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Bit Movers

Professor Emeritus Robert Gallager, SM ‘57, SCD ‘60, and Robert Metcalfe ‘69 received this year’s International Marconi Fellowship, an award that recognizes significant contributions to the communications field. The shared $100,000 honorarium, given by the Guglielmo Marconi International Fellowship Foundation, was presented at an October ceremony in New York City.

Gallager is an information theorist who in the 1960s developed digital communication codes that could transmit information at the highest possible speeds. “It was a neat idea, and I was proud of that, but it was too expensive for that time,” Gallager says. Now, with cheaper and faster hardware, engineers are using his coding scheme to develop more-efficient telecommunication systems.

Metcalfe developed Ethernet, a technique for connecting computers in high-speed local-area networks, while a researcher at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in 1973. He says he never imagined Ethernet would become such a ubiquitous technology because, at that time, computers were not widely available. He founded 3Com in 1979 and is now a partner with Polaris Venture Partners, a Waltham, MA-based venture capital firm.

A Schizophrenia Gene

Researchers at MIT’s Picower Center for Learning and Memory have identified a gene variation in genetically altered mice that produces behaviors characteristic of schizophrenia. They’ve also found that a similar genetic variation may cause the disease in humans.

Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, director of the Picower Center, led a team that discovered that mice lacking a brain protein called calcineurin displayed symptoms of schizophrenia. Then, by checking DNA samples from schizophrenia patients and their relatives, Tonegawa and his colleagues were able to conclude that variation in a human calcineurin gene is associated with the disease.

“Previous studies with mice lacking this gene showed only short-term memory problems, but additional studies showed social withdrawal, a tendency to scatter things, and extreme restlessness,” says David Gerber, a Picower research scientist who worked on the studies. “These symptoms, along with standardized tests, confirmed the mice were schizophrenic.” The next step will be to further define the molecular pathway involved in the disease and to identify chemical compounds that target it. The scientists hope this research will provide a basis for new, more effective antipsychotic drugs.

Software That Sees the Road Ahead

These days, when a Friday afternoon crash closes the highway and backs up cars for kilometers, you can only hope the traffic clears by the time you leave work. But software being developed at MIT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory could let you look into the future and find out whether you’ll need to take an alternate route home.

The software, called DynaMIT, anticipates traffic flows using a database of past conditions and real-time speed measurements and vehicle counts. Based on this information, DynaMIT can make predictions 30 minutes to an hour in advance. “As a traveler, you’re interested in travel conditions when you get there,” says the lab’s director, Moshe Ben-Akiva, SM ‘71, PhD ‘73. “You don’t care how long the delay is in the tunnel now. You want to know what the delay will be when you get to the tunnel.”

A version of DynaMIT could be ready for the public in one or two years, Ben-Akiva says. At that time, the software could be used to improve the traffic updates that are currently available via hotlines, television, and the Internet. A Web-based service might even provide color-coded maps similar to the ones DynaMIT already employs: green for clear routes, red for jams.

The software’s accuracy has been tested in Irvine, CA, using archived data from street sensors. In each trial situation, DynaMIT accurately anticipated traffic flows. Next, the researchers will test the software’s predictive ability in Los Angeles, Westchester County, NY, and Hampton Roads, VA, using real-time traffic surveillance data.

A Shocking Solution

An MIT researcher has designed a self-defense jacket for women that stuns attackers with an 80,000-volt shock.

The jacket, which looks like a fashionable ski coat, operates on a nine-volt battery and builds a high-voltage charge through a series of step-up circuits. The wearer activates it by pressing a button on the inside of a sleeve. Once the coat has been activated, a layer of special conductive fabric delivers a crackling but nonlethal stun-gun-like shock if an assailant touches the jacket. Meanwhile, an inner layer of rubber protects the wearer.

Center for Advanced Visual Studies research specialist Adam Whiton, along with clothing designer Yolita Nugent, came up with the idea for the “No-Contact Jacket” a year and a half ago. They were discussing the safety concerns of women walking in cities and how these concerns differ from men’s. Whiton says that at first the idea seemed “extreme.” However, in light of market research and a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee finding that three out of four U.S. women will be victims of violent crime, he and Nugent believe there is a need for such a device.

Currently, female friends and colleagues of the researchers are wearing prototypes of the jacket to test its durability, and the researchers are looking for companies interested in manufacturing it. “It’s unfortunate that something like this could exist and actually have a market,” Whiton says. “That’s part of the statement.”

Life in a Fishbowl

A family’s apartment is monitored 24 hours a day by some combination of cameras, microphones, and hundreds of sensors embedded in furniture, appliances, windows, and the ceiling. Another reality TV show? No. It’s a new research facility created by MIT’s Department of Architecture, the Media Lab, and Tiax, a research and development company based in Cambridge, MA.

Called the PlaceLab, the 93-square-meter apartment, located in a condominium building near the MIT campus, will house volunteer subjects for several weeks or months at a time. Biometric and environmental sensors will monitor the residents’ sleeping, eating, exercising, and socializing habits. By studying these behaviors, researchers hope to learn how new home designs and technologies can improve people’s lives.

Experiments with PlaceLab residents began this fall. Unlike reality show participants, the paid volunteers will have their identities and privacy protected as much as possible, and will also be allowed to screen the information the researchers collect.

We Said, They Said

A group of student raft builders clashed with MIT’s Housing and Safety Offices over Independence Day after the students built a raft to float on the Charles River during Boston’s annual fireworks show.

The students had constructed their raft in the East Campus courtyard when Housing Office representative Ayida Mthembu told them to remove it from MIT property or get it approved by the Safety Program. The next day, the students say, assistant safety officer David Barber authorized them to deploy the raft if it complied with state regulations, as they say it did. Barber, however, says he only indicated that he wanted to “explore what the regulations involving watercraft were, and that we would go from there.” On July 3, Barber decided that launching the raft during the fireworks would be unsafe. The Housing Office asked grounds personnel to disassemble it. Soon after, against the protests of a Housing Office employee, the students retrieved the raft’s pieces. They reassembled the raft in Boston and, with permission from state police, launched it during the fireworks. When the raft was taken back to East Campus, however, MIT security confiscated it.

According to Ankur Mehta ‘03, a Course VI graduate student who worked on the raft, the students were angry because “the decision by the Safety Office changed 180 degrees overnight.” Barber believes the conflict resulted from a miscommunication.

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