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John Collier, Wikimedia Commons

6 Famous Scientists and Inventors Who Struggled With Math

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John Collier, Wikimedia Commons

Does trying to calculate a tip make you break out in a cold sweat? You’re definitely not alone. Math can be intimidating, to the point where sometimes even the earth's most brilliant scientific minds have trouble crunching numbers. 

1. MICHAEL FARADAY (1791-1867)

Thomas Phillips,Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to say which is more amazing: Faraday’s discoveries or his life’s story. Against all odds, this son of a poor blacksmith overcame class prejudice to become Britain’s preeminent scientist and, in many ways, the father of modernity itself. If you’ve ever pushed an “on” button, you’re in his debt. Faraday built the first electric motor—along with the first electric generator. He also invented the rubber balloon, laid the groundwork for today’s refrigeration technology, and helped illuminate the mysterious world of electromagnetism.

Yet, despite all this, Faraday’s upbringing never stopped haunting him. Like most impoverished boys, he’d received little formal education. Hence, Faraday’s math skills left a lot to be desired. In 1846, he boldly proposed that visible light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. But because he couldn’t back up the idea with mathematics, his colleagues ignored it. Enter James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Believing the older scientist’s hypothesis, this Scottish physicist & mathematician used ingenious equations to finally prove Faraday right eighteen years later.

2. CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)

Darwin came down with some serious math envy. As a collegiate student, he loathed the subject. “I attempted mathematics,” reads Darwin’s autobiography, “… but I got on very slowly.” The affluent young naturalist went so far as to invite a tutor to join him at his summer home in 1828. After a few frustrating weeks, Darwin dismissed the man.

“The work was repugnant to me,” he wrote, “chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principals of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.”


Harris & Ewing,Wikimedia Commons

In high school, the Scottish-born inventor of the telephone had a love-hate relationship with math. According to biographer Robert V. Bruce, Bell “enjoyed the intellectual exercise” of this subject, but was “bored and hence careless in working out the final answer once he learned the method.” His grades suffered accordingly. Bell’s mathematical aptitude never improved and, for a scientist, it would remain sub-par until the day he died.

4. THOMAS EDISON (1847-1931)

Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios,Wikimedia Commons

“I can always hire a mathematician,” Edison once remarked, “[but] they can’t hire me.” Like all successful entrepreneurs, he was keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses. As a boy, Edison trudged through Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”). In his own words, the book left him with nothing but “a distaste for mathematics from which I never recovered.”

Higher math was a topic about which Edison knew almost nothing. So, after co-founding the General Electric Company, he brought German mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz into the fold. A numerical genius, Steinmetz oversaw many of G.E.’s technical underpinnings. Previously, Edison had recruited yet another mathematician—Bay Stater Francis Upton—to make calculations that could help him carry out various lab experiments. Together, they worked on such gadgets as the incandescent lamp and the watt-hour meter before parting ways in 1911. 


FunkMonk,Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

This summer, Horner cameoed in the third highest-grossing movie of all time. Over the past quarter century, he’s served as a scientific consultant for all four Jurassic Park films and was just rewarded with a brief on-screen appearance during one of Jurassic World’s raptor scenes. Back in the 1970’s, Horner found the western hemisphere’s first-known dinosaur eggs. A legendary paleontologist, he’s forever changed our understanding of how these incredible animals grew up and raised their young.

Horner’s success must have shocked his childhood teachers. The Montana native did poorly in school, which he found “extremely difficult because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow.” Teenage Horner flunked high school algebra, much to his math-savvy father’s disappointment. Horner would go on to flunk college seven times, and in fact, never graduated with a formal degree—which means any jobs in the field he was most passionate about weren't available to him. (Horner, who worked a series of odd jobs as a young man, eventually began writing “to every museum in the English-speaking world asking if they had any jobs open for anyone ranging from a technician to a director.” Clearly, it paid off.)

His educational woes remained a mystery until 1979, when Horner was diagnosed with dyslexia.  “To this day, I struggle with the side-effects,” he says. “Self-paced learning is a strategy that helps me cope. Audio books are also a very helpful technology.”

6. E.O. WILSON (1929-PRES.)

Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 

Apart from being the world’s top authority on ants, Wilson’s a first-rate science popularizer. He’s written dozens of bestsellers about everything from evolution and biology to philosophy and conservation. One of his offerings—2013’s Letters to a Young Scientist—reveals a tumultuous personal history with math.

The product of “relatively poor Southern schools,” Wilson admits that he “didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama … I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.” While playing catch-up, he was “never more than a C student.”

For numerophobic science majors, he offers this tip: “The longer you wait to become at least semiliterate in math, the harder the language of mathematics will be to master … But it can be done, and at any age.” 

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.