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U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Matthew Henson, the Arctic Explorer Who Stood on Top of the World

Original image
U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The year was 1909—roughly three centuries after the Age of Discovery ended and five decades prior to the Space Race. For explorers of the period, the North Pole represented one of the last untrodden frontiers still up for grabs. Robert Peary ventured into the tundra in February of that year, hoping to beat his competitors to the spot. Upon returning to the U.S., Peary was celebrated as the first man to reach world’s northernmost point, but it was his assistant, an African-American man named Matthew Henson, who many experts now believe deserves the distinction.

Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland on August 8, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. His parents—both freeborn sharecroppers—died before they had a chance to see him grow up. Henson found himself orphaned at age 11 and under the care of relatives. With nothing tying him to his home in Washington D.C., at age 13 he set out on his own, trekking 40 miles to Baltimore mostly on foot.

He got his first taste of life on the open ocean as a cabin boy on the Baltimore-based vessel the Katie Hines. The work he did onboard consisted of humble tasks like peeling potatoes, but the ship’s skipper, Captain Childs, saw to it he received a first-class schooling in seamanship. At sea Henson was mentored in math, history, literature, and geography, and at port he was introduced to the cultures of places like Spain, France, North Africa, and China.

Following his voyages on the Katie Hines, Henson eventually returned to Washington D.C., where he accepted a job as a clerk at a hat shop. It was there that he crossed paths with the man who would shape his destiny. Robert Peary met Henson in 1887 as a U.S. Naval officer with fresh dreams of reaching the North Pole. When he entered the shop where Henson worked, looking to sell seal and walrus pelts from a recent expedition to Greenland, it immediately became clear the two were kindred spirits. Peary admired Henson’s experience and enthusiasm, so he hired him to join an upcoming surveying expedition to Nicaragua. Eager to see more of the world, the starry-eyed 21-year-old accepted.

On this trip Henson proved himself an invaluable aide. He used the skills he picked up at sea, like map-making, to help Peary and the crew navigate the Central American jungle over the next two years. At the end of their mission, Henson was among the first men Peary had in mind to accompany him on his next adventure.

After returning to the East Coast—specifically, Philadelphia—just long enough to start a new job as a Navy Yard messenger and marry his first wife, Eva Flint, Henson was preparing to set sail once again. This time the destination was the iced-over tip of Greenland. Robert Peary had grown obsessed with the idea of being the first person to reach the North Pole, and he wasn’t alone. Explorers from the U.S., Italy, and Norway were all clamoring to beat each other in the race to the top of the world.

The team’s initial trip to Greenland was the first of many expeditions into the unforgiving Arctic. With Henson at his side, Peary had a key advantage over his adversaries. Aside from serving as a blacksmith, carpenter, hunter, and dog trainer, Henson was one of the few Arctic explorers and the only member of Peary’s party who took the time to learn the Inuit language. He had a knack for building trust with the local people and quickly adapted to their ways of life. Robert Peary once said of his comrade: "He is a better dog driver and can handle a sledge better than any man living, except some of the best Esquimo [sic] hunters themselves."

It was this rapport with the Inuit and the habits borrowed from their lifestyle that helped Peary and Henson survive in the Arctic for so many years. During that time they seized tons of iron-rich meteorite (not without controversy), mapped Greenland’s ice cap in its entirety, and traveled deeper into the Arctic than any explorer had before them. Unfortunately, Henson’s success up north resulted in the failure of his marriage back home. He married his second wife, Lucy Ross, during a return visit in 1906, but his only son, Anauakaq, was born of an Inuit woman he met during his travels.

After 17 years spent intermittently in the Arctic, there was one goal Peary and Henson had yet to accomplish: setting foot on the North Pole. They launched what would be their eighth and final effort to reach the frozen finish line in the summer of 1908. With the icebreaking vessel the Roosevelt in their command, the crew reached Ellesmere Island at Canada’s northern edge in February 1909. It was the job of 20-odd men to station food and supplies along the route before returning to camp while a smaller group made the full trek to the Pole. That core team included Robert Peary, four Inuits named Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo, and Matthew Henson. "Henson must go all the way," Peary reportedly said while planning the expedition. "I can’t make it there without him."

Matthew Henson (center) and four Inuit guides. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the end, it fell on Henson to lead the party to their target. Peary was incapacitated with frostbitten feet for the final leg of the journey, and Henson filled in for him as he was towed along in a sled. The plan was to let Peary take over at the last minute so he could be the first man to stand at the spot that had occupied his dreams for decades. Unfortunately for him, the team overshot their journey. Not realizing their mistake until it was too late, Henson and two of the Inuit guides arrived at the Pole on April 6, 1909 with Peary still 45 minutes behind them.

When Peary finally caught up, Henson greeted him saying, "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world." This did not sit well with Peary. The two remained on strained terms for the duration of their trip. Henson later wrote: "From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me [...] It nearly broke my heart that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom." By the time the two of them made it back home, one of the most successful partnerships in the history of exploration had disintegrated.

The controversy over who deserved of title of first person to reach the North Pole wasn’t limited to the two men. After returning to the States, they learned that another American, Frederick Cook, claimed to have beat them to the pole a year earlier. The photographic evidence Cook used to back up his assertion was eventually discredited, and in 1911 a Congressional Inquiry led to the official recognition of Peary’s achievement. (Today, Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole is still disputed.)

Robert Peary’s legacy would be cemented in history books from that point forward, but due to his skin color, Matthew Henson’s contributions were largely written out of the story. For a time, he struggled to find enough work to support his family. But though he may not have received all the credit he deserved during his lifetime, his feats didn’t go unrecognized. In 1937, he was made an honorary member of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944, he was awarded a Congressional medal, and he was honored by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower during the 1950s. Henson spent the last chapters of his life working at the U.S. Customs Bureau in New York City.

Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955 at 88 years old. His remains were initially buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but he's since been laid to rest alongside Robert Peary in Arlington National Cemetery.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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science
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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