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M. Weiss/CfA

New "Super-Earth" Exoplanet May Have Water—and Life

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M. Weiss/CfA

A possible new Earth-like world has been found, and it’s giant, according to a study [PDF] published today in Nature. LHS 1140b, an exoplanet a mere 40 light-years away, is 40 percent larger than Earth while orbiting a tiny red dwarf star one-fifth the size of our own. That might not seem like the recipe for “Earth” or “life,” but the planet resides in its star's habitable zone, the slim "Goldilocks" orbit at which water can exist as a stable liquid. It also exhibits characteristics of a rocky world, which is significant: where there’s water and rock, there’s a possibility for life.

The world was discovered using the transit photometry method of exoplanet detection. As a planet crosses in front of a star, the star dims slightly. Think of an annular solar eclipse: When the Moon crosses in front of the Sun but is too far from the Earth to blot out the Sun entirely, the day is dimmed but isn’t plunged into darkness. The same principle applies here, though on a much finer scale. The amount the star dims also reveals its size.

So what makes this exoplanet so special? What about the TRAPPIST-1 worlds we were celebrating last month? That party might have been a bit premature. Scientists have only measured the density of one of those worlds, and turns out: It isn’t rocky. So … maybe none of the others are, either. While they’re certainly Earth-sized and in their star's habitable zone, imagining Earth without rocks is something of a challenge. LHS1140b, though, is rocks for days, and now that scientists know it's there, the plan is to study the hell out of it.

Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author of the study tells mental_floss that the team studying LHS 1140b has been allocated Hubble Space Telescope time to do another transit observation. They’ve also applied for further Hubble time and x-ray telescope time in order to assess the high-energy environment the planet may be experiencing. Here on Earth, they hope also to use both Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and their Chilean collaborators have applied to use three of that country’s Very Large Telescopes. "So, basically, we're hoping to throw everything we have at this planet!" he says.

The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch next year, will really unlock the mysteries of LHS 1140b. "We hope to be able to detect not just that this planet has an atmosphere but also what it's made of. In particular, [James Webb Space Telescope] may be sensitive to carbon dioxide, water, methane, and ozone," he says. The Giant Magellan Telescope and European Extremely Large Telescope, both under construction, might be able to detect molecular oxygen as well, as the strongest features of that molecule exist at more optical wavelengths. "If we can do all of these things, we might have a pretty clear picture about the atmosphere, and what's in it, and hopefully we can even say that's very similar to the Earth's."

Dittmann's Harvard colleague David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study, tells mental_floss that until James Webb launches, there’s much work to do. "First, we need to figure out the ultraviolet emission from the star," he says. "Some red dwarfs have huge amounts of UV light, which can be devastating to the atmosphere, and life! So, we are planning to use the Hubble Space Telescope to learn that. Also, there is one (and only one) good ground-based opportunity to study the planet from Chile this fall, so we are trying to have every large telescope in Chile point at the system on that night. We are calling it Transit Night." That will take place on October 26, 2017.

While ground-based observations won't be as penetrating as what the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to do, they will tell scientists if the atmosphere has, for example, lots of hydrogen and helium ("which would make the atmosphere fluffy and easy to detect," he says) and thus not Earth-like. Once the telescopes in development go online, however, there is even a chance that they can find signs of life. "[The Giant Magellan Telescope] can detect oxygen, which is an atmospheric biosignature gas," he says, though oxygen alone isn't enough. "Maybe, unlike Earth, the oxygen is made by a different process, such as UV light breaking apart water in the atmosphere. The [James Webb Space Telescope] observations will be sensitive to the other molecules—methane, water, carbon dioxide—that would allow us to know whether the oxygen really is produced by life."

LHS 1140b was first detected by Harvard’s MEarth (pronounced "mirth") project, and confirmed by the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher. The planet is thought to be at least five billion years old, and its size and density suggest a dense iron core beneath its rocky surface.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.