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Captain Cook’s Daisy

New York Botanical Garden

This dried-out daisy (Chiliotrichum amelloides Cass.) might not look like much, but it tells the story of one of history’s most ambitious journeys. It was collected by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1769. Though the goal of the ship Cook commanded, the HMS Endeavour, was primarily to document the transit of Venus from Tahiti, the ship also acted like a floating science lab for more than budding astronomers. Banks and Solander boarded the Endeavour in 1768 with an ambitious goal: Document everything they could about the plants they encountered as they circumnavigated the globe.

At every stop, Cook’s crew of botanists conducted one of history’s most incredible scientific studies, braving harsh conditions and an inhospitable landscape to collect specimens of an estimated 100 previously unknown plant families and at least 1000 unknown plant species. (Yes, Botany Bay is named after Cook’s crew of frenetic plant collectors.)

Banks and Solander plucked this daisy in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South American mainland. When they returned to English terra firma in 1771, the pair became instant celebrities. (Sydney Parkinson, the young botanical illustrator who accompanied them on the voyage, tragically died of dysentery on the trip home.) Everyone wanted accounts of the journey and the seemingly untouched landscapes encountered by Cook and his men, but they also became charmed by something else: the flowers, plants, and botanical specimens the explorers had brought home.

Banks was lampooned as “The Botanic Macaroni” for his fashionably foppish embrace of floral collecting, but the moniker didn’t seem to bother him much. He ended up becoming Britain’s preeminent botanist, advising the king on the makeup of the now-famous Kew Gardens and dispatching seemingly countless explorers to the ends of Earth in the name of science.

But Banks’s reputation came at a cost: the fame of Solander, who died young and whose achievements were eventually buried beneath the weight of Banks’s botanic fame. Solander may have had a stronger scientific legacy if the massive Florilegium, a 34-part book featuring over 700 plant drawings and descriptions from Cook’s first voyage, had been printed during his lifetime.

Despite the sad story of Solander and Cook—the latter was famously attacked and killed by Native Hawaiians on his third voyage—the men and their captain helped spark a flower frenzy throughout Europe. Flower collection hadn’t exactly been Cook’s initial goal—the botanical aspect of the expedition was foisted on him as a condition of commanding the journey. Though Cook often differed with the botanists who overran his boat, they seem to have developed an eventual rapport. Fueled by specimens that had never been seen before, the plant obsession they set in motion lived well into the next century and prompted the development of botany as a serious science.

Once the botanists brought their precious specimens back to England, they were dried and pressed. The specimens eventually made their way into collections the world over—a rare remaining glimpse into one of history's greatest botanical adventures. The daisy that helped start it all is tucked into a folder in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, a repository that’s home to nearly 8 million plant specimens. It may be nearly 250 years old, but the dried, pressed flower is expected to bear testimony to a swashbuckling era of scientific exploration for centuries to come.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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