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11 Things You Might Not Know About the Grand Canyon

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Whether you’ve made the trek yourself or seen it on a postcard, the Grand Canyon is one of the most instantly recognizable sights in the United States. But how well do you really know the Colorado River’s most famous handiwork? 

1. IT’S NOT THE WORLD’S DEEPEST CANYON. 

Let’s clear up this misconception right off the bat. The Arizona landmark may well be the world’s grandest canyon, but it’s not the deepest. Agreeing on how to measure the depth of gorges is a surprisingly difficult task, but depending on who you ask, that distinction goes to Peru’s Cotahuasi Canyon, which is over 11,000 feet deep, or Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Gorge. The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is just one mile deep. 

2. IT’S NOT THE DEEPEST CANYON IN THE UNITED STATES, EITHER. 

The Grand Canyon can’t claim the domestic championship: Hells Canyon has been carved by the Snake River along the border of Oregon and Idaho and drops a half a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon. 

3. ITS AGE IS  TOUGH TO PIN DOWN. 

Like measuring depth, figuring out a canyon’s age is not as easy as you might think. Until recently, estimates pegged the Grand Canyon’s age at 6 million years. It turns out that the answer may not be that straightforward, though. In the last decade, controversy has erupted in scientific circles over just how many candles should be on the geologic marvel’s birthday cake. Attempts to analyze the minerals within the canyon led to the conclusion that the canyon may be more like 70 million years old. 

What makes answering what seems like a simple question so difficult? The Grand Canyon may not have been carved in one fell swoop by the Colorado River. Instead, one theory posits that the canyon may have formed in pieces over time, with parts of it dating back as many as 70 million years, but with the connected canyon we know and love today only emerging in the last 6 million years. 

4. THE HOPI DEFINE THE GRAND CANYON AS A GATEWAY TO THE AFTERLIFE. 

Referred to as Öngtupqa in the Hopi language, the Grand Canyon carries great spiritual significance for the Native American tribe that has long inhabited the region. Upon death, a Hopi is believed to pass westward through the sipapuni, or “place of emergence”—a dome of mineral deposits that sits upstream from the union of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River inside the canyon—on his or her journey into the afterlife. 

5. TEMPERATURES DIFFER GREATLY FROM THE TOP TO THE BOTTOM OF THE CANYON. 

A trek from the peak of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, which stands about 8000 feet above sea level, to its bottom a mile down may see a traveler experience temperature swings of more than 25º Fahrenheit. Summer highs in the depths of the gorge can exceed 100ºF, and winter lows at the crest can dip to 0ºF. 

6. THE FIRST EUROPEANS SAW THE CANYON IN 1540. 

After thousands of years of inhabitation by Native American groups, the Grand Canyon welcomed its first European visitor in the 16th century. Aided by Hopi locals, Spanish conquistador García López de Cárdenas led an exploration of the grounds in 1540, even sending three soldiers to explore the canyon’s depths. The trek didn’t last very long: The soldiers were overcome by thirst, possibly because the Hopi intentionally safeguarded their valued Colorado River from the travelers’ reach. 

7. THE SECOND EUROPEAN VISITORS TOOK THEIR TIME RETURNING. 

After this initial contact didn’t reveal any great riches in the area, there was little urgency to return on the part of the Spanish. Europeans didn’t make their second visit until 1776, when Spanish priests Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante happened upon the canyon while attempting to find a route from Santa Fe to their Catholic mission in Monterey, Calif. In the very same year, another Spanish missionary, Francisco Garcés, took in the canyon during a largely unsuccessful attempt to convert the local Havasupai to Christianity.

8. EXPLORERS OF EUROPEAN DESCENT DIDN’T NAVIGATE THE CANYON UNTIL 1869. 

In 1869, seven years after losing his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War, John Wesley Powell led nine men—including a printer for the Rocky Mountain News, an 18-year-old mule driver and bullwhacker, and Powell’s own brother—on a thousand-mile mission down the Colorado River and its tributaries and through the Grand Canyon. Only six members of the team would complete the expedition, but Powell returned in 1871 with congressional backing and an 11-man team that included scientists. This trip produced the first maps of the Colorado River. 

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT USED A LOOPHOLE TO PROTECT THE CANYON. 

Roosevelt needed just one visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903 before deciding that the marvel should be protected. Unfortunately, it was beyond his authority to designate an area as a national park without congressional approval. To sidestep what he predicted would be an uncooperative Congress, Roosevelt took the long way around. In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison had established a Forest Preserve in the area, and so Roosevelt was able to add considerably more protection in 1906 by designating the area as the Grand Canyon Game Preserve by proclamation. Two years later, he declared the area a national monument. The area was safe, but even then, Roosevelt couldn’t get the green light to create the Grand Canyon National Park—formal approval didn’t come until 1919. 

10. THE CANYON WAS HOME TO AN EARLY “INSTANT PHOTO” BUSINESS. 

Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Cobb devoted their lives to photographing natural beauty, and in setting up a studio on the South Rim of the canyon in 1906, they found a savvy business opportunity as well. From their studio at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, the brothers would snap photographs of tourists as they departed for the canyon’s bottom on mules. When the tourists made their way back up to the rim that evening, the brothers would be ready to sell them developed prints documenting their journey. 

11. IT WAS THE SITE OF A GRAND HOAX.

On April 5, 1909, the Arizona Gazette detailed the findings of two archaeologists who claimed to have discovered traces of either an ancient Tibetan or Ancient Egyptian civilization in an underground tunnel network within the Grand Canyon. The story of ancient artifacts like copper and gold urns and mummified bodies discovered by two affiliates of the Smithsonian caused quite a stir, but it unraveled quickly. The Smithsonian denied any knowledge of the pair of scientists, and subsequent searches failed to uncover the “nearly inaccessible” cavern the (possibly fictitious) duo claimed to have found. Despite this lack of evidence, the belief that the Smithsonian actually found and covered up this cave of wonder remains persistent among conspiracy theorists.

All images courtesy of iStock

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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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