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Picture Book Women in Science Captures Little-Known Stories of Pioneers

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If you like science, or books, or art, or history, we’ve got a title for you: illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky’s picture book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. mental_floss talked to Ignotofsky about her history, her heroes, and her hopes for our planet’s future.

Have you always been passionate about science?

Pretty much. My dad has a master’s degree in biochemistry and my mom worked as a computer programmer, so there was always science going on in our house. My two favorite subjects in school were science and art.

How did you get started as an artist?

There’s also a reason my work is so heavily illustrated: I was a very weak reader at first. It was only through illustrated books that I really learned to read and gained my love of learning. I began to draw the information so I could actually understand it. Later on in college, I was learning so much about design and organizing information that, when I was left to my own devices, all I wanted to do was make diagrams of the things that interested me.

Women’s accomplishments have historically been overlooked or erased. Was it hard to find 50 women to feature in your book?

Not at all. It was actually hard to narrow them down! I could write a whole second book with 50 more women who made amazing discoveries. There’s this assumption that just because we don’t know their names, women have not been key players in the field. And that assumption is so detrimental. It gets into the hearts and minds of young boys and girls who want to get into STEM and it creates less opportunities for women.

Who do you think should read Women in Science?

This book is for people of all ages. There are adults who need to know this information just as much as kids do. But my dream is that a bunch of young girls will read this book, then grow up and cure cancer. That’s the fantasy.

If you could speak directly to STEM-loving* kids, what would you tell them?

Follow your passions. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re incapable of doing anything, and look at all these incredible role models who came before you. Feel empowered, take risks, and contribute. I think a lot of young girls feel shy about taking their place as leaders in STEM fields. My hope is that seeing these women who have led in the past will help girls feel more confident, like ‘Not only do I deserve this, but I’m going to take it.’

What would you tell their parents?

If your kid is digging in the dirt and looking at worms, encourage that. Send them to science camp. Buy them good books. No matter what your child’s passion is, whether they want to be a dancer or a scientist or an artist, it’s best to nurture what they want to do the most. That’ll make them proud and powerful. Don’t limit a child’s imagination with what you expect them to be.

In your opinion, what are the greatest obstacles facing women in STEM fields today?

There are so many. Just getting hired, for starters. Another challenge is that, in all fields, women are seen as only able to take on one role at a time. You’re a mother, you’re a star, you’re a smart girl, or you’re pretty. The truth is that you can be all of those things at the same time. Then there’s the lack of funding and opportunities for women due to the idea that science is not a place for women. But through these stories and all the women working there now, you can see that’s not true. Women have as much of a place in these fields as men do, and they succeed and soar in them.

Do you have a science hero?

One of my favorite stories is Katherine Johnson. She was an African-American woman growing up during the Civil Rights movement. She got a job at NASA, at a time when women were only seen as female computers, meaning that they just crunched the numbers for the engineers. But she just invited herself into meetings. They tried to keep her out, and she said, ‘Is it against the law for me to be in these meetings?’ and they were like, ‘Oh. No. I guess not.’ She got very involved and started educating herself and became a lead on solving equations to get the space shuttles from Earth to the Moon. She calculated the flight paths for one of the first manned missions into space, then the Apollo missions. Due to her, the astronauts were able to get to the moon and back safely.

It’s amazing how far she came just by not taking “no” for an answer and speaking her mind, and what an asset she was to such a pivotal moment in American history.

Why do you think it’s so important to talk about these women?

The most important way to fight gender bias is to share stories of amazing women with boys and girls. Statistics and just being told that things are unfair may not be enough; people need to feel an emotional connection and hear stories to realize that there are injustices in this world, and to stand up and do something about them.

Many of these women have changed the way that we understand our world forever, but we don’t know about them. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are more household names than Grace Hopper, who invented coding. When we don’t tell these stories, we allow these inequalities and stereotypes to continue.

Women have more power than we ever had in human history, but we still have a lot to fight for. We’re 50 percent of the population. This is brain power we can’t ignore.

*STEM stands for the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

All images reprinted with permission from Women in Science© 2016 by Rachel Ignotofsky. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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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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