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September 1, 2003

The Literary Scientist

Karl Iagnemma’s first book, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, mirrors the arts/sciences duality of his own life as an MIT research scientist and fiction writer-two roles that don’t typically overlap. Published in April by Dial Press, the collection of eight stories explores the interplay of emotion and logic. It describes human relationships through characters Iagnemma calls “science types,” who find that “it’s tough to really squeeze emotion out of a formula.”

The title story, for example, set in a fictional MIT-like university, introduces readers to a mathematician who tries to use a mathematical model to understand his girlfriend. Iagnemma, SM ‘97, PhD ‘01, wrote the story while at MIT working on his PhD thesis, so when he needed to describe a university, “all I could think of was MIT.”

Iagnemma started writing fiction as a mechanical engineering major at the University of Michigan. After coming to MIT for graduate studies, he began to seek publication for his stories, which have since appeared in several magazines, including Playboy and the Paris Review, and in the 2003 Pushcart Prize and 2002 Best American Short Stories anthologies. Now he writes when not doing research in space robotics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, where he develops algorithms to control robots that will capture space debris.

Revving Up Product Design

Manufacturing and management students kicked into high gear last spring to develop accessories for General Motors’ new Chevy SSR, a pickup truck with a retro design. Their work was part of Sloan professor Steven Eppinger’s graduate-level product design class, in which students learn to create a consumer product, from conducting market research to building prototypes.

Out of about a dozen teams in the GM-sponsored class, two chose to design accessories for the Chevy. One team made streamlined rolling luggage that snaps easily into the truck bed. The other team created a tailgate storage device that can keep food warm or cold. At the end of the semester, GM flew two students from each team to Detroit, where they pitched their products.

The 12-year-old course includes about 100 students from the Leaders for Manufacturing program, the System Design and Management program, the Sloan School, and the mechanical engineering graduate program, as well as about 15 Rhode Island School of Design students.

Many of the class’s projects have been patented and commercially developed. But Eppinger ‘83, SM ‘84, ScD ‘88, says, “The actual product that comes out isn’t what matters to me. What matters to me is, did the students learn the process?”

Pedal Pushers

Exercise bikes might be good for fitness, but many people find spinning boring. Now, Sloan MBA students Harris Rabin, Joseph Heitzeberg, and Doron Harlev plan to turn stationary riding into a more interactive experience. With a $30,000 grant from Microsoft’s iCampus initiative, the students have developed a motivational computer game called CycleScore, which will run on tablet PCs that will be attached to exercise bikes. The game is simple to use, they say, and should motivate fitness devotees and couch potatoes alike.

“Aerobic exercise now is not engaging or motivational,” says Heitzeberg. “We want to make it as much fun as playing sports.”

The students have linked bike activity to the progress of the game. By pedaling, riders control the flight of a hot-air balloon, which floats over a mountain range. The harder they pedal, the higher the balloon soars. If the balloon hits a mountain, the bike pedals stiffen. To keep the game lively, users also drop precision bombs along the way.

Riders are scored on whether they hit various targets and on whether they reach duration and intensity goals they specify at the beginning of their workouts. They can compete against their own previous scores, against other riders’ scores, or against the computer. And as users reach their goals, the computer provides messages with positive reinforcement.

The students are now conducting research with Media Lab and Sloan professor Dan Ariely to understand how different motivational elements affect users. They plan to install the first game-linked bike in the Zesiger Center by the end of the fall semester.

Spider Strength

Spinning webs has long been Spider-Man’s special skill, but it’s about to be matched by a team of MIT researchers. Led by Paula Hammond, associate professor of chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering professor Gareth McKinley, the team is working to produce a synthetic material that mimics the properties of spider silk. The material could be used to produce high-strength fibers for clothing or lightweight bulletproof vests.

“People have long been interested in creating spider silk because the material is superstrong, highly flexible, and extremely light,” Hammond says. The MIT researchers are using an understanding of spider silk at its fundamental structural level to guide materials design. They are creating polymers meant to emulate the way spider silk proteins organize in nature and trying to manufacture and spin the synthetic silk in the lab.

“Since having a huge spider farm to harvest the silk is totally impractical, our goal is to not only produce a material with high strength and energy-absorbing properties, but also to be able to make the material in large quantities at very low cost,” Hammond notes.

Already, the team has developed polyurethane compounds that can be spun into spider silk using a technique McKinley developed at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. However, more research is needed before synthetic silk is ready for commercialization; Hammond expects prototypes could appear in five years.

A Bold New Logo

It’s innovative and unconventional, and it’s readable in one second. It’s MIT’s first official logo, which began showing up on publications, vehicles, and signs around campus last fall.

The idea of creating a single logo came from a 1997 communications survey. It found that campus publications used so many different images to represent MIT that at first glance they appeared to come from different places. Administrators realized the Institute needed a consistent identifier, so a team assembled to create a logo that would capture MIT’s spirit.

Through focus groups with students, alumni, faculty, staff, and Cambridge residents, the team arrived at a list of characteristics that define MIT, and which guided the logo’s development. Campus designers then worked with consultants, including world-renowned typographer Matthew Carter, to create about 100 logos, three of which were tested with more focus groups. “The challenge was to come up with something that really reflected the complexity of MIT and people’s different views,” says Kathryn Willmore, vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation and a sponsor of the new logo.

The new logo’s color bars are straightforward and bold, but its type treatment is innovative and unusual, illustrating the Institute’s risk-taking nature. The logo is also thought-provoking: some see in it a connection to Simmons Hall, while others see hints of the electronic world.

Pioneers of Encryption

Computer science professor Ronald Rivest and his former MIT colleagues Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman were presented with the 2002 A. M. Turing Award in June for developing the RSA system, the most widely used encryption method for conducting secure transactions on the Internet. Computer scientists consider the Turing Award, given by the Association for Computing Machinery, to be their field’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Information sent via the Internet must be encrypted, or scrambled, to remain private. With most encryption algorithms, both sender and receiver need access to the same numerical “key” in order to code and decode messages. Prior to RSA-an acronym for the researchers’ names-groups conducting transactions had to communicate beforehand to privately determine their keys. The MIT researchers’ technique, developed in 1977, instead uses two keys-a publicly available key for encryption, but a secret key for decryption. It also allows a recipient to verify who sent a particular message and whether it has been tampered with.

“All three of us are pleased to see the recognition this has gotten,” Rivest says. “It was quite a surprise.” Adleman is now a professor of computer science and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Shamir is a professor of applied mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

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