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The First Woman in Space: Valentina Tereshkova

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Getty Images

In America, we often hail Sally Ride as the first female astronaut. But the first woman in space was actually a Soviet cosmonaut who beat out 400 applicants to pilot the Vostok 6 spacecraft in 1963—two decades before Ride took her historic spaceflight.

There was nothing in Valentina Tereshkova’s early life that indicated she would become a space pioneer. Born to a farmer and his wife in 1937 in the Yaroslavl region about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, Tereshkova finished school at age 16 and went to work to help support her family.

She seemed destined to follow her mother’s footsteps as a textile factory worker, save for one interest: skydiving. Tereshkova was an avid parachutist who worked her way up to skydiving; by the time she was 22, she was jumping out of the sky pretty regularly.

And then came the space race.

By 1962, the competition to get into orbit had been brewing between the Soviet Union and the United States for about half a decade. The two countries, in an effort to outdo one another in exploring the next frontier of space, had each launched men into space—for the Russians, it was Yuri Gagarin in April 1961; a month later, the Americans successfully launched Alan Shepard into orbit.

During the space race, Russia and the U.S. constantly sought to outdo one another. After putting a man in space, the obvious next step was to launch a woman into space. The USSR’s lead spacecraft designer, Sergey Korolev, is said to have been instrumental in the decision. There are rumors that the USSR knew that the U.S. was planning to send a woman to space and wanted to edge the Americans out.

Inspired by Gagarin's flight, Tereshkova wrote to the Soviet authorities volunteering for any future training program for female cosmonauts. The authorities responded, and in early 1962 she became one of just five women accepted for cosmonaut training. Tereshkova emerged as a prime candidate to make the first spaceflight, although the reasons offered for her selection differ—by some accounts, she was chosen because her family represented workers or because her father was a war hero, although her skydiving skills no doubt played a role. (So did the fact that she wasn't menstruating—women were forbidden from flying while they had their periods.)

On June 16, 1963, Tereshkova took off, eventually circling the globe 48 times over the course of almost three days and cementing her place in history as the first woman to leave Earth’s atmosphere. She performed a series of biological experiments on plants and animals on board; took photos, film, and notes; and monitored various devices tracking both her body and the spacecraft. She also successfully steered the spaceship to orbit the Earth instead of travel away from it, which the capsule was initially doing until Tereshkova figured her way around the glitch.

Accounts differ regarding Tereshkova’s voyage, with much of the coverage steeped in a mixture of sexism and patriotic vitriol. American media didn’t think Tereshkova had earned her stripes: One LIFE story scoffed that the U.S.’s female astronauts were “much better qualified than Valentina” (Tereshkova had only been training for a bit more than a year). The same issue gushed about the “blue-eyed blonde” in a piece provocatively titled: “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier.”

The USSR wasn’t immune to sexism either: A Soviet scientist told a reporter later that Tereshkova was “hysterical” and vomited in panic. But Tereshkova likely got sick thanks to nausea, a common side effect for space travelers.

For all the gender-busting awesomeness Tereshkova engaged in as the first woman in space, it seems she dealt with more obstacles than initially perceived. She kept secret for 30 years the fact that her ship was erroneously designed to ascend but not descend back to Earth, which she was able to fix with a little ingenuity. 

There were also rumblings of sexism in the cosmonaut program, which didn’t sit well with Tereshkova: “On Earth, men and women are taking the same risks,” she later said. “Why shouldn’t we be taking the same risks in space?” She and her fellow female cosmonauts wrote to the Soviet space program head protesting the decision.

Valentina Tereshkova at a press conference in 2013. Image via Getty Images.

Life after Tereshkova’s cosmonaut days was busy. Soon after her flight, she entered the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, eventually earning her honorary doctorate in engineering. She later dove into the political sphere, becoming an influential, powerful member of the Communist regime in the following decade. She also became a decorated stateswoman, and even after the fall of the Soviet Union remained a respected figure.

More recently, Tereshkova has said she still itches for space travel. On her 70th birthday, in 2007, she was invited to celebrate with Vladimir Putin, at which point she volunteered to go on a one-way trip to Mars.

“If I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars,” she said. “This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]