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10 Inventive Myths About Einstein, Debunked

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In his 76 years, Albert Einstein was many things. He was a romantic poet, an avid fisherman, a trained violinist, the inventor of one very fashionable blouse—and, of course, he was also the remarkable genius behind one of the pillars of modern physics, The Theory of General Relativity, which celebrates its 100 year anniversary this month. But sometimes the legend was bigger than the actual man. With the help of the recently released An Einstein Encyclopedia, we separate fact from fiction.

1. THE MYTH: HE WAS A BAD STUDENT.

Though the German-born prodigy’s parents were concerned when he didn’t start speaking until the age of 2, he would go on to use his words (and his numbers) very wisely in the classroom. In fact, he graduated high school near the top of his class. So why do many biographers claim he was such a lousy pupil? There was a confusing change in the grading system at Aargau Cantonal School. (He finished high school at the Swiss academy after leaving his Munich school at age 15 with the help of a doctor’s note citing a “nervous breakdown.”) In the first semester, a “1” was the best possible grade, but in the second semester, the scale flipped and “1” became the lowest mark. Einstein earned ones in mathematics and physics in the first semester and sixes in the second.

He also failed his university entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School—though historians note that Einstein took the exam two years earlier than most students, and was tested on Swiss history, something that the German secondary school he attended wouldn’t have prepped him for. Still, “his performance on the entrance examination for the engineering department was good enough that, had he stayed in Zurich rather than go to Aargau, the physics professor would have allowed him to audit his courses in spite of age,” according to An Einstein Encyclopedia.

2. THE MYTH: HE HAD ASPERGER'S SYNDROME.

The intellectual treasured his solitude and was often characterized as rude and insensitive, and there are many stories of him acting out in school as a child, which is likely what caused some to retrospectively diagnose him with the disorder. But Einstein didn't appear to have difficulty with social interactions or with communicating with others and lacked many of the other symptoms. He traveled through four continents from April 1921 to April 1925 and kept travel diaries detailing all of the people he met and connected with. He also formed close relationships with many physicians, none of whom ever suggested that their friend was on the spectrum in any of their communications. 

3. THE MYTH: HE CHOSE TO BE A VEGETARIAN.

Einstein was plagued with many digestive problems before the age of 50, including stomach ulcers, jaundice, inflammation of the gall bladder, and intestinal pains. Because of his ailments, his doctor advised him not to eat meat. Over time, people began to say he had chosen to become a vegetarian. Though Einstein admitted that he felt guilty on the rare occasions when he did dine on meat and largely agreed with the moral argument for vegetarianism, his dietary restrictions weren’t of his own choosing.

4. THE MYTH: HE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ATOM BOMB.

Though his theories from 1905 impacted the development of the nuclear weapon, which would later be used in World War II, Einstein wasn't directly responsible for the atom bomb. He did sign a famous letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt imploring that the country fast track work on developing nuclear devices in order to stay ahead of Germany (Leó Szilárd actually wrote it), but the committed pacifist didn’t have the appropriate security clearances and wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the Manhattan Project. He wrote in a letter to the editor of Japanese magazine, Kaizō, saying, “I was well aware of the dreadful danger which would threaten mankind were the experiments to prove successful. Yet I felt compelled to take the step because it seemed probable that the Germans might be working on the same problem with every prospect of success.”

5. THE MYTH: HE WAS LEFT-HANDED.

There are plenty of perks to being a leftie, but the Nobel Prize winner didn’t experience any of them. Despite the fact that he is often named as a famous left-handed figure (likely due to the mistaken association between that hand and a sign of genius), he held both his pen and his violin bow in the right hand. In fact, there are several photos where he is pointing and writing on the chalkboard with his right hand, as shown above.

6. THE MYTH: HIS FIRST WIFE SHARED THE CREDIT FOR HIS MOST FAMOUS DISCOVERIES.

Einstein with second wife, Elsa, visiting Egypt in 1921.

There is no documented evidence that Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić directly contributed to his impressive resume beyond listening to his ideas and proofreading his papers. Though Einstein wrote Marić in 1901, “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a triumphant end!” he did not produce the famed theory until four years later. When he left Mileva for his second wife (and cousin) Elsa in 1919, there was no contributor credit to her name.

7. THE MYTH: HE WAS ONLY A THEORIST.

Einstein found enjoyment—and some success—in more than just theoretical physics. He was also an inventor. From 1902 to 1909, the scientist worked in the Swiss Patent Office. In fact, he was often used as an expert witness in patent trials at the time. It may have inspired a lifelong interest in patents. He would go on to apply for about 50 in at least seven countries. The devices included a self-adjusting camera, an electromagnetic sound apparatus, and his most well-known idea: a silent, energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly refrigerator

8. THE MYTH: HE AVOIDED POLITICS.

Einstein was one of the most outspoken scientists of his time. Though he never joined an official political party, he was offered the ceremonial position of presidency in Israel. (He turned down the job.) And he often took unpopular stands and spoke out on behalf of the oppressed. He championed the rights of African Americans, for example, and praised their contributions to American culture. In a speech he delivered at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University in 1946, the physicist called segregation "a disease of white people," vowing, "I do not intend be quiet about it."

9. THE MYTH: HE DIDN’T MAKE ANY SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE AFTER 1925.

Einstein’s best-known biographer, Abraham Pais, noted that the scientist “might as well have gone fishing” rather than continue his physics research after 1925. It is true that Einstein had hit his career high by that point. However, he also significantly added to the research on general relativity, including the first paper on gravitational lensing and his paper on wormholes, up until the 1930s. And his legacy lived on—his assistants would eventually shape some of the most important research groups of the postwar era.

10. THE MYTH: HE WAS ONE OF ONLY 10 OR 12 WHO COULD UNDERSTAND THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY.

Tired of being questioned about this idea, Einstein told the Chicago Daily Tribune in May 1921, “It is absurd. Anyone who has had sufficient training in science can readily understand the theory. There is nothing amazing or mysterious about it. It is very simple to minds trained along that line, and there are many such in the United States.” Today, a number of experts have taken on the challenge of decoding the complex theory and succeeded.

All images courtesy of Getty.  

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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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]

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