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Chemistry Ph.D. Student Turned Her Thesis Into a Comic Book

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Mention the word “quasicrystals” and everyone will immediately know what you’re talking about, right? Probably not. University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry Ph.D. student Veronica Berns recognized this conundrum when she began working on her thesis. Berns wanted to share her work with friends and family, but she struggled to find an accessible way to do so. Eventually, she decided that the best way to explain these divergent crystals was to diverge from the normal thesis form herself– and thus her chemistry comic book, Atomic Size Matters, was born. 

Berns’s family has a history of doodling and sharing comics, so what better way for her to involve her parents than with a medium with which they were all comfortable? At her graduation last year she surprised her parents with a comic book filled with cartoons, humor, and simple comparisons to describe her complex work. She purposely focused more on doodles than polished illustrations, telling the Associated Press that she “wanted it to be like I’m explaining [it] on the back of an envelope.” Atomic Size Matters was a big hit, and not just with Berns’s family.

Berns’s adviser, Danny Fredrickson, said that she was the first of his students to construct her thesis in an artistic way. In response to the question, “How would you communicate this to someone that doesn’t do science?,” he replied, “This. This is it!” Berns thought that perhaps others would be interested in her comic as well, and started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to print a small batch of the books. Berns raised over $14,000, more than twice what she had asked for, which helped her realize the vital role that her book could play in the learning process. “It’s really important, now more than ever, to talk about science in an accessible way,” she noted. 

Berns now works as a chemist in Chicago, but she still finds time for doodling. Her latest project is a blog explaining the work of Nobel Prize winning scientists, which can be found on her website, VeronicaBerns.com.

[via The Big Story]

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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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May 23, 2017
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