In February 2016, scientists from MIT, Caltech, and the National Science Foundation did something not easy to top: They confirmed a prediction Albert Einstein made a century ago.
Through an effort known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the research team directly observed gravitational waves caused by the collision of black holes. Einstein had anticipated the behavior, but he lacked the technology and the tools necessary to observe the waves’ rippling and imperceptibly faint messages.
The LIGO news was, of course, groundbreaking in its own right. But it also demonstrated, on a grand scale, why and how human beings pursue deep scientific questions—and why it matters.
The world knows MIT as a place that leverages innovation to solve complex problems, in service to humanity. But without basic science—without a deep passion for answering fundamental questions like the one the LIGO team set out to address—you don’t get innovation. It’s that simple.
The challenge of conveying the value of basic science is that its payoff takes time, four decades in LIGO’s case. But its impact can be catalytic. In addition to revealing thrilling new insights into the cosmos, LIGO has given the world gifts of immediate practical value, like a crucial training ground for thousands of top young scientists and engineers, and tools that are already being used in commercial manufacturing. And if history is any guide, we will feel its full impact far down the road—just as 1940s experiments with nuclear magnetic resonance led to the MRI scanner, a 1950s effort to create clocks to measure how gravity warps time made GPS possible, and research in the 1960s and 1970s gave the world the Internet.
To me, basic science is the engine that produces so much of what matters to us all: security, prosperity, competitiveness, health, jobs. But an engine doesn’t build itself. To uncover fundamental truths about the world around us tomorrow, we must act today—with a commitment of time, funding, and patience. These efforts may be painstaking, but their value to the nation and the world is clear. That much is without question.
Meet Tega—one of the newest creations from the Personal Robots Group (PRG), led at the MIT Media Lab by associate professor of media arts and sciences Cynthia Breazeal SM ’93, ScD ’00.
PRG is working toward a future in which, simply put, we “live better with robots.” Its award-winning creations Nexi and Leonardo, for example, are designed to fit engagingly into peer-to-peer teamwork and family life. “Over the past few years,” Breazeal says, “our research has focused on advancing the artificial intelligence, user experience design, and application of social robots in the real world where they help people achieve long-term goals and can build personalized and positive relationships.” Educational goals are of particular interest: “There is huge need to help children enter school ready to learn, and social robots can offer something truly unique as an intervention both in schools and homes.”
Enter Tega, the product of extensive research on child-robot interaction and educational best practices. The development of Tega was led by former graduate student Jin Joo Lee SM ’11, PhD ’17, along with numerous contributors who designed and assembled early prototypes. Research scientist Hae Won Park has spearheaded the interaction intelligence and deployment of Tega out in the field—most recently on a three-month literacy study in Massachusetts kindergartens, meeting weekly with children from 12 different classrooms. Tega is equipped to tell stories to kids, then to conduct autonomous conversations about those stories, testing comprehension and vocabulary and making emotional or inferential prompts (“how did the frog feel?” or “what will happen next?”)—all while tailoring its hints and reactions to the child’s verbal and physical responses. Eventually, Tega invites the child to retell the story. “By analyzing the story and speech sample, Tega can gauge that child’s language ability and which parts of a story the child is particularly interested in,” says Park. Relationship-building moments—such as conversations in which both child and robot share what they like about school—are key to nurturing richer, more personalized repeat interactions.
Tega’s bubbly, childlike demeanor makes it a unique research tool as well as educational platform. “As human beings, we are wired to learn from others,” Breazeal observes. And because it is designed to interact with kids as a peer rather than a tutor and to model productive mindsets, Tega offers a powerful, flexible social learning dynamic that PRG is doing rigorous experiments to better understand. Findings so far have reinforced the idea that “we learn not just knowledge and skills from others, but also important attitudes about learning—such as to be open and curious, to persevere through challenge, and to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Robot Design, Assembly, and Development: Version 1: Jin Joo Lee SM ’11, PhD ’17, Luke Plummer ’14, Kristopher dos Santos ’10, SM ’12, Sigurður örn Aðalgeirsson, Cooper Perkins Inc., IFRobots Inc., Stacey Dyer, Fardad Faridi. Version 2: Hae Won Park, Meng Xi, Randi Williams, Cooper Perkins Inc.
Advisors on Classroom Interactions and Data Analysis: David DeSteno, Northeastern University; Paul Harris, Harvard University; Stephanie Gottwald, Curious Learning; Maryanne Wolf, Stanford University
12.387 / 15.874 / IDS.063
People and the Planet: Environmental Governance and Science
Instructors Noelle Selin, Associate Professor, Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
“My experience working on mercury emissions and policy has showed me that managing this challenge requires not only understanding mercury cycling in the environment, but also the domestic and international governance mechanisms that create incentives and regulate human activities.”
Susan Solomon, Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
“Science, public policy, the engagement of citizens and industry, and technology formed fascinating elixirs that sometimes succeeded in managing past environmental issues. What’s the magic that made these gel, and does understanding the magic help us on climate change?”
John Sterman PhD ’82, Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management
“Science and technology are essential in solving the pressing environmental challenges we face. But that’s not enough: research shows that showing people research doesn’t work. In this course we use simulations and interactive experiences to enable students to learn for themselves about the science and technology of sustainability—and the human and social dynamics we must understand to create a world in which all can thrive.”
From the Catalog
Introduces governance and science aspects of complex environmental problems and approaches to solutions. Introduces quantitative analyses and methodological tools to analyze environmental issues that have human and natural components. Concepts are introduced through three in-depth case studies of environmental governance and science problems. Students develop writing, quantitative modeling, and analytical skills in assessing environmental systems problems and developing solutions. Through hands-on activities including modeling and policy exercises, students engage with the challenges and possibilities of governance in complex, interacting systems including biogeophysical processes and societal and stakeholder interactions.
Games include: role-playing scenarios cocreated by Sterman and Selin, respectively: World Climate, which simulates the process and outcomes of international negotiations on emissions reduction, and the Mercury Game, which helps participants explore the consequences of representing scientific uncertainty in various ways in the context of making an environmental treaty.
Introduction: Achieving a Sustainable Ecological Footprint
Topics include: I = PAT (impact = population* affluence*technology); stocks and flows; system dynamics.
Case study: Ozone depletion
Topics include: Ozone science; the development of US environmental policy in the 1960s and 1970s; the international Montreal Protocol addressing ozone-depleting substances.
Case study: Mercury pollution
Topics include: biogeochemical cycling and scientific processes, regulatory challenges, and environmental justice.
Case study: Climate change
Topics include: greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the physical mechanisms of global warming and climate change; the carbon cycle and other biogeochemical cycles; scientific, technical, economic, social, psychological, and political issues relevant to reducing GHG emissions and limiting the damage from climate change.
Through the case studies, students completing the course will:
Understand the importance of relationships among population growth, economic growth, natural resources, technology, and environmental challenges, including the drivers and impacts of environmental damages;
Identify and understand the scientific principles and interactions that influence environmental systems in the cases presented;
Identify and assess individual, collective, public, and private strategies to deal with environmental challenges, and their advantages and disadvantages;
Use quantitative modeling tools to simulate environmental systems, including the impact of human activities;
Compare different analytical lenses through which differing environmental problems can be viewed and assessed, including risk, economics, ethics, ecology, and policy analysis;
Design potential solutions to address complex environmental challenges, incorporating both technical and policy constraints.
This course involves extensive participation by students. Designated “student experts” for a particular day will raise questions about the readings and lead small-group discussions. For each class topic, students will complete an assignment such as an essay arguing an original viewpoint or a quantitative problem set. Students will also complete a final project that will draw lessons from across the course topic areas to provide insights about environmental problems and their solutions.
Suggested topics for final projects include: deforestation, fracking, bees and pesticides, genetically modified food, ocean acidification, Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
Michigan v. EPA, Supreme Court opinion, 2015.
Rockström J., et al. “A safe operating space for humanity.” Nature 461: 472–475, 2009.
Selin, N. “Global change and mercury cycling: challenges for implementing a global mercury treaty.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 33(6): 1202–1210, 2014.
Sterman, J. “Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world.” Climatic Change 108: 811–826, 2011.
Ungar, S. “Knowledge, ignorance, and the popular culture: climate change versus the ozone hole.” Public Understanding of Science, 9: 297–312, 2000.
Environmental Governance and Science is one of two “People and the Planet” core subjects—the other is Environmental Histories and Engineering—required for an Environment and Sustainability Minor launching this fall. In a 2016 survey, more than 40% of roughly 900 undergraduate respondents expressed interest in such a minor, with more than half considering a career related to environment and sustainability. To complete the minor, students will choose three electives from a list of more than 70, in addition to the two core courses, within four content pillars: Earth Systems and Climate Science; Environmental Governance; Environmental Histories and Cultures; and Engineering for Sustainability.
Spectrum interviewed John Fernández ’85, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, which hosts the minor.
Why do MIT faculty and students want this minor?
JF: I study cities, and the numbers—demographic, carbon emissions, urban energy, water scarcity—tell me that the coming few decades will bring ever-greater stresses to providing a humane and sustainable world for the more than half of the world’s population living in cities. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues who expect that fast-moving issues such as environmental pollution, resource scarcity, and the consequences of climate change offer important opportunities for teaching with an eye toward creating solutions. Conversations with students almost always include a reminder to us to focus on applications—that is, learning about the environment is important, no question about that, but understanding is not enough. Students are interested in doing something about it.
What is illuminated by juxtaposing the government and science pillars in one core course, and history/engineering in the other?
JF: Professors Selin, Solomon, and Sterman have all been deeply engaged with the policy-making world. Through their work, and that of many others at MIT and beyond, there is a very powerful message that science and engineering need to make a sustained effort to motivate international actions to address large-scale environmental challenges. The intent behind the coupling of engineering with history and cultural studies is equally powerful. A good engineer can be even more effective through an understanding of the unintended consequences of technology, in the past as well as in the imagined future. Both of these partnerships of perspectives are meant to bring the complexity of the natural and human world into the classroom.
What kinds of opportunities will the minor help open for students?
JF: Students in the minor will share an enhanced ability to act in an effective, productive, and competitive way, whatever their major and future career choice. The choices are many: Google X’s Moonshot Factory is keenly interested in technology solutions for specific consequences of climate change. Northrop Grumman and General Electric and many other large companies are in great need of creative people with a science-based and practical view toward the environment. And the opportunities for startups are endless.
Azra Akšamija’s 2016 Memory Matrix installation at MIT conjured the ghostlike apparition of a recently destroyed Syrian landmark, formed by 20,000 pixels bearing the outlines of other vanished artifacts. Photo: Azra Akšamija
On a spring evening in 2016, a wind howled across the plaza in front of MIT’s Wiesner Building and through a 30-foot-high art piece titled Memory Matrix. The storm ripped tiny green Plexiglas elements from their scaffolding, scattering them across the pavement. For the installation’s creator, Azra Akšamija PhD ’11, the unexpected wind animated the message of the piece, delivering an answer, of sorts, to a question that greatly interests her.
In fact, Akšamija, an associate professor in MIT’s Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) program, had built Memory Matrix upon several questions. What are the core values of architecture? How do we preserve cultural heritage? Why do certain images of destruction inspire more empathy than others? How can we raise awareness about the destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa region without broadcasting images manufactured by the destroyers? These questions bubbled up from Akšamija’s own background as a native Bosnian who experienced the devastation of war, as well as from the occasion for which the installation was created, the centennial of MIT’s Cambridge campus. The piece she conceived to explore these questions—collectively funded by more than 20 MIT departments and programs—was an ephemeral monument, an arrangement of 20,000 hanging “pixels.” When viewed from a certain spot, the pixels resolved into the silhouette of Palmyra’s third-century Arch of Triumph, one of Syria’s best-preserved historic treasures until it was blown up in 2015 by the militant group ISIL. Each pixel was laser-cut with the contours of other vanished or threatened cultural artifacts.
When that wind rattled Memory Matrix, Akšamija wasn’t surprised that pixels detached. They’d been designed with open hooks—not only to ease installation but to endow the piece with symbolic fragility. The idea that monuments need caretakers was one of the premises under investigation. When pixels fell to the ground, she’d wondered, how would bystanders react? Until the storm, the public generally contributed to communal upkeep of the work, reattaching fallen pieces and thus changing the pattern of the pixels. After the extensive weather damage, however, she was intrigued to note that reactions changed: “Passersby participated in the destruction and theft of the elements.”
Insights like this are achieved in art, and in disciplines across MIT, by daring to ask big, intriguing, sometimes disconcerting questions about every part of our world—and being open to answers from unexpected quarters.
Interrogating the problem
“Science is driven by challenges and challenging questions. Technology is fueled by science and driven by the need for solutions.” That’s how John Lienhard, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food, and the director of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), put it in a speech to the EAT Stockholm Food Forum 2017. At J-WAFS, high-level questions might be posed in such terms as “How will agricultural productivity in different regions be affected by climate change?” or “How can we enhance crop yields without harming the environment?” Researchers define sub-questions and build solutions on the answers.
Likewise, question asking and solution building are inextricably linked at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). IDSS’s mission is to pool the strengths of engineering and social sciences, enabled by new floods of data, to solve problems in areas such as urban systems, energy, transportation, politics, and health care. But problem solving within such complex systems cannot occur without incisive questioning about the ways the elements of these systems come together. If the problem is updating a city’s power grid for a sustainable energy future, clearly you must ask: How are renewable energy sources generated and transmitted? But also: Why do people do laundry at certain times of day? How is carbon consumption priced? According to Ali Jadbabaie, JR East Professor of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and IDSS associate director, “We educate a new breed of students who not only understand the technical side, but how human behavior comes into the picture and what are the effects of markets and regulators.”
In a sea of big data, framing questions properly is more important than ever. Social scientists, Jadbabaie says, are particularly adept at this. He cites his collaborations with MIT political scientists Fotini Christia and Rich Nielsen on two separate projects that ask, respectively, how mobile communication patterns shift in the Middle East during social unrest, and what drives the popularity of jihadist writings. He also notes that while IDSS emphasizes problem-focused inquiry, it also advances basic research on theoretical questions—such as what the fundamental limits of machine learning might be—whose applications we’ve only just begun to glimpse.
The magnetism of the right question
What happened during the earliest moments of the universe? If that’s the kind of thought that keeps you awake at night, you’ve got something in common with David Kaiser, a professor of physics and the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. “I find myself drawn to questions that have a fundamental character, that force me to think about deep conceptual roots at the heart of our most successful theories of nature, like general relativity or quantum theory,” Kaiser says. “I find it a great challenge for myself, and really fun, to try to find examples of questions within those frameworks that seem counterintuitive, maybe a little surprising.” That’s how he came to embark most recently on an international experiment with fellow MIT physicists Alan Guth ’68, SM ’69, PhD ’72 and Andrew Friedman to investigate the baffling case of quantum entanglement—in which, according to quantum theory, the states of two seemingly separate, far-flung particles are linked.
The history of science repeatedly proves there are unforeseen benefits to chipping away at the great unknown. “Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when physicists first began thinking about antimatter, no one was thinking about medical imaging,” Kaiser points out—yet today’s PET scans harness that knowledge. “Likewise, GPS would be unworkable if scientists and engineers hadn’t figured out some very subtle effects that gravitation has on the rate that clocks tick.” Even those bizarrely entangled particles have a direct bearing on the race to transform information science through quantum computing. “It’s not that we strike gold every time, but I’m willing to be patient, because time and time again these questions have borne fruit in unexpected ways,” Kaiser says.
Meanwhile, the insatiable human need to explain our world can be a payoff in itself. It starts when we’re kids, always ready with the next “why?” to stretch any answer we’re given. If we’re lucky, we carry this motivating curiosity into adulthood. But how many of us pause on the meta-question of what an answer truly is? Or, as Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy Brad Skow puts it, “What does it take for ‘A because B’ to be true?” His latest book, Reasons Why, outlines a theory distinguishing between an answer to a why-question (which describes a cause or ground of the event), and the reasons why that answer is an answer (natural laws and mathematical models can provide such reasons).
As a philosopher of science and omnivorous reader, Skow often stumbles upon the why-questions he decides to explore in depth. A procrastinatory detour into special relativity while he was a PhD student inspired another of his books, Objective Becoming, in which he asked why we experience time “passing” when physics suggests it does not. For Skow, the impulse to articulate flaws in existing theories, or glimpsing a pathway to a workable new one, can put him in the grip of a new question and compel him to pursue it.
At the MIT Leadership Center, executive director Hal Gregersen teaches a different metric: in business, you know you are asking the right questions if those questions make you uncomfortable. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” Gregersen reveals that the toughest challenge for executives, especially senior ones, is figuring out “what they don’t know they don’t know— before it’s too late.” A senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Gregersen has seen large businesses sink when “senior leaders failed to explore the crucial blind spots that came back to destroy their companies.” Conversely, when he arrived at the Leadership Center, Gregersen extrapolated from the exceptional entrepreneurial track record of MIT alumni that they “must have been asking different, better questions…. I believe that this is one of the core capabilities that leaders gain from an MIT experience.”
In MIT’s Executive MBA and Sloan Fellows programs, Gregersen has taught a technique he calls “catalytic questioning.” A rapid-fire four minutes are spent collectively brainstorming questions about a seemingly intractable professional challenge. Eighty percent of the time, he says, queries are raised that reframe the challenge, suggest fresh solutions, and energize people to action.
It is often the process of opening up one’s questioning to others that lets the light in. All told, Akšamija’s Memory Matrix involved some 500 participants, from attendees at the Cairo Maker Faire who sketched examples of cultural heritage, to the students who project-managed and designed and manufactured the pixels, to the volunteers who showed up to hang them. And then there were all those passersby who added to the dialogue either with their interest or their indifference. Such external engagement propels her work. “These projects are not about: you have a question, you address it, an artwork comes out if it. It doesn’t end there for me.” In this case, the next question—now what?—led her to found the Future Heritage Lab in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. With support from ACT, CAST (Center for Art, Science and Technology), and the MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) MIT-Arab World Program, she has already brought MIT students to the camp for the Lightweaver project, in which refugees can alter the austerity of the camp through the beauty of their cultural heritage by punching textile-inspired patterns into wind-powered lanterns.
For Kaiser, outlets for his thinking on quantum entanglement have included collaboration on an educational video by YouTube’s “Physics Girl,” Dianna Cowern ’11, as well as on this year’s “Cosmic Bell” exhibit at the MIT Museum and an accompanying play by Patrick Gabridge ’88 titled Both/And. Whether developing analogies for general audiences or lecturing to his Course 8 students on campus, he finds that the effort to convey his thought process to others “can really force a rethinking from top to bottom.” And, Kaiser adds, “talk about being open to surprise—being in a room full of MIT students is guaranteed to generate some really interesting and unexpected questions.”
How can we make digital education platforms artificially intelligent? Michael Beeler, PhD candidate, Operations Research
“Digital learning technologies have the potential to fundamentally transform the way we operate our education systems for the better. I am hopeful that students will one day engage in personalized lessons that maximize their rate of progress and engagement, given their interests, abilities, and prior knowledge, as if they had a high-caliber private tutor, and that this technology will be affordable and ubiquitous.”
Advisors: Cynthia Barnhart SM ’85, PhD ’88, chancellor and Ford Professor of Engineering; David Simchi-Levi, professor of engineering systems
Fellowships include: Mastercard Foundation Fellowship within the Legatum Center, MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design Fellowship
What is a “good seed”? Ashawari Chaudhuri, PhD candidate, HASTS (History | Anthropology | Science, Technology, and Society)
“Communities of practice understand and work differently with genetically modified seeds, specifically Bt cotton, in India. For farming communities, a good seed is a process that comes to life through the entire phase of cultivation. For seed companies and government regulatory bodies, a good seed is a bounded object with objectives of better germination, higher yield, and resistance to pests. My research aims to coalesce these systems of meanings and values to create a road map for agriculture in India.”
Advisor: Michael M. J. Fischer, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities
Fellowships include: Edward Austin Fellowship, Walter A. Rosenblith Presidential Fellowship
How do neutrinos behave? Gabriel Collin, PhD candidate, Physics
“The neutrino is the least understood of the fundamental particles; from scales of femtometers to billions of light-years, it holds the keys to the secrets of our universe. My focus is on developing new computational and statistical methods to address our field’s most difficult questions.”
Advisor: Janet Conrad, professor of physics
Fellowships include: Lourie Foundation Fellowship
How are the design and development of urban regions shaped by ideological conflict and political agency? Yonah Freemark MCP ’13, SM ’13, PhD candidate, Urban Studies and Planning
“Cities have widely varying approaches to problems like the inadequate provision of affordable housing or poorly performing transportation networks. I am motivated to understand the divergence between metropolitan areas where planning solutions reduce inequality and increase social inclusion, and places where such remedies are hard to come by.”
Advisors: Lawrence Vale SM ’88, Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning; Jinhua Zhao MCP ’04, SM ’04, PhD ’09, Edward H. and Joyce Linde Associate Professor of City and Transportation Planning
Fellowships include: Edward H. Linde (1962) Presidential Fellowship
What new tools could enable mapping the nanoscale architecture of the brain? Asmamaw “Oz” Wassie ’13, PhD candidate, Biological Engineering
“The functions of our brain, including our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, all arise from its complex architecture; biological processes ranging from the wiring of neurons to the molecular organization of individual cells define how our brain works.”
Advisor: Ed Boyden ’99, MNG ’99, professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences
Fellowships include: Lemelson Engineering Presidential Fellowship, Viterbi Family Foundation Fellowship
Savin Hill Park is a small oasis of trees—a splash of green located a few miles south of downtown Boston. It “gets kind of wild very fast,” says Gabriela Schlau-Cohen. And while her neighbors may not appreciate the vegetative overgrowth, Schlau-Cohen basks in it. She marvels at how plants deal with a broad range of light levels, from the searing intensity of high noon in July to the weak, meager rays of a cloudy day. This is one of the knotty questions Schlau-Cohen is working to unravel at her lab at MIT where she’s the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Career Development Professor in chemistry. And if she figures it out, it could reveal insights that would lead to higher crop yields and boosts in biofuel production.
To get at what the plants are up to, Schlau-Cohen and her students and postdocs are focusing their attention on some of the proteins responsible for photosynthesis, which operate like miniature antenna dishes for light. Schlau-Cohen fires lasers at the proteins and uses special microscopes to understand how they interact with light—how they absorb it, what happens to the light as it moves around inside the proteins, and how some of it gets converted into heat.
For instance, Schlau-Cohen discovered that one of the proteins she’s interested in has two ways of handling light—one that activates quickly in response to fast-moving clouds or shadows, and another that activates slowly during sunrise or sunset. These initial steps in photosynthesis—when sunshine first washes across a leaf—appear to have a large impact on the amount of new plant material that gets made.
“By 2050, as the population increases, it’s predicted that agricultural output won’t meet food demand,” Schlau-Cohen notes. Certain global regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, will be hit hard by the shortfall. “To bridge that gap,” she says, “we need to figure out ways to make crops more efficient.” In other words, she hopes that knowing the details of how plants use light could allow us to engineer both crops and the algae used for biofuels to create more plant material out of the same amount of sunlight.
Schlau-Cohen also wants to know exactly how a plant moves energy inside its cells from one protein to the next. That energy can be shunted about so easily in an environment that’s “warm, wet, and noisy” is, to her, nothing short of remarkable. She uses instruments that can detect the movement of that energy in a literal flash—one quadrillionth of a second. This work could revolutionize solar power. Imagine a semi-transparent skin layered onto the windows of your home, a skin that could first absorb the sun’s energy and then shuttle it elsewhere to generate electricity.
One reason we know so little about the questions Schlau-Cohen wants to answer is that the proteins she’s after swim in membranes, and pulling a protein out of its membrane often cripples its activity. Only with the advent of the kinds of technologies Schlau-Cohen is using in her lab has it become possible to examine these proteins in their natural habitat.
One of the great ironies of Schlau-Cohen’s life is that despite her love of outdoor places like Savin Hill Park and her fierce scientific curiosity about flora, she has the opposite of a green thumb. “Every plant I keep in the house, I kill,” she confesses—even the famously hearty philodendron. She just doesn’t know how to keep them alive. And yet, if Schlau-Cohen succeeds in her lab, she’ll understand something far more tantalizing: how plants keep themselves alive.
In science as in life, the seeds of good ideas can lie fallow. Michael Short ’05, SM ’10, PhD ’10 found one such seed in the form of a neglected memo from more than 70 years ago that led him to the scientific question that now drives most of his work.
Short, the Norman C. Rasmussen Career Development Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering whose lab is part of the MIT International Design Center, is fascinated by the fundamental definition of material damage at the atomic level. “We don’t have a way to measure radiation damage right now,” he says. “That makes it awfully hard to quantify.” Put a piece of metal into a nuclear reactor, he says, and despite any existing tests you might run on the material afterward, “you can’t tell me how much damage is left behind.”
Such damage—invisible, but with major implications for nuclear reactor technologies and a host of other applications— comes from high-energy particles like neutrons or ions knocking atoms out of place from the ordered atomic lattice of a material, a phenomenon that scientists generally describe using the term DPA (displacements per atom). But DPA doesn’t give the complete picture, as Short explains: “It’s a measure of how many times each atom gets knocked around by ionizing radiation, but it’s not a measure of damage, because most of the atoms pop back into place like nothing ever happened. Very few of them remain as defects.” Another problem is that DPA calculations are approximations rather than precise measurements. “I always ask experts in the field why we use the DPA, and their candid answer is, well, it’s not that good, but it’s the best we’ve got.”
Short decided there had to be a better way. Unexpectedly, he found the inspiration for one in a World War II–era memo. In it, Manhattan Project physicists Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard were discussing a phenomenon that came to be known as Wigner energy or the Wigner effect, in which certain materials exposed to ionizing radiation might actually store energy in some way.
Short first learned of the memo from his nuclear science and engineering colleague, assistant professor Scott Kemp. Short also spoke with Ronaldo Szilard, a distant relative of Leo Szilard, who is a nuclear engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory. Using stored energy as a way to quantify damage had occurred to Short and his collaborators, but until hearing about Wigner and Szilard’s speculations, he’d found little encouragement to support such an idea. “We thought we were crazy until we realized this Nobel Prize–winning guy [Wigner] and this other couch-surfing theoretical physicist [Szilard] thought about it earlier.” Kemp showed Short a book noting the document’s location deep in the research library of the DuPont Corporation, where Short’s uncle, Cyril Milunsky, happened to work. “I was like, hey Uncle Cyril, go find this memo!”
Short realized that the stored energy concept could be expanded to encompass not only radiation damage in metals, but any sort of damage in materials. “Damage is defects, and it takes energy to make those defects,” he says. “Usually when you want to get rid of the defects in a material, you anneal it—you heat it up to a high temperature for a long time. If those defects go away, they should release the energy that it took to make them. That’s the crux of it, really.”
Short’s insight is that the energy is released as heat in a particular pattern—what he calls a “stored energy fingerprint.” Measured with exquisite precision with a nanocalorimeter, this energy fingerprint can provide a sharp picture of the defects in the material and the specific events that created them. This ability, applied to radiation damage and nuclear technology, has startling implications both for civilian and military uses.
“Scott Kemp has called this ‘radiation forensics,’ using radiation in different ways to reconstruct the historical usage of things,” says Short. “He and I are working together on using stored energy to reconstruct historical uranium enrichment. Scott and I think we can take, say, the centrifuges in Iran, and measure the stored energy in the walls of the devices and figure out how many bombs they’ve made.” That would provide a means of technical verification for international inspectors assessing nuclear deal compliance. For nuclear reactors used to generate energy, Short envisions a “cheek swab test” to check the health of steel reactor vessels, correlating the stored energy fingerprint to embrittlement and other important material parameters, and thus providing the technical reassurance required for extending the life of existing nuclear plants.
After a year of intense simulations, the project is now moving ahead to the dedicated experimental phase, using MIT’s research reactor and other facilities. For example, with funding from the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, Short is working with the research group of Oleg Maksimkin at the Institute for Nuclear Physics in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a collaboration he describes as indispensable, the 14-hour flights between continents notwithstanding. Maksimkin’s group has provided some of the theoretical explanations required to interpret Short’s calorimetric findings, confirming the measurements by their own magnetic techniques.
As a nuclear scientist, Short’s main focus at present is defining a standard unit for radiation damage, but he’s actively exploring other possibilities for the stored energy idea. “Let’s say you have a piece of steel that looks fine, but isn’t on the inside, and you can’t just cut it open and look at it because that would destroy it. Can you scoop out a microgram-sized sample of material and make a stored energy measurement to figure out what’s going on?” If Short’s work is successful, the possible applications range far beyond nuclear science to practically all areas of engineering.
For Short, the project has proven not only that good ideas are planted in unexpected ways and places, but also the value of persistence. “I’ve spent pretty much my whole life until now”— including 17 consecutive years at MIT, as a student and then a researcher—“thinking of things and finding out that somebody else has already thought them through,” he says. “Finally, after four years on the MIT faculty, I have an idea that no one else had already!”
Mark Wolverton is a 2016-17 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.
“Inside tiny tubes, water turns solid when it should be boiling,” announced the headline atop the most-viewed MIT News story in November 2016. The story’s popularity underlines that basic research can reveal fascinating surprises about the most familiar phenomena in nature.
The tiny vessels described by the headline are carbon nanotubes, whose inner dimensions are not much bigger than a few water molecules—mere billionths of a meter—and which are typically expected to repel rather than take in fluid. Within the tubes, MIT researchers observed the molecules entering a ice-like, stiff phase rather than the liquid or vapor that would be expected at the high temperatures employed. The team, led by led by Michael Strano, MIT’s Carbon P. Dubbs Professor in Chemical Engineering, used a technique called vibrational spectroscopy to track with unprecedented precision the movement of the water molecules inside the nanotubes.
According to MIT News, “The finding might lead to new applications—such as, essentially, ice-filled wires—that take advantage of the unique electrical and thermal properties of ice while remaining stable at room temperature.” Or, as Strano puts it, “All bets are off when you get really small.”
Amy Glasmeier’s map of the country has a lot to say about economic opportunity
A map based on data from Glasmeier’s Living Wage Calculator shows regional patterns in the gap between minimum wage and the amount of money needed to meet a minimum standard of living. (The darker the color, the larger the gap.) Image: ESRI
A professor of economic geography and regional planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Amy Glasmeier has spent decades exploring the root causes of income inequality and of regional disparities in economic opportunity. She is widely known for developing the Living Wage Calculator, which analyzes the minimum income required to pay for basic living expenses. Launched in 2003, the calculator today is widely used by companies and regional governments to set wages that meet the needs of local populations. Glasmeier has also published several books, including An Atlas of Poverty in America: One Nation, Pulling Apart 1960–2003 (Routledge Press, 2005). Spectrum asked her to explain how her research is helping us better understand the sources of poverty, and of wealth.
What has your research in economic geography revealed about how where people live affects their chances for economic advancement?
AG: Economic geographers study how economic activities, processes, and outcomes vary by location. My area of expertise is the underlying economic causes of such variation in economic opportunity—for example, how a region rich in natural resources, like central Appalachia, remains among the nation’s poorest.
I spent 25 years advising the Appalachian Regional Commission, a governmental economic development agency, and can say the explanation comes down to four core factors: exploitative industries, geographic remoteness, failed institutions, and political corruption. The remoteness of Appalachia meant there was a lack of markets and population centers, which in turn meant few job-generating alternatives to coal.
While the single-industry economy produced low pay and poor working conditions, the absence of information about opportunities beyond the region’s rugged mountains discouraged people from moving. In addition, the coal industry was in cahoots with Appalachia’s political leadership, scaring away other industries that might have created alternative opportunities.
Stories like that of Appalachia still resonate today. Countries in Africa that are rich in resources, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania, suffer a similar fate.
How have the data and analysis you’ve gathered from the Living Wage Calculator helped address economic inequality?
AG: The calculator was created when I was working on a Ford Foundation grant revisiting poverty policy. We noticed that from 1990–2000 a number of counties that had crawled out of poverty had fallen back in. It turned out many of these places had lost major sources of employment. We knew that recovery would not come easily, so we built the tool to demonstrate that cost of living adjustments can lag behind job decline. Now we can look at data from areas such as Appalachia and see that this is exactly what happens.
Interestingly, while we designed the tool for individuals to understand their personal cost of living, today’s users also include groups— ranging from unions to cities to religious organizations—interested in improving employee compensation. Employers like IKEA, for example, use the tool to set entry-level wages. Their motivation is fairness and reward for consistency in employee performance.
The City of Dallas uses the tool to set the wage rates contractors must pay their workers as part of its bid process. This has worked so well, improving both productivity and service, that the city has actually offered full-time jobs to former contract workers.
Can economic geography help us understand what drives wealth as well?
AG: Absolutely. The theories and tools we use are central to understanding the development process in booming areas. Consider what’s been happening within the environs of MIT and Kendall Square. Geographic concepts help explain why, given the rising cost of real estate in the area, firms continue to agglomerate here.
The simple answer is there are economic and noneconomic benefits to being close to companies in the same or similar industries. These include being able to access a diverse and highly skilled source of quality workers and something intangible but essential: access to the knowledge people learn on on the job.