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NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (NASA Goddard)

Look Up! Jupiter Is Close, Bright, and Showing Its Stripes

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NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (NASA Goddard)

Look up tonight and you’ll see a big, bright, beautiful spot of light that looks like it would be perfect for taking you to Neverland. DO NOT FOLLOW IT. It is not the “second star to the right.” It’s not even a star. Follow it and you will be killed by a massive radiation belt that surrounds it. Reach it and you will be ripped apart by its intense gravity. And if your spaceship survives all of that (it won’t), you will be obliterated when you reach its liquid metallic hydrogen core. What you are seeing tonight is the planet Jupiter, and tonight it is as close to the Earth as it’s going to get this year. So what is going on up there?

Tonight Jupiter is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, or “at opposition.” Because these objects are in a line—Sun, Earth, Jupiter—the disc we see is fully lit by direct sunlight. Conversely, were you to stand on the surface of Jupiter (you can’t because it doesn’t have one), Earth would seem totally black. You might be wondering whether the Earth’s shadow will cause a Jovian eclipse, and the answer is no. Tiny Earth’s shadow could no more blot out Jupiter than a fly could block the bat signal. During opposition this year, Jupiter will be a mere 414 million miles away from us. Everyone be on your best behavior.

If you have a telescope, tonight you are in for a treat. If the light pollution in your area is at a minimum, your skies are clear, and if you give your eyes a good 45 minutes or so to adjust to the darkness, when you point your glass at Jupiter and focus, you’re going to see some magical things. First: its beautiful, swirling, colorful bands of clouds. Jupiter is all clouds all the time, and not like Venus—a smudge of basically the same color from pole to pole. Rather, Jupiter is characterized by stark and contrasting parallel bands of clouds. Brown stripes and white stripes and rust stripes and tan stripes. They’re easy, relatively speaking, to discern with a telescope.

To be clear: What you will see from your backyard is not going to look like it was taken by Hubble, as the gorgeous portrait above was just a few days ago. When you look through the eyepiece, Jupiter isn’t suddenly going to look like the Moon. You’re going to have to work at this and really set yourself to the task of seeing the details. But once you succeed, you’ll know it immediately.

After you’ve experienced the wonder of our place in the cosmos, it’s time to move on to step 2: the Galilean moons, named for the guy who discovered them. Though Jupiter has about 67 known moons, most of them are very small. When Galileo set his telescope to the study of Jupiter in 1610, he noticed three “fixed stars” in a line through that planet. He later noticed that one of them vanished, and later reappeared. He then found a fourth. What he realized he was seeing were moons orbiting a planet, which annihilated the notion that all bodies in space must orbit the Earth. (This did not go over well with the Church, either, though in truth Galileo was obnoxious about the whole thing, and his later house arrest had as much to do with that as anything else.) The moons he saw were Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto.

You should be able to see the moons even with a powerful set of binoculars; look for pinpricks in a line through Jupiter, just as Galileo saw. Once you check that box, it’s on to the next challenge: finding the famous Giant Red Spot. You’ll need a more powerful telescope for this, but the secret to finding the Giant Red Spot on Jupiter is to look closely at Jupiter for a giant red spot. How giant is it? Twice-as-large-as-the-Earth giant.

The Eeyore in you is probably wondering what you can do if it rains tonight, or if clouds roll in and settle for a spell. Good news! Starting at 4:30 EDT, Slooh will have a Jupiter livestream, during which astronomers will explain what’s going on up there. The livestream will also feature views from remote telescopes, giving you some pretty wondrous images without the trouble of being in nature or forcing your poor, weary pupils to expand and adjust to the unpleasantness of darkness. If all that is still too much for you, here are the images of Jupiter taken by the Galileo spacecraft. You could also watch this short NASA video about all the footage Hubble has captured over the years of Jupiter and its moons.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]