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13 Scientific Terms Even Smart People Misuse

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When scientists use these words, they typically mean something completely different than what they do when non-scientists use them. Sometimes our definitions are too narrow or too broad, and sometimes, we use terms interchangeably when they actually shouldn't be. We dug deep into the American Museum of Natural History's website to help set the record straight.

1. and 2. Poisonous and venomous

Though the words poison and venom are often used interchangeably—and although they both describe a toxin that interferes with a physiological process—there is a difference. It’s all about how the substance is delivered: Venom is delivered via an anatomical device like fangs, while poison is usually inhaled, ingested, or absorbed. As Mark Siddall, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at AMNH, explains in the clip above, both the rough-skinned newt and the blue-ringed octopus produce a powerful toxin called tetrodotoxin. But scientists call the octopus venomous because it delivers the substance through a bite, and consider the newt poisonous because the toxin is in its skin.

3. Microbes

When most people hear the word “microbe,” they think of stuff that they can't see that's going to make them sick. But while some do cause disease, not all microbes, or microscopic organisms, are bad; in fact, some are essential for life. Microbes include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa, and make up most of the life on our planet. For every human cell in our bodies, there are about 10 resident microbes; only a small percentage are pathogens.

4., 5., and 6. Meteor, meteorite, and asteroid

Although some use these terms interchangeably, meteors, meteorites, and asteroids are all different things. Here’s how to use them correctly: Asteroids are the rocky bodies that orbit the Sun mostly between Mars and Jupiter; they’re much smaller than planets, and they're sometimes pulled out of their orbit by the force of Jupiter’s gravity and travel toward the inner solar system. The vast majority of meteorites—rocks that fall to Earth from space and actually reach the Earth's surface—are parts of asteroids. Like meteorites, meteors are objects that enter Earth’s atmosphere from space—but they’re typically grain-sized pieces of comet dust that burn up before reaching the ground, leaving behind trails that we call “shooting stars” as they vaporize.

7. Theory

When most people use the word theory, they're talking about a hunch or guess. But for scientists, a theory is a well-substantiated—and testable—explanation that incorporates laws, hypotheses, and facts. The theories of gravity and evolution, for example, aren’t mere hunches; they explain why apples fall from trees and how so many very different plants and animals exist, and have existed, on Earth. According to AMNH’s website, “A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true.” Scientific theories are also testable; if evidence isn’t compatible with a theory, scientists can either go back to refine the theory, or reject it altogether.

8. Fossil

As Lowell Dingus, a research associate at AMNH, explains in the video above, fossils aren’t just the remains of hard parts like bones, teeth, and shells. Under the right conditions, organisms’ soft parts—like skin impressions and outlines—can also fossilize. Other things that qualify as fossils are traces made by organisms, like footprints, burrows, and nests. Fun fact: By most definitions, in order to qualify as a fossil, the specimen must be more than 10,000 years old. If they’re younger than that, the specimens are called subfossils.

9. Common ancestor

When you use the term common ancestor, you might mean that one creature evolved from another. But that oversimplifies it: Humans didn’t evolve from monkeys, for example, but share an ape-like common ancestor with Old World monkeys. According to AMNH's website, "Overwhelming evidence shows us that all species are related—that is, that they are all descended from a common ancestor. More than 150 years ago, Darwin saw evidence of these relationships in striking anatomical similarities between diverse species, both living and extinct. Today, we realize that most such resemblances—in both physical structure and embryonic development—are expressions of shared DNA, the direct outcome of a common ancestry."

10. Hominins

Homo sapiens are the only remaining descendants of a once-varied group of primates called the Hominini. You’re probably used to using the term hominids to refer to humans and their ancestors, and not long ago, you would have been correct—but recently, the definition of that word has expanded to refer to all great apes and their ancestors. Instead, you should be using the word hominins to describe the group comprised of modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors.

The first hominin fossil was discovered in 1856, and since then, many hominin fossils, comprising many different species, have been discovered. These species emerged in different places over the past six or seven million years, and some of them even lived simultaneously, as AMNH’s Dr. Ian Tattersall explains in the video above.

11. Dinosaurs

We typically say that all dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, but that’s not actually the case. In fact, if you look out your window, you might see one right now. Birds descended from the common ancestor of all dinosaurs, and so, "just as humans beings are a kind of primate, birds are a kind of dinosaur," Mark Norell, curator of the Division of Palentology at AMNH, explains in the video above. So go ahead: Tell your friends that pigeon is a dinosaur. They'll never look at those birds the same way again.

12. Pterosaurs

Chances are, you probably haven't been using this word much at all. That's because most of us grew up thinking that pterosaurs like the pterodactyl were dinosaurs, and that's what we called them. But these animals weren’t dinosaurs, and they weren’t birds, either. They were actually flying reptiles, cousins to the dinosaurs that evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree. Pterosaurs were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight by flapping their wings to generate lift; you can find out more about pterosaurs from the video above.

13. De-extinction

You probably understand what de-extinction is, but you might not understand what kinds of animals we can bring back—and you have Hollywood to thank for that. Despite what you saw in Jurassic Park, scientists will never be able to resurrect non-avian dinosaurs from extinction; any DNA that might be found is just too old to be used. But for other species, science might find a way in the not-too-distant future. In fact, in 2003, researchers implanted a goat egg with genes from an extinct Spanish mountain goat and used a goat-ibex as a surrogate; the resulting animal lived for just a few minutes, but the experiment proved it could be done.

Scientists expect that technological breakthroughs—and genetic data gathered from specimens—will provide ways to revive recently extinct species (think passenger pigeons, and maybe even wooly mammoths). It sounds cool, but de-extinction comes with a number of thorny scientific and ethical questions, as Museum Curator Ross MacPhee explains in the video above.

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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]