The Art of Repairing and Digitizing a 400-year-old 3D Book

From the BODY WORLDS exhibition to Brain Surgery Live, it’s clear that modern humans are pretty curious about what goes on beneath our skin. But this is hardly a new phenomenon: More than 400 years ago, an intricate lift-the-flap anatomy book called Catoptrum Microcosmicum was a smash hit in Europe.

“Back then, pictures of the body were a lot less frequent, and there wasn’t anything like x-rays,” Steve Novak, head of Archives & Special Collections at Columbia University, tells mental_floss. “This satisfied a very basic curiosity about how the body is formed. And then there’s that pregnant woman in the middle of the first page. In the 17th century, as today, sex sells … and in the 17th century, I think that qualified as sex.”

The book was so popular that it was reprinted again and again, and some copies are still around today. One of those copies lives in the collection of Columbia’s Health Sciences Library, where staff members have recently restored and digitized the fragile book. 

The book, a 1661 edition, came to the library in pretty rough shape. Its parchment cover had stretched, which caused the book to warp. At some point in the last few centuries, someone had spilled a dark liquid onto the pages, rendering some of the text unreadable.

A conservator carefully removed the cover and took the book apart. He then crafted a new cover out of paper and leather—materials common in bookmaking in the 17th century—and hand-stitched the book back together. 

Next came the stain removal, which was accomplished using a device called a suction table. The conservator washed the stained pages with water, then sucked out the moisture before it could spread. 

The paper flaps themselves were quite jumbled, and some were torn. The conservator delicately disentangled them, then applied a thin tissue backing to make them just a little sturdier.

Once the book was clean and sturdy, it went to the library’s reprography department, where expert photographers painstakingly captured every inch of every page. They used tiny brushes and panes of glass to separate the flaps, each of which took quite a long time to photograph. 

“It’s not a matter of just putting it underneath the camera and flipping pages,” digital imaging manager Dave Ortiz explains. “Just to do the three flapped pages took us upward of eight or nine days.” 

Once the photo shoots had ended, the imaging staff compiled a master version of the book, which is now available to the public online. Alexis Hagadorn, head of the library's conservation program, says she's thrilled with the outcome: “It’s really exciting. Because of the conservation treatment and the care with the high-resolution imaging, you can actually see a lot more online than you can working directly from the book. It’s a really perfect example of how conservation and reprography and special collections departments all work together. We have this new technology to bring to bear on much older things, and we’re finding new ways to make them accessible to people who want to see them.”

Steve Novak agrees. The book is a treasure, he says—not only as an object, but also as a window into history. “It’s a wonderful example of popular science writing,” he says, made all the more impressive because it came “… from a time when science was really just getting started.”

To see the book online or download it for your e-reader, visit

Banner image via YouTube.

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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.