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MIT Research in the News

MIT scientists ain’t afraid of no ghost

Several MIT researchers had a hand in boosting the "geek cred" of characters in this summer’s Ghostbusters reboot. Physics faculty members Janet Conrad and Lindley Winslow, along with former postdoc James Maxwell, lent expertise and props to the set — including actual books, posters, and models from Conrad’s office and "a mess of wires and magnets and lasers" from Maxwell’s lab. Winslow, who told MIT News she "probably put in too much time" working on the film, wrote a series of physics equations that appear in a classroom scene with Kristin Wiig’s character. "They wanted it to be authentic," Winslow told Wired magazine, "right up to the point when the ghosts show up.""

Why women leave engineering

Studies show that engineering is the most gender-segregated of all science and technology fields, from college classes to the workplace. Explanations for this tend to focus on a lack of women mentors and career demands that are in conflict with family life. MIT sociologist and anthropologist Susan Silbey and colleagues offer some additional explanations in a recently published study: Women engineering students can feel marginalized because of "everyday sexism" encountered during internships or team-based educational activities. In turn, women "develop less confidence that they will 'fit' into the culture of engineering," the researchers write in their paper.

A cheap, fast test for the Zika virus

Researchers at MIT and other universities have developed a cheap, fast test to diagnose the Zika virus, which is spread by infected mosquitoes and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. The test involves sensors embedded in paper that can detect a particular genetic sequence found in Zika. If the sequence is present in a person’s blood, urine, or saliva, the paper changes color within hours. "We have a system that could be widely distributed and used in the field with low cost and very few resources," said lead researcher James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), in a story by MIT News. Other MIT researchers involved include Lee Gehrke, the Hermann L.F. von Helmholtz Professor in IMES.

Why Only Us? New book co-written by Noam Chomsky explores the evolution of language

Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist and co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, once said he was confused about language because humans didn’t need it. People, he said, could get by with a brain the size of an ape. So why do we have it? Linguist Noam Chomsky and computer scientist Robert Berwick explore this puzzle in their new book, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, published this month by the MIT Press. The book looks at what language is, how and where it arose, and what purpose it may have played — why is it a useful trait?

MIT Libraries launch gravitational wave resource guide

On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) measured gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes, kicking off a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy. This was the first direct measurement of gravitational waves — ripples in space-time that Albert Einstein predicted 100 years ago in his general theory of relativity. Linked below is an annotated collection of technical reports, peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, and theses freely available in the DSpace@MIT repository that describe work done at MIT in this field, from the earliest science to post-detection research.

Dean Ortiz to leave MIT, start new university

MIT’s dean for graduate education is leaving the Institute to start a new nonprofit university focused on projects over lectures and large, open labs over classrooms. Christine Ortiz, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering, told the Chronicle of Higher Education this week that she’s eager to reshape what a university can be by focusing on modern needs and using today’s technology."We’ll have a core that’s project-based learning, but where students can have a really deep, integrative longer-term project rather than shorter projects. And then all of the knowledge acquisition would be moved virtually," she said in the interview.

Innovators over 70

MIT Technology Review has long celebrated innovators under 35 in an annual issue. This year, in addition to the young honorees, the magazine features Seven over 70. “Older people are, of course, just as capable of new thinking as the young,” writes editor Jason Pontin. Two of the seven innovators are MIT Institute Professors emeriti: philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, and nuclear engineer Sidney Yip. Having authored hundreds of papers, Yip continues to publish. A recent article he co-wrote offers a new approach to making strong concrete that produces fewer carbon emissions than current methods.

Study shows new cheating method in online courses

Researchers at MIT and Harvard have discovered a new way to cheat in massive open online courses that “holds the potential to render the MOOC certificate valueless as an academic credential.” With colleagues, Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and physics and MIT’s senior associate dean of digital learning, analyzed data from nearly two million course participants in 115 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT. They found that certificate earners in 69 courses used a cheating strategy that involves making multiple profiles, allowing users to acquire course certification in less than an hour. The researchers describe so-called CAMEO cheating (copying answers using multiple existences online) and outline some prevention strategies in a working paper published on arXiv last week.

Comedian Ansari gets insights from MIT

While researching his book about romance in the digital era, the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari “applied rigor and seriousness” to the subject: With sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Ansari conducted focus groups, set up a discussion forum, and consulted academic studies. One of the experts he interviewed is MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, who in 2012 published a book on gambling in the digital era and the allure of slot machines. Writes Ansari, “Schull drew an analogy between slot machines and texting, since both generate the expectation of a quick reply. ‘When you’re texting with someone you’re attracted to, someone you don’t really know yet, it’s like playing a slot machine: There’s a lot of uncertainty, anticipation, and anxiety. Your whole system is primed to receive a message back.'”