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As Bombs Fell on Paris, Marie Curie Went to War

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August 1914 should have been the height of Marie Curie's career. After all, she had discovered two elements, pioneered the science of radioactivity, snagged not one but two Nobel Prizes, and was on the precipice of opening a groundbreaking institute for the study of radium in her adopted hometown of Paris.

But the 20th century was not kind to Marie. First, her beloved husband and scientific partner, Pierre, was run over by a horse-drawn carriage and killed. She was overlooked by the French Academy of Sciences, then vilified for her participation in an extramarital affair. And though France seemed eager to claim her as one of theirs, they were all too ready to turn on her when the right-wing press painted her as a dangerous foreigner. Finally, after dragging herself through a sustained period of intense depression, she finally oversaw the completion of her Radium Institute in 1914—only to have all of her male laboratory workers drafted.

And so, as German bombs fell on Paris that fall, Marie Curie decided to go to war.

The first front was financial. The French government called for gold for the war effort, so Marie showed up at a bank with her Nobel Prize medals, ready to donate them to the war effort. When bank officials refused to melt them down, she donated her prize money to purchase war bonds instead. Back in her abandoned lab, moved by a sense of troubled patriotism and irritated by her inability to help, she racked her brain for something—anything—to do.

Her inspiration for what came next might have come from the lead box of radium she stowed in a safe deposit box in Bordeaux that summer. The single gram she had worked so hard to isolate was the only radium available for research in France. She would be unable to experiment with radium during the war, so why not spend her time learning more about another kind of radiography? Marie had long wanted to learn more about X-rays. As she set to work educating herself about this sister science, she quickly realized that she had a powerful technology on her hands. And then it struck her: The war was likely to be long and bloody. Trench conditions and advanced weaponry promised the bloodiest war in history. Maybe X-rays could help. Why not bring them to the battlefield?

When Marie had a plan, she moved swiftly and decisively. First, she swallowed her impatience with the French government and convinced them to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service (it probably helped that nobody knew what radiology was). Then, she turned to her richest and most powerful friends, finagling, begging, and harassing them until they donated money and vehicles to support her idea. By late October, Marie had not only given herself a crash course on X-ray technology and human anatomy, but had learned to drive and mastered basic auto mechanics. The traveling X-ray unit she patched together in a Renault van turned out to be the first of 20.

Marie Curie (second from right) instructs nurses in radiology, via Médecins de la Grande Guerre

The concept behind what military men began to call "petites Curies" was simple enough: Equip a van with a generator, a hospital bed, and X-ray equipment. Drive to the battlefield. Examine the wounded. But to Marie's astonishment, the concept of X-rays on the front wasn't just foreign—it was actively fought against by doctors who felt that new-fangled radiology had no place at the front. Ignoring the protest of the French army's medical higher-ups, Marie drove to the Battle of the Marne at the hair-raising speed of 25 miles per hour, intent on proving her point. Soldiers came to the mobile unit riddled with shrapnel, bullets, and debris, unaware they were being treated by a two-time Nobel laureate. Assisted by her 17-year-old daughter, Irène, Marie took their X-rays calmly and methodically, without shields or other protective measures. And the machine worked beautifully.

Now that it had been proven that the battlefront X-rays helped military surgeons, Marie wouldn't be stopped. She worked feverishly. There must be more vans. More X-ray units. Why not add stationary units, 200 of them? Disgusted by the army's unwillingness to adopt new technology and better train its own recruits, Marie took matters into her own hands. She gave a crash course in X-rays to 150 women, sent Irène back to the field to continue administering X-rays, then retrieved her box of radium and began to collect radium gas (radon) to sterilize infectious tissue (again without protection).

Marie was in her lab isolating radon when armistice was declared in 1918. She hung French flags from her windows, then took the Petite Curie into the street to celebrate. And though the French government never acknowledged the X-rays she enabled for well over a million French soldiers (they did give a military medal to Irène), she treasured her achievement until her death from radiation exposure in 1934. Marie's clothing, lab equipment, and notebooks are still so riddled with radioactivity that researchers must handle them with special gloves and protective clothing.

"What seemed difficult became easy," recalled Marie about her war. "All those who did not understand gave in or accepted; those who did not know learned; those who had been indifferent became devoted."

Additional sources: Madame Curie: A Biography, Eve Curie; Marie Curie: A Life, Susan Quinn; Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics, Janice Borzendowski.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]