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Eye on the Prize

Last November, a Media Lab doctoral candidate won the Collegiate Inventors Competition for his development of an inexpensive method for manufacturing eyeglass lenses. Selected from a pool of 198 entrants, Saul Griffith, SM ‘00, was one of six winners honored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

An early prototype of his invention, a lens mold, is made of two flexible “membranes” that look like shallow dishes stacked upside down and bolted together (see “Spectacles to Spec,” TR, September 2001). Under pressure, the membranes’ curvature changes to match specific lens prescriptions. A chemical compound introduced between the saucers is then cured to form a finished lens.

Griffith’s long-term goal is to provide low-cost eyewear to indigent people around the globe. With Harvard Business School alumnus Neil Houghton, Griffith has formed a company called Low Cost Eyeglasses to turn the prototype into a product that might one day serve the requirements of the billion-odd people they estimate need but can’t afford glasses. “We are seeking partners in developing the technology further,” Griffith says, “and [we] are also working on low-cost refraction devices for the eye-testing component of the problem.”

As a winner of the competition, Griffith was awarded $20,000 and other prizes. His adviser, Media Lab associate professor Joseph Jacobson, received $10,000.

Scoping the Universe

By coordinating a global experiment, astronomers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Weston, MA, have created a virtual radio telescope that can detect cosmic phenomena two-thousandths the size of the finest detail observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The resolution, or clarity, is comparable to “sitting in New York and being able to see the dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles,” says Sheperd Doeleman, PhD ‘95, a Haystack researcher. Such precise observations have never before been possible.

A telescope’s resolution is determined by the size of its lens and the wavelength of light being observed. To achieve such detail, the scientists fashioned a virtual, earth-size lens by using telescopes in Spain and Arizona to simultaneously record high-frequency radio emissions from the same galactic object. A supercomputer called a correlator combined the recordings to create, in effect, a giant telescope.

Astronomers in Arizona, Spain, Finland, Chile, Germany, France, and Sweden joined MIT scientists in the effort. Going forward, the international team will use the technique to examine the cores of very bright galaxies.

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, the MIT women’s volleyball team soared to its best season since 1984. The team posted an overall record of 34 wins and five losses, including hard-won victories over Wellesley College, Brandeis University, Springfield College, and Wesleyan College. The Engineers also won three invitational tournaments and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III national championship tournament before losing (19-30, 30-28, 21-30, 25-30) to Gordon College, the New England Region’s number two seed.

Hitters Kelly Martens ‘03, Nydia Clayton ‘04, and Joy Hart ‘06 led attacks along with setter Austin Zimmerman ‘06, who was named the region’s Rookie of the Year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Martens, MIT’s career leader in kills (1,653) and blocks (365), fought her way back from a 2001 knee injury to garner all-region accolades and all-conference honors in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference in 2002. Her leadership coupled with scrappy defense helped MIT maintain a top 30 national ranking throughout the season.

The team’s success with five freshman starters “bodes really well for the future of the program,” says coach Paul Dill, who was named Coach of the Year in the conference. Defensive specialist Jacklyn Wang ‘06 and hitters Arlis Reynolds ‘06 and Caroline Jordan ‘06 round out the young nucleus of a team to watch in 2003.

Crop Circle Clone

Discovery Channel producers e-mailed MIT clubs last year asking for volunteers to create a crop circle-a geometric shape carved into a field, presumably by aliens. When he saw the message, Dominic Rizzo ‘04 forwarded it to Lisa Messeri ‘04 just as a joke. But she thought the project sounded like fun. So the pair recruited Devjit Chakravarti ‘04 to join them, along with Media Lab graduate students Andrew “Zoz” Brooks and Mark Feldmeier ‘96.

For the design, Messeri suggested using the shape of Kresge Auditorium. “I wanted to do a beaver, but it was going to be too hard,” Rizzo says. The three undergrads used string to map the Kresge shape onto an Ohio wheat field, and then they pushed the wheat down with boards. Meanwhile, Brooks and Feldmeier built a machine they called the Flammschmeisser, a flamethrower-like device they used to shoot iron particles throughout the field. Such particles have been found in “authentic” crop circles. Finally, the students microwaved the field to produce blown-out wheat cavities, which are also a characteristic of these mysterious phenomena.

Making the crop circle took only three hours, but filming lasted two days, as filmmakers recorded the planning efforts. In true MIT fashion, the students didn’t want to stop for lunch, frustrating a crew who had hoped to film them relaxing as well as working. “I think they hadn’t worked with engineers before,” says Brooks. The resulting documentary aired on television last fall.

A 3,000-Mile Touch

Researchers at the Touch Lab and University College London have achieved a communication milestone: they have felt each other’s touch from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to the development of a special stylus. The stylus is connected to a robot called the PHANToM, which was developed at MIT in 1993. The robot applies force to users’ fingers when they move virtual objects around an on-screen “room”; it conveys the feel of both the texture and the resistance of the items the users “touch” with the cursor. And when two users in the same virtual room try to move the same object, each can feel the resistance created by the other’s movements.

The two research groups involved in the transatlantic touch first collaborated in 1998, when British computer scientist Mel Slater, then on sabbatical at MIT, worked with Mandayam Srinivasan, the Touch Lab’s director, to transmit touch signals between Institute rooms. Now, Srinivasan says the transoceanic touch has directed public attention to the potential of this research area. “People normally think of touch as something that happens within an arm’s reach,” he says, “not across 3,000 miles.”

Composing to Art

Composers’ creativity can be awakened by art. But how many collaborate with museum curators to assemble an exhibition and then write a composition based on it? Last fall, two composers did just that. They were taking part in a pilot project that is a collaboration of the American Composers Forum and the Museum Loan Network, a national organization administered by MIT.

The project, called Museums, Composers, and Communities, helps museums strengthen ties with their communities and become catalysts for new artistic works. Over the course of a year, participating composers Jim Cockey and William Banfield spent four weeks in residence at two different museums. Cockey, at the Western Heritage Center in Billings, MT, composed a symphony inspired by music important to members of the Billings family, the town founders and the subjects of an exhibition. Banfield, at the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile, AL, wrote a new chamber work, which he is expanding into a symphony; it is based on six sculptures in the Mobile collection.

Lori Gross, director of the Museum Loan Network, calls the experimental program a success. Now her organization, which facilitates loans of museum-owned art that usually languishes in storage, is seeking funding to make the program permanent.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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