Merging Science and Society
Last fall the Graduate Program in Science Writing welcomed its inaugural class. This one-year master’s track curriculum is designed to improve participants’ writing on science and technology for general readers. The initial seven students, whose backgrounds range from literature to engineering, share a desire to elevate public understanding of science.
Writing about a technical subject so that a layperson can appreciate the topic is “a trick, an art. It’s hard,” says Robert Kanigel, the program’s director and a professor of science writing. To help them learn to write succinct scientific prose, students have access to the Institute’s unparalleled scientific resources, and they are taught by world-class faculty, including Alan Lightman, author of numerous novels and nonfiction works, and B.D. Colen, a Pulitzer Prizewinning reporter. In addition to taking an intensive, year-long writing “megaseminar” and preparing a thesis, each semester every participant takes an elective course, which may be chosen from any department. The work culminates in a summer internship.
This year’s theses reflect the students’ diverse interests. One student is writing about Claude Shannon’s seminal 1948 paper on information theory. Another is investigating rice hybridization. A third is exploring the myriad ways of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
Dino Robot Steps Out
In the Leg Laboratory, part of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, researcher Peter Dilworth’s latest robotic creation is about to take its first baby steps. “Butch,” a four-legged robot modeled after a Protoceratops dinosaur, introduced itself to a small group of scientists last December. The one-meter long, 18-kilogram robot will soon be able to balance on its metal feet and take a couple of steps forward, says Dilworth.
Dilworth previously built “Troody,” a two-legged dinosaur robot that is on display at the Boston Museum of Science. But Butch is his first prototype that will be sturdy enough to roam outside the lab. And it actually looks like a rumbling, quadruped dinosaur, down to its shieldlike frill and beaked jaw. An onboard computer will send signals to 26 tiny electric motors that move the robot’s joints and keep it upright. Once he fixes a control glitch, Dilworth says Butch will walk steadily with a slow, shuffling gait.
Over the next few years, Dilworth plans to sell his walking robots to museums and zoos around the world. In addition to the entertainment value, he says, building these robots sheds light on the neural and mechanical strategies real animals use to move around.
Design and the Body
Assistant architecture professor J. Meejin Yoon has recently garnered national attention for her hallmark designs, some of which include walls and clothing embedded with motion sensors that react to people’s presence. Two of her works, Pleated Wall and The Defensible Dress, helped her win the Architectural League of New York’s Young Architects Forum annual competition, and they were included in the League’s exhibition last spring.
Yoon created a special display-case version of Pleated Wall for the exhibition with the help of Matt Reynolds ‘98, MNG ‘99, who made circuit boards that allowed pieces of the wall to move. The wall is made of three millimeter-thick aluminum panels, stacked and interlocked, but the exhibition version housed a series of infrared sensors and motor-operated rods, or “pines.” As viewers approached, the pines retracted to reveal transparencies of other works by Yoon.
The Defensible Dress, also outfitted with infrared sensors, raises “spikes” whenever anyone comes too close. “It’s a very aggressive apparatus when you wear it,” Yoon says, noting that the dress helps “reinscribe the notion of personal space in everyday life.”
Yoon says her designs explore “the intersection between the body and architecture and space.”
Yoon was also asked to create an installation for the Brooklyn Public Library’s Visual and Performing Arts Library Competition. That piece was on view through February. Her works appear this month in Material Process, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
No More Notebooks
The idea of creating a “paperless classroom” had been drifting around the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences for about four years, so when the latest generation of e-tablets came out last November, the department was ready to test the concept in one of its courses. It purchased a handful of e-tablets, which are about the size of laptops and function like spiral notebooks, and distributed them to a few students in Gerald Schneider’s neuroscience and behavior class to use in place of paper.
Using a wireless connection, the students downloaded course materials, PowerPoint presentations, audio files, and colored anatomy handouts. Then, during lectures, they wrote notes onto the electronic materials in their tablets and saved them. At the same time, Schneider says, he used his e-tablet as a chalkboard, projecting his notes and drawings for students to capture on their machines.
Students in Schneider’s lab made the experiment possible. Led by Rutledge Ellis-Behnke, PhD ‘02, the students, anticipating the day when e-tablets would make the paperless project feasible, had spent three and one-half years converting all the department’s course materials and handouts into digital formats.
The computerized notebooks were distributed to students in five other courses this spring. “The tablets are going to change students’ habits,” says Ellis-Behnke. “It’s going to be fascinating watching that transformation.”
Cracking the Casinos
When he wrote Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, Ben Mezrich hoped his book would become a movie. He didn’t even imagine that actor Kevin Spacey would offer to produce it. But last fall, when Wired magazine covered the story, Spacey read it. “He invited me out to Hollywood and attached himself to it,” Mezrich says. MGM subsequently purchased the movie rights to the book, and Spacey’s company, TriggerStreet Productions, agreed to produce it.
The book tells the true story of several MIT students who, in the early 1990s, developed sophisticated card-counting techniques, which they based on statistical probability. They took their expertise to casinos across the country and made millions of dollars, constantly dodging discovery. Mezrich happened on the story when mutual friends introduced him to one of the card counters, the book’s “Kevin Lewis,” whose true identity remains secret.
Although the movie is still in the planning stages, TriggerStreet producer Dana Brunetti says he hopes to film at MIT and at the casinos where the original events took place. Production is slated to begin this year.
Moisture Measurements from Space
An international project under the direction of an MIT researcher and recently funded by NASA may improve the accuracy of weather forecasting and seasonal climate predictions. The Hydrosphere State mission, or Hydros, led by Dara Entekhabi, a professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, proposes putting a satellite into near-Earth orbit to measure soil moisture, one of the variables that determine weather.
The satellite will scan the earth using low-frequency microwaves to gauge soil moisture, which influences wind, precipitation, and land temperature. The gathered data will be sent to tracking stations and made available to meteorologists worldwide via the Internet.
Hydros is one of three projects selected last fall for a year of NASA funding. At least two of the three will be approved for flight later this year, pending additional funding from Congress.
With a $218 million projected price tag, the Hydros project is a collaboration of 40 scientists from MIT, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the U.S. Department of Defense, Canadian and Italian space agencies, and several universities. “I see this as a model of future operations,” says Entekhabi. “These large collaboration projects will be more and more important in the future.”