves in 1898, doctors hailed it as a miracle drug. Heroin acted as both an effective cough suppressant and a less addictive painkilling alternative to morphine. At the time, morphine addiction was an international crisis, and doctors were willing to try any solution to wean addicts off of the drug. (Over a decade earlier, Sigmund Freud had dabbled in using cocaine to treat morphine addiction before realizing it was a disastrous idea.)

Heroin initially seemed like such a promising solution that one charitable society even proposed mailing morphine addicts free doses of heroin as a crutch on their road to sobriety. However, the truth soon emerged, and by 1902 doctors worried that the new wonder drug was just as addictive as morphine. By 1919, it was illegal to prescribe heroin to morphine addicts.

4. Tainted Meat Causes Scurvy

Scurvy has long been a plague of sailors and soldiers who had no ready supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although doctors have known that scurvy can be treated with fresh fruit for centuries, they weren’t certain what actually caused the disease or why fresh fruit was an effective remedy. One prominent theory was that tainted meat – which often found its way into soldiers' and sailors’ diets as they ventured away from supplies of fresh produce – caused scurvy. It wasn’t until British researcher Frederick Hopkins discovered vitamins in 1906 that scientists learned diseases like scurvy were caused not by the presence of germs, but by the absence of the crucial vitamin C.

5. Pregnant Women Pass Their Emotions to Their Babies

Until the early 20th century, some doctors mistakenly believed that if a pregnant mother experienced a great shock, period of sadness, or other strong emotion, her child would be born with inherited personality traits like nervousness or depression.

More extreme versions of this theory of “maternal impression” stretched to the baby’s physical characteristics – a mother who saw a man lose his right hand in an accident would give birth to a baby with no right hand. (That example appears in a pediatrics journal from 1900.) As doctors improved their understanding of genetics in the first decade of the 20th century, the theory of maternal impression became less prevalent.

6. X-Rays Are Great For Your Skin

German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and it didn’t take long for doctors to find uses for this incredible radiation. By 1900 specialists were using X-rays for tasks like removing female patients’ unwanted hair and treating their acne. While the X-rays were certainly effective at cosmetic hair removal, the risks associated with these doses of radiation far outweighed their aesthetic benefits. Despite the popularity of X-rays for acne treatment, the practice’s efficacy was never clearly demonstrated, and by the second half of the 20th century doctors abandoned the risky path.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, The Knick features groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. The Knick returns Friday at 10pm/9c only on Cinemax. #AtTheKnick See more at AtTheKnick.tumblr.com

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
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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