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8 Words You Might Not Know Were Named for Scientists

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you know even a small amount of any Romance language, many English words have relatively obvious etymological backgrounds. But the paths to their origins aren't always so clear when words are eponyms—coined from people's names—and scientists are very often the culprits in these cases. Here are some words you might not know were eponyms, and whose scientific namesakes have been hiding in plain sight.

1. VOLT

The unit that measures electric potential is named after Count Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist (pictured above) who invented the electrical battery, known as the voltaic pile, in 1800. The volt unit of measurement wasn’t approved by the International Electrical Congress until 1880, however, long after Volta had died. His memory also stuck around in yet another way, at least in Italy: Before the country switched over to the euro, he appeared on the 10,000-lira note.

2. GALVANIZE

Portrait of Luigi Galvani via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Speaking of Volta: He was inspired (or perhaps egged on) in his research by his rival and contemporary physicist Luigi Galvani, who in the 1780s figured out that you can shock dead frogs and make their muscles twitch (he called his discovery "animal electricity"). A variety of words related to electricity were coined in Galvani's honor, but today the most commonly used in everyday speech is galvanize, meaning to excite someone or something into action. 

3. GUILLOTINE

Although the guillotine’s prototype was built by French doctor Antoine Louis and German engineer (and harpsichord maker) Tobias Schmidt, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin just, well, really liked it. The idea of a more humane killing machine so impressed the French Revolution-era anatomy professor that he stood before France’s National Assembly in 1789 to recommend it as a much less painful method of execution than the sword, axe, or breaking wheel. The Assembly laughed at him at first, but the lethal device—though first known as a Louison or Louisette (after Dr. Louis)—eventually became an eponym in Guillotin’s honor.

4. MACADAMIA

John Macadam via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Scottish-born John Macadam was a well-respected chemist and politician in his adopted country of Australia, but he didn’t really have anything to do with the indigenous nut that bears his name.

Macadamias were originally called jindilli or gyndl by aboriginal people in Australia, among other names, but they weren’t named or even “discovered” by Europeans—ultimately via explorer Allan Cunningham—until 1828. German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt collected the first specimens in 1843, but it still took until 1858 for German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller to cook up a genus name for the plant. He called it Macadamia after his buddy John, esteemed scientist and secretary to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria.

5. ALGORITHM

Medieval Muslim astronomer and mathematician Muḥammad al-Khwārizmī has a few different words named after him, in a few different languages, but the one you’re most familiar with is probably algorithm. (The Latinized version of his surname was Algorismus.) He's also considered one of the fathers of algebra, after the title of his most famous book, Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr waʾl-muqābala (“The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”)—al-jabr means "reunion of broken parts."

6. BAUD

Émile Baudot, engraving by A. Delzers, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

If you remember calling BBSes with your 2400-baud (or slower) dial-up modem in the ’90s, this word may ring a bell (or a carrier scream?). A baud measures symbols transmitted per second that are transmitted over a telecommunications link, and the term is an abbreviation of French engineer Émile Baudot’s name. He invented the Baudot code—a predecessor of ASCII—that was widely used in telegraphy in the late 19th and very early 20th century.

7. NICOTINE

When French scholar Jean Nicot was appointed as ambassador to Portugal, he thought he’d impress the French court big time when he brought back some tobacco plants from a 1559 trip to Lisbon. (He’d originally picked them up from Portuguese humanist philosopher Damião de Góis, who’d hyped them as “miraculous.”) Back in France, Nicot made an ointment from the plant and successfully treated a patient’s tumor with it, after which he was convinced that tobacco would heal any ailment from gout to cancer. He next presented some tobacco leaves to French queen Catherine de Medici, touting it as a cure for her headaches, and the plant thereafter became popular among European nobility in the form of snuff. Two centuries later, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus named the genus of cultivated tobacco Nicotiana after Jean, and today, his name shows up in the addictive stimulant found in the nefarious nightshade as well.

8. DECIBEL

Yes, he invented the phone, but Scottish-American engineer Alexander Graham Bell is responsible for a whole list of other cool stuff too, including an automated wheat-husker (which he built at age 12!), an audiometer to evaluate how well a person can hear, an early metal detector (in emergency response to the shooting of President Garfield), an improved version of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, and … the word bel, a unit that expresses the ratio of two values, usually of power or intensity. Taken from AGB’s last name, of course, bels are pretty big, and the word isn’t used often. As such, you may be more familiar with the word that describes a tenth of a bel: decibel.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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