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Wikimedia Commons, colorized by William Crochot

10 Extremely Magnified Photos of Plants

Original image
Wikimedia Commons, colorized by William Crochot

Under a scanning electron microscope, the plants that populate our world look more like alien planets.

1. CRIMSON CLOVER FLOWER PETAL

CDC

When it's in your yard, the Trifolium incarnatum looks like this. Workers at the CDC plucked one of the petals—which are actually modified leaves—from a crimson clover's tiny flowers and magnified it 2584x to reveal its "ultrastructural" details. According to the CDC, "the highly textured surface, composed of many cavitations and protuberances, are actually modification of the plant's leaf morphology, such as the leaf's stomata, which are the leaf pores through which the plant respires."

Also known as Italian clover, the plants were brought to the U.S. to be used as feed for cattle; farmers also used them to improve the soils in a field before food crops were planted.

2. Sunflower

Dartmouth

This scan of the lower leaf of the Helianthus annuus looks a little like something out of a sci-fi movie. Both the spiny thing and the worm-like things are trichomes, or outgrowths, on the surface of the plant.

3. Pollen

Wikimedia Commons, colorized by William Crochot

Here's some stuff that might make you sneeze, magnified 500x. The pollen comes from sunflowers, morning glory, hollyhock, lily, primrose, and castor bean.

4. WHITE DOGWOOD FLOWER

CDC

After plucking this Cornus florida specimen from "the grounds of the Decatur, Georgia suburbs in the month of April," workers at the CDC magnified it 888x to reveal the ultrastructural details—which sort of resemble tentacles—of one of the super tiny flower buds that are clustered in the center. According to the CDC, "Due to the extremely small size of the centrally located clustered flowers, the larger colored 'bracts' which are actually modified leaves that protect the flowers themselves, are also mistaken for flower petals." When it's not magnified, the white dogwood flower looks like this.

5. COMMON DANDELION

CDC

This image, magnified 811x, shows the details of a Taraxacum officinale "clock," those puffballs of seeds that float on the wind. According to the CDC, "the remnants of a seed attachment is visible as a small nub protruding from a small papule. It is from these nub-like points that the 'parachute'-equipped seeds detach, and are blown away, sometime over a distance of miles." It's so tough to get rid of these plants because of their deep tap root—if the whole root system isn't removed, a new plant will grow.

6. SPIDERWORT

CDC

This unidentified species of spiderwort was magnified 1421x, revealing the texture of the modified leaf and a single grain of pollen on the petal.

7. RAGWEED

CDC

This is a colorized image of a Ambrosia trifida, or ragweed, plant. According to the CDC, "When ragweed pollen is disbursed, many people have a reaction, but because they don't see the tiny flowers on the ragweed, they assume it's the pollen from the larger flowered goldenrod, which blooms at the same time. Note the dispersed pollen granules."

8. Walnut Leaf

Lisa Howard via Wikimedia Commons

This magnified image of a lower leaf of Juglans nigra, or Black Walnut, tree leaf looks like it's covered in tiny trees. The eye- or mouth-like slits are stoma, and the tree-like protrusions are trichomes, or leaf hairs.

9. Russian Olive Leaf

Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory via Flickr

The leaves of Elaeagnus angustifolia have a silverish sheen. They get it from the lepidote scales shown in this image, which was taken as part of the 2011 PNNL Science as Art contest and magnified 250x.

10. Corn Plant Tassel

Image courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory via Science Daily

This image shows the meristem, or tip, of a growing tassel in a naturally-occurring maize mutant, COMPACT PLANT2 (CT2). Plants with this mutation develop abnormally large ears of corn.

Original image
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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