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Science Channel

Morgan Freeman and James Younger, Executive Producers of Through the Wormhole

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Science Channel

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman tackles what we here at mental_floss often call "big questions": How did we get here? Are we alone? Is there life after death? Is a zombie apocalypse possible? The sixth season, which premiered last night on the Science Channel, continues that tradition, tackling topics like why we lie and whether we're here for a reason. We emailed some questions to Morgan Freeman, host and executive producer, and executive producer James Younger to get the scoop on the new season.

The show tackles some of the biggest questions humans have. What’s the process of deciding which topics to include? 

Morgan Freeman: We have a brain-trust involved in developing each new season. Producers who’ve worked on the show for years have ideas. Our great collaborating team at the network throws in ideas. And I always throw in an idea or two of my own. This year, it was on the origin of life. That ended up becoming quite a different show: Are We Here for a Reason?

James Younger: We aim to develop a mix of topics each season. We always cover hard science, like cosmology. But we also include more down-to-earth topics, and we particularly look for controversial subjects, like racism, religion, [or] evolution, where we think a scientific approach could shift long-standing debates.

What topics were you hoping to include this season that didn’t make the cut?

MF: We were looking into Infinity … but I guess we couldn’t figure out how to fit it all into one hour of TV!

JY: We’d also looked into areas like the paranormal. What are the scientific explanations for ghosts? Both in terms of physics, and the human brain? There are so many ghost shows on TV, but nothing that looks at the hard science of why we believe in them.

The show has certainly looked into controversial subjects before, but this season, you took on a topic that’s particularly resonant now—whether or not we’re all bigots. Why do you think it’s important to look at the science behind issues like this one?

MF: It’s important because the science tells us that we are all hardwired to be bigots. Our minds are riddled with stereotypes. We may not consciously believe them, but we use them every day to make quick decisions. So these prejudices are something we all have to work to overcome.

What do you hope people take away from the episode?

MF: I think that highlighting the scientific fact that our brains are affected by bias helps makes the question of bigotry and racism more personal for all of us. It gets it out in the open. We need to be conscious of it, and that’s the beginning of change.

Other topics tackled this season include why we lie, if time can go backward, if we live in the Matrix, and more. Which one is your favorite, and why?

MF: Do we live a computer simulated reality? That is such a fascinating idea: Our entire cosmos could exist inside the computer of an advanced alien. And scientifically, it’s entirely possible.

Do you have a favorite from the entire series so far?

MF: I don’t have a single favorite episode, there’ve been so many great ideas. But I did really enjoy one from last season back: Does the Ocean Think? Is the ocean not just full of life, but actually a single living, thinking, being?

In interviews, you’ve talked about how curious you are, and how much you like to learn stuff—and how the show is a great tool to do that. What’s the coolest or most surprising thing you’ve learned in the process of making Through the Wormhole?

MF: Zombies are real! There is a species of ant whose brain gets attacked by a fungus. And that fungus actually turns them into walking dead zombies, whose sole purpose is to spread the fungus to other ants.

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel.

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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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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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