CLOSE
Original image

10 Monstrous Facts About Megalosaurus

Original image

This English predator was among the first dinosaurs ever discovered—and, back in those early days of paleontology, its fearsome jaws must have fueled countless Victorian nightmares.

1. Megalosaurus Used to Be Called “Scrotum humanum.”

The illustration on the left was drawn by an artist/naturalist named Robert Plot in 1676. At the time, scholars hadn’t yet learned of the existence of dinosaurs, so nobody could identify the fossil Plot’s picture depicts. For his part, Plot theorized that this bone (which had turned up in an Oxfordshire quarry) once belonged to a Roman war elephant. 

Nearly a century later, physician Richard Brookes copied Plot’s sketch, but didn’t buy his interpretation. To Brookes, it looked suspiciously like a certain piece of masculine anatomy, so he dubbed the specimen “Scrotum humanum.” Today, most scientists agree that the fragment in question actually came from a Megalosaurus leg bone.

2. It was The First Dino to be Scientifically Described.

In 1824, a large jawbone from some ancient reptile emerged near Oxford, prompting British geologist William Buckland to do something that had never been done before: formally describe a dinosaur specimen in an academic paper. His paper, “Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield,” saw publication via the Geological Society of London. 

3. Megalosaurus Was Named by a Guy With Really Weird Dietary Habits.

Buckland’s quirks were legendary. When he wasn’t examining fossils or coining the word “Megalosaurus,” he enjoyed dressing up his pet bear (!) in academic robes. He owned a table made with dinosaur droppings which “was often much admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at” [PDF]. And, stranger still, the man literally attempted to eat his way through the animal kingdom. Striving to sample every living thing in existence, Buckland devoured such main courses as panthers, crocodiles, and toasted mice. Apparently, the nastiest entrees he ever tried were mole and blue-bottle fly.

4. Megalosaurus was Mentioned in a Charles Dickens Novel.

Published serially between 1852 and 1853, Bleak House is, among other things, notable for having one of the world’s first literary dino references. While describing a gloomy day cloaked in fog, Dickens writes:

“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

5. Scientists Aren’t Exactly Sure What Its Skull Looked Like.

Aside from some bits of snout and upper and lower jaw, no significant cranial material has been attributed to Megalosaurus.

6. Megalosaurus Helped Inspire the Word “Dinosaur.”

In 1842, Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus were three recently-discovered prehistoric reptiles which many scientists imagined as little more than overgrown lizards. Sir Richard Owen felt very differently. Seeing them as dynamic, active animals, he lumped them together in a brand-new group he called the “Dinosauria.”

7. … And Buckland’s Son Believed it May Have Also Inspired European Dragon Myths.

Franklin Trevelyan Buckland followed in his father’s footsteps and became an accomplished zoologist in his own right. At one point, he posited that dinosaurs like Megalosaurus may well have given rise to Europe’s greatest mythical monsters.

“May not the idea of the dragons,” he wrote, “curious stories of which are chronicles in various parts of England, owe their origin, in some way or other, to the veritable existence of these large lizards in former ages? To point out the train of ideas or circumstances which led to these ancient dragon stories is of course impossible, particularly as man was not coexistant with Megalosaurus and Co.—still there is a certain shadow of connexion [sic] between them.”

8. Scientists Have Dramatically Reduced Megalosaurus’ Top Length Estimates.

William Buckland suggested that adult Megalosaurus were about 40 feet long, though newer specimens indicate a maximum measurement closer to 21.

9. History Buffs Can See a Bear-Like Megalosaurus in London’s Crystal Palace Park.

During the 1850s, sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build more than 30 life-sized prehistoric animal models which were to populate a glasshouse inside this historic English park. The house burned down in 1936, but the statues survived and are still being enjoyed (thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of local volunteers). Because scientists hadn’t yet learned that predatory dinosaurs were bipedal, Waterhouse’s Megalosaurus stands stoutly on all fours.

10. The Protagonist of TV’s Dinosaurs Sitcom is Purportedly a Dim-Witted Megalosaurus.

In 1991, ABC premiered Dinosaurs, a nuclear family-style comedy revolving around sentient dinos. Originally conceived by Jim Henson, the program’s patriarch is one Earl Sinclair, a beer-drinking, lunchbox-toting, television-loving Megalosaurus with less-than-exemplary parenting skills. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES