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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.'”

Tackling diversity in philosophy

There has long been a push to increase diversity in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. And for good reason: women and minorities have been underrepresented in these areas for decades. But there are gaps in other disciplines. According to MIT philosophy professor Sally Haslanger, as recently as five years ago less than 30 percent of PhD graduates in philosophy were women. This was lower than the number of women doctorates in math, chemistry, and economics. And the percentage is worse for racial and ethnic minorities.

“The overall philosophical profession, just like society at large, is still very much dominated by straight, white, cisgendered [not transgender], able-bodied, middle-class men,” said Matthias Jenny, a philosophy graduate student at MIT.

Jenny, along with two other grad students, has partnered with the University of Massachusetts-Boston to run a weeklong program in August at MIT called Philosophy in an Inclusive Key (PIKSI-Boston). The goal is to encourage undergraduates from underrepresented groups to consider an academic career in philosophy. Haslanger has helped the students with funding and other support.

MIT places 6th in DARPA robot finals

Researchers from MIT placed sixth out of two dozen teams in the international DARPA Robotics Challenge finals last week. Humanoid challengers in the Defense Department’s “robot Olympics” had to complete eight tasks related to helping people in disaster zones, including walking on rubble, climbing stairs and ladders, driving alone, and using tools. The winners, a team from Daejeon, Korea, took home $2 million.

“This is, without a doubt, the most ambitious project that any of us have ever undertaken,” said Russ Tedrake, an associate professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab who led MIT’s team. “From perception to motion-planning to manipulation, the breadth and depth of challenges have forced us to think creatively, program nimbly — and sleep sporadically.”

DARPA launched the robotics challenge in response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

MIT students Hack to the Future

Emmett “Doc” Brown was certainly clever: he made the world’s first time machine out of a gull-winged sports car. But he was also fictional. Thirty years after Brown’s DeLorean traveled to the past in the film Back to the Future, MIT undergraduates showcased their very real engineering skills by battling each other in “Hack to the Future,” an homage to the movies and the theme for this year’s 2.007 Robot Competition. (It’s apt timing; in the movie’s first sequel, Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to 2015, where they find that skateboards hover in the air and sneakers tie themselves.)

Last week, hundreds of spectators cheered on finalists in the robot competition, the culmination of a semester-long class in which mechanical engineering students designed, built, and tested their creations. Robots had to complete tasks involving iconic Back to the Future items like the DeLorean, a clock tower, and a flux capacitor. The winning robot, by sophomore Allison Edwards, was “very steady and reliable,” said mechanical engineering associate professor Sangbae Kim, who instructs the class with colleague Amos Winter. Kim and Winter watched the competition dressed as the films’ protagonists, Marty McFly and Doc Brown.

A unique neuroanatomy lesson

Ever wonder which areas of your brain “turn on” when you see faces or think about other people’s thoughts? Using a scanning method called fMRI, researchers like MIT neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher can pinpoint where brain cells carry out these and other mental functions.

Such digital images are powerful, but Kanwisher, in a recent installment of her video series “Nancy’s Brain Talks,” offers more. “It’s kind of hard to tell [where these particular brain regions are] with all this damn hair in the way,” she says, and proceeds to shave herself bald. A “scalp neuro-artist” (graduate student Rosa Lafer-Sousa) then draws a pizza-sized cortex on her head, coloring in the regions that process language, bodies, and places.

With the help of fMRI, researchers like Kanwisher will soon learn whether there are special brain circuits for hearing the sounds of speech or appreciating a melody. “It’s a super exciting time to be investigating the human mind and brain,” she says in the video. “Even if you don’t shave your head.”

MIT launches Institute for Data, Systems, & Society

Last week, the deans of MIT’s five Schools announced a new Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), which will launch in July and be led by Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor Munther Dahleh. IDSS will bring together social science and data science researchers and students to explore issues in energy, transportation, social networks, health care, and financial systems.

“IDSS will allow the deep, original thinking about the physical universe that is done by our scientists and engineers to come together with the rigorous work of MIT’s great social scientists and economists,” said Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

IDSS initiatives include an undergraduate statistics minor and an MIT center on statistics.

Stonebraker wins computing "Nobel"

Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory researcher Michael Stonebraker was awarded the “Nobel Prize of computing” last month for his research in database management systems. Stonebraker won the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award for inventing “many of the concepts that are used in almost all modern database systems … and [founding] numerous companies successfully commercializing his pioneering database technology work.” The “database prodigy” has made many of his systems open source, including the popular PostgreSQL.

“Michael Stonebraker’s work is an integral part of how business gets done today,” said ACM President Alexander L. Wolf.

Preschoolers learn programming

MIT researchers are developing a system in which children as young as four can program a socially interactive robot so it reacts to stimuli. The Dragonbot, built by Media Lab professor Cynthia Breazeal and colleagues in MIT’s Personal Robots Group, is equipped with audio and visual sensors and a speech synthesizer, and can show different expressions on its video-screen face. Children use stickers with various icons on them in different shapes and colors to make rules for the robot to follow.

“Our early observations hold promise that young children are highly engaged with and can derive educational benefit from using the social robot toolkit,” the authors write in a paper presented earlier this month at the Association for Computing Machinery and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

MIT's influence on US economics

In his New York Times blog last week, economist and MIT alum Paul Krugman writes about the “triumph” of MIT’s economics department as described in the 2014 book MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, whose coauthors include MIT professor Peter Temin.

The book explores how economics in the United States became more math-focused after World War II, in part led by MIT economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson, but it stops around 1970. Krugman argues for the importance of the decade that followed, with graduates like Ben Bernanke, MIT professor Olivier Blanchard, and others, including himself. (Krugman won the Nobel Prize in 2008.) “[R]ight now a remarkable number of the professional economists who either play important roles in making policy or appear to have influence on the discussion got their Ph.Ds from MIT in the second half of the 1970s,” he writes.

How global warming can worsen snowfalls

In the last month, Boston has set a string of records: Most snowfall in the city in a 30-day period (90.2 inches); deepest snow in a day (37 inches); fastest six-foot snowfall (in 18 days, crushing the previous record of 45 days). The list is long. Civic pride in the achievements has run rather short.

What happened to the notion that climate change will mean more warmth and less snow?

"In some regions, fairly cold regions, you could have a decrease in the average snowfall in a year, but actually an intensification of the snowfall extremes,” atmospheric science professor Paul O’Gorman told the Boston Globe earlier this month, explaining research he published last summer.

O’Gorman cautions that it’s not easy to link global temperature changes to extreme snowfall. But, he told the Globe, Boston’s midwinter temperatures are already close to the "optimal range” for heavy snowfall, and changes in the position of storm tracks or an increase of water vapor in the atmosphere—both the result of global warming—could make the storms more frequent.

Does church attendance cause people to vote?

In a paper published last month, researchers including MIT economist Jonathan Gruber use the repeal of Sunday shopping (or "blue”) laws in various states to determine that church attendance "may have a significant causal effect” on voter turnout in elections. They find that the repeal of blue laws, which restrict Sunday retail activity, caused a 5 percent decrease in church attendance; this in turn led to a 1 percent fall in participation at the voting booth.

Previous work has shown that churchgoers are 10 to 15 percent more likely to vote, but these studies reveal associations rather than causal effects. Gruber and colleagues seek to press further. As they note in the paper, "One promising strategy for doing so is to find changes in the environment which impact religious participation but not other relevant behaviors, and then to trace through the effects on other aspects of life, such as political participation. The repeal of the blue laws provides an example of such a change.”

The work could have implications for further evaluating the effects of public policies on religious organizations.

What our sewage says about us

This month, MIT researchers and local public health officials will gather and analyze waste from Cambridge sewers in search of insights into the health of city dwellers. Members of the "Underworlds” project, led by architect Carlo Ratti of the Senseable City Lab and bioengineering professor Eric Alm, will screen samples for viruses like the flu, bacteria like those that cause cholera, and biochemical flags for drugs and other compounds.

"Sewage is really an unexploited source of rich information about human activities,” Alm told the Boston Globe.

The researchers have a $4 million grant through the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment and plan to use the initial samples to develop a software program that will help analyze data. One goal is to use sewage data to help predict epidemics.

Murray receives award from Queen Elizabeth

Entrepreneurship professor Fiona Murray, the Sloan School of Management’s associate dean for innovation, has been named a Commander in the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Murray is cited for her work to "improve the UK’s entrepreneurial community, which has led to improved trade and investment opportunities between the UK and USA.” Read more about Murray’s work in a 2013 interview with the MIT News.

Longtime anthropologist retires from MIT

Jean Jackson, one of the earliest members of MIT’s Anthropology program and a founding member of the Women’s and Gender Studies program (formerly Women’s Studies), will retire this spring after 42 years as a faculty member. Jackson has done fieldwork in Mexico, Guatemala, and, for more than 45 years, Colombia. She’s written about kinship and marriage, anthropological linguistics, missionaries, and Colombia’s indigenous rights movement, among other topics. She’s now working on a book about the last two decades of her fieldwork, chronicling changes in indigenous activism in Colombia.

Over the years, Jackson has helped build a tight-knit community with her Anthropology colleagues. "She thinks ethically and acts ethically at every scale, from the global geopolitical to the very interpersonal politics of the department. She communicates through action that we’re all in it together,” Anthropology program head Stefan Helmreich told the MIT News. One of Jackson’s points of pride: "Everyone we have hired has received tenure.”

Adventures in product design

This week, dozens of MIT undergraduates showed off their work in a semester-end presentation for Product Engineering Processes, a class led by professor of mechanical engineering and engineering systems David Wallace. The theme of this year’s course was "Adventure,” and the eight teams built prototypes of devices for skiers, cyclists, skateboarders, musicians, parents, and amputees. Though the audience at Kresge Auditorium scored each presentation, Wallace said the main point of the evaluations was to help students improve their designs. "It’s not a competition; this is a learning adventure,” he said.

Waves as scientific & cultural things

This fall, MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich gave the prestigious Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture at the University of Rochester. Helmreich, whose 2009 award-winning book Alien Ocean describes marine biologists studying deep-sea microbes, spoke about waves—in the water and elsewhere—and how scientists and others use the notion of a "wave” to describe many disparate phenomena.

"How do cardiologists tracking waves of electrical potential in the heart draw inspiration from research in physics? How has the image of the wave migrated into social theory, making it possible to speak of waves of opinion, of revolution, of immigration, of innovation? The cultural work of analogy in the sciences — natural and social both — fascinates me,” Helmreich told the MIT News last week.

AeroAstro turns 100

Last week, MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics celebrated its 100th anniversary with a three-day Centennial Symposium. The events included a panel with nine astronauts, all MIT alumni, and a talk by inventor Elon Musk, cofounder of the company SpaceX, which has built several rockets and whose goal is to fly people to other planets, like Mars. Sending more humans into space was one of the themes of the celebration.

The AeroAstro department has been at the forefront of aerospace innovation since it started the country’s first aeronautical engineering course in 1914. In 1961, for example, members of the MIT Instrumentation Lab (now the Draper Lab) developed the computer systems for the Apollo program, which made it possible for Neil Armstrong and MIT alumnus Buzz Aldrin to walk on the moon in 1969.

"[Apollo] became an icon of what we can accomplish through technology,” Ian Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, told the MIT Spectrum.

As the aero-astro field has grown to include the study of unmanned aircraft, flexible spaces suits, and small satellites, MIT’s department is more popular than ever. "We’re seeing a 50% increase in our enrollment in the last two years,” said AeroAstro Department Head Jaime Peraire.

Autism as a disorder of prediction

In a paper published this month, MIT researchers suggest that many of the varied symptoms that characterize autism may be explained by a difficulty with making predictions. The ability to predict is fundamental to tasks as diverse as adjusting to sensory stimuli and inferring other’s mental states based on the context. When prediction is compromised, a person lives in a "seemingly ‘magical’ world wherein events occur unexpectedly and without cause,” write the authors, who include professors Pawan Sinha and Richard Held from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Impaired predictive skills can make the world feel overwhelming and may lead to some of the behaviors linked to autism, such as repetitive behavior or difficulty gauging social situations.

In devising their hypothesis, the researchers reviewed more than 100 studies and accounts of autism over more than three decades, with the goal of finding a common and coherent basis for the disorder. A new theory of autism could help researchers design to more effective therapies to treat it.

"At the moment, the treatments that have been developed are driven by the end symptoms. We’re suggesting that the deeper issue is a predictive difficulty, which may, therefore, be a better target for interventions,” says Sinha.

Study shows "substantial learning" in MOOC

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, appear to be thriving. Want to hear about the "violent universe” from faculty at the Australian National University? Or take an introductory class on the music business from the renowned Berklee College of Music? These and hundreds of other courses have been offered on platforms like edX, Coursera, or Udacity in the two-and-a-half years since edX ran one of the first MOOCs out of MIT. Enticed by personal or professional edification, as well as the by the cost (free), thousands of people worldwide have signed up for online classes.

But are MOOC students learning anything?

This question has been little explored in the online teaching arena. Now, researchers including MIT physics professor David Pritchard, have published a study showing "substantial learning” in an edX MOOC. Using pretest and posttest questions, as well as analyzing homework and test results throughout the course, the researchers found that online students improved as well as or better than those in previously studied traditional classes.

Bhatia wins Lemelson-MIT Prize

Biomedical engineer and professor Sangeeta Bhatia has been awarded the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize, worth $500,000, which goes to mid-career inventors with a commitment to mentoring others and bettering the world with their work. Bhatia was cited for building "tiny technologies” in medicine that address complex problems in areas like drug toxicity, tissue regeneration, cancer therapeutics, and infectious disease. Among her inventions is a paper urine test for detecting cancer that has been adapted for use in developing areas.

Ebola outbreak linked to funeral

In a study published last week, researchers including MIT Biology professor Eric Lander show that this year’s explosive Ebola outbreak in West Africa possibly stemmed from the burial of a traditional healer at which 14 women were infected. Scientists sequenced the Ebola virus from 78 patients treated in Sierra Leone and found that the virus for all 78 could be traced to funeral guests. They also determined that the current Ebola strain is genetically distinct from a previous strain circulating elsewhere in Africa. This information could help scientists and public health officials determine which diagnostic tests and drugs may be most effective on the infection. Five authors on the study, all staff members at a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, died of Ebola before the paper was published.

Report on the future of MIT education

This week, MIT President Rafael Reif released the final report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, which "marks the beginning of an exciting new period of educational experimentation at MIT,” he wrote in a letter to the community.

Among other things, the report addresses MIT’s role in MOOCs, or massive open online courses, and suggests that MIT consider offering different levels of certification for students enrolled in classes through MITx and edX. It also recommends increasing the Institute’s undergraduate population or allowing students to complete their degrees in fewer than four years. The Task Force has been chaired by two faculty members: Karen Willcox, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Sanjay Sarma, a professor of engineering who is also MIT’s director of digital learning.

Reader for the visually impaired

Researchers in the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group have built a prototype of a device that helps visually impaired people read printed text. The FingerReader, developed by graduate student Roy Shilkrot and professor Pattie Maes, among others, sits like a ring on a user’s finger and scans words via a built-in camera as the user points to them. Software identifies the words and translates them into an audio track. The FingerReader also alerts users if their finger veers away from a line of text.

Though the FingerReader isn’t on the market, the researchers say they’re looking into this option. As Maes recently told the Associated Press, the FingerReader is "a lot more flexible, a lot more immediate than any solution that they have right now.”

Robotics expert Seth Teller dies

Seth Teller, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and head of the Robotics, Vision, and Sensor Networks group, died last week at the age of 50. In a message to the EECS community, several of Teller’s colleagues wrote: "There can be no doubt of the magnitude of the loss we face on both a personal and professional level. Seth’s outstanding contributions as a researcher, teacher, mentor, and colleague set a standard that has inspired many of us. He was a generous, warm person whose passion for his work was contagious. He had a unique ability to envision new approaches to problems, then assemble, motivate, and guide large research teams to accomplish things far beyond what they thought possible.”

Teller worked in a wide range of fields, including robotics, vision, graphics, and human-computer interfaces. He recently led the MIT team that will compete in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, the goal of which is to develop robots that can help humans in disaster zones. He was also a leader of MIT’s Fifth Sense Project, whose researchers develop wearable devices to assist blind and low-vision people.

The cost of patent trolls

A new study by a Sloan researcher suggests that the recent increase of so-called "patent trolls”—companies that do little more than sue others over patent rights—has resulted in a huge loss of entrepreneurial activity in the United States. The study, by marketing professor Catherine Tucker, correlates patent litigation and venture capital (VC) investment using data from 1995 to 2012. The "evidence suggests that more lawsuits can distract management from developing new and innovative products, and may cause them to ignore products targeted by lawsuits, in addition to the more obvious litigation costs,” she writes. The paper says that VC investment would have been more than $21 billion higher over five years if not for lawsuits brought over patents by frequent litigators.

Anand wins 2014 Drucker Medal

Mechanical engineering professor Lallit Anand has won the 2014 Daniel C. Drucker Medal, awarded by the Applied Mechanics Division of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The medal is one of the highest distinctions a mechanician can achieve. Anand was cited for his "seminal contributions to the formulation of constitutive theories for the plastic response of a variety of engineering solids, including polycrystalline metals, metallic glasses, glassy polymers, and granular materials.”

Storms peaking further from tropics

A new study coauthored by an MIT faculty member shows that powerful tropical storms are peaking in intensity further away from the equator. The migration of these cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons is significant in part because residents and infrastructure where the storms now make landfall may be unprepared for them and thus in more danger. As well, the authors write, these cyclones "have an important role in maintaining regional water resources, and a poleward migration of storm tracks could threaten potable water supplies in some regions while increasing flooding events in others.”

While the paper makes a link between the storms’ shift and global warming, coauthor Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science in the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says that researchers are continuing to examine this. Tropical winds have also expanded towards the poles in recent years. And, Emanuel told the MIT News, "as that belt migrates poleward, which surely it must as the whole ocean warms, the tropical cyclone genesis regions might just move with it. But we have more work to do to nail it down.”

The structure of onscreen feelings

Can lines, shapes, and colors express emotions in movies? In her new book, "The Forms of the Affects,” literature professor Eugenie Brinkema closely looks at these properties in films like "Psycho” and "Open Water” and argues that they do. In her view, emotions or "affect” need not only be observed by watching characters embody a feeling like anxiety or grief. Rather, Brinkema says that formal properties like repetition, duration, and lighting show the emotion themselves.

Take the film "Open Water,” in which a husband and wife are accidentally left behind in shark-infested waters during a scuba diving trip. The movie is frightening and anxiety producing, in part, says Brinkema, because of its visual frame. Most scenes show the sea and the sky with a horizontal line between them. As time goes on in the film, that line is interrupted by shark fins above and bodies disappearing below.

"The commonplace assumption is that spectators pay money to go to horror films because it will make us feel anxious, and then we cathartically leave the theater at the end of the day and feel fine. But what if [the film’s] anxiety has to do with the specific visual form of movement and time?” Brinkema told the MIT News.

New building will house nanoscale research

Starting in summer 2015, construction will begin on a 200,000-square-foot building called "MIT.nano” that will replace Building 12 on the MIT campus. The building, to be completed by 2018, will include cutting edge facilities to support research with nanoscale materials and processes. About one quarter of MIT’s graduate students and 20 percent of its researchers across many fields will make use of the facility, according to Vladimir Bulović, an electrical engineering professor and the faculty lead on the MIT.nano project.

"This building needs to be centrally located, because nanoscale research is now central to so many disciplines,” Bulović told the MIT News. "[It] was designed to encourage collaboration.”

Germs that go to great lengths

A new study by MIT researchers shows that the droplets our noses and mouths release during coughs and sneezes can travel much further than previously thought. John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics, and Lydia Bourouiba, an assistant professor in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are two of the coauthors on a recent paper, "Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing.” The researchers directly observed sneezing and coughing, and also simulated it in the lab, and found that coughs and sneezes produce "turbulent buoyant momentum puffs,” or respiratory clouds, that can carry potentially infected droplets five to 200 times further than known before. This could mean airborne pathogens are more easily transmitted through ventilation systems and enclosed spaces.

Gleason named Associate Provost

Chemical Engineering professor Karen Gleason was named this week as MIT’s Associate Provost. Gleason, a faculty member since 1987, has previously served in several administrative roles, including associate dean of engineering for research. She holds 18 patents for work in chemical vapor deposition polymers and their applications in optoelectronics, sensing, microfluidics, energy, biomedicine, and membranes. Provost Martin Schmidt said Gleason’s entrepreneurship and experience with industry will be helpful in "strengthening MIT’s industrial engagements."

New evidence for the ‘bang’ of the Big Bang

This week, a team of astronomers announced the first "smoking gun” evidence of inflation, a theory of cosmology that describes the quick and violent expansion of the universe in its first fractions of a second. Inflation is the "‘bang’ of the Big Bang,” says Alan Guth, an MIT physics professor who first proposed the theory in 1980. "In its original form, the Big Bang theory never was a theory of the bang. It said nothing about what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged.”

The astronomers peered into the cosmic microwave background, a bath of radiation from the early universe, and saw the influence of ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves. These offer extremely strong evidence that the universe expanded by a repulsive form of gravity, as described by Guth and others.

White House co-sponsor big data workshop

Last week, MIT hosted a daylong workshop on big data and privacy, co-sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of a government review of these issues and policies related to them. Several faculty from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory spoke about their work. Among them was John Guttag, who described research done by one of his graduate students to develop an algorithm that uses hospital data to identify patients at risk for bacterial infection. Shafi Goldwasser and Nickolai Zeldovich both discussed schemes that would allow researchers to perform computations on encrypted data without decrypting it.