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Alumni Letters

Comments from our readers.
December 15, 2005

Safer, Fresher Food
I just read the interesting article by Katherine Bourzac on how MIT was a leader in food science from 1944 to 1988 (“Food of the Future,” MIT News, October 2005). I want to add that MIT alumni continue to advance food science in amazing ways. I left MIT with a ScD from Materials Science and Engineering in 1984 and now find myself engaged in a technical effort to commercialize a new approach for food preservation. Rather than using heat, the approach uses very high hydrostatic pressure. Using pressures in excess of 80,000 psi (five times the pressure found at the bottom of the deepest ocean), we are able to destroy harmful food-borne pathogens such as listeria and E. coli without having to add chemical preservatives to the foods or to heat them. You can now actually go to your supermarket and buy foods pressure treated to over 80,000 psi!

My introduction to high-pressure food processing came from Daniel Farkas ‘54, SM ‘55, PhD ‘60, and the army’s interest in providing better quality foods to troops. I have had the pleasure to meet many of the great MIT food leaders, such as Aaron Brody, mentioned in the article while working on this technology. So, I like to say that MIT is still changing the way we eat.

Edmund Ting, ScD ‘84
Kent, WA

A Warm Memory
A letter from Wil Blake ‘86 (Letters, MIT News, October 2005) recounting fond memories of his mentor James Killian made me recall one of my own fond memories. In mid-September 1955, I arrived at MIT with my wife, Gunnel, three-and-a-half-year-old son, Gunnar, and one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Karin. I had received a scholarship from the Sweden-America Foundation and been admitted to the Department of Mechanical Engineering as a graduate student.

We were all warmly received by the department head, Professor J. P. Den Hartog, and his wife. After a short while we could leave our temporary hotel accommodation and move to one of the former army barracks on campus, which became our home until February 1957. There was only one hitch: we had no bed for Karin. We do not know how that problem came to be known to President Killian’s wife, but in no time she had arranged for a crib from President Killian’s own childhood to be brought to us at 217 Westgate West, a solicitude never to be forgotten. All the best to all of you at good old Tech!

Jan Hult, ScD ‘57
Lerum, Sweden

First Women’s Dormitory
Sally Atwood’s article on the Margaret Cheney Reading Room (“A Haven for Women,” MIT News, September 2005), refers to the first women’s dorm at MIT. As you have doubtless heard from other coeds, there was a women’s dorm at 120 Bay State Road, Boston, in the 1940s and 1950s. Twelve coeds lived there with a housemother. I was there for the ‘50-‘51 year. So McCormick, which opened in 1963, wasn’t the first women’s dorm, just the first on that side of the river.

I certainly appreciated the Cheney Room: a haven, and a good place to have lunch. We had marked shelves in the kitchen for our stuff, and showers had a cautionary sign: “President’s Office under.” The Class of 1953 started with 12 coeds out of 750 freshmen. But we ended with about half that number. Must be a vastly different atmosphere when half the students are girls!

Phoebe Joseph
(nee Bibi Margulies) ‘53
East Walpole, MA

Elusive Explosives
Professor Timothy Swager and his team of researchers, the developers of a “semiconducting organic polymer that is extremely sensitive to vapors released by explosives such as trinitrotoluene” (“Sniffing Out Explosives,” MIT News, September 2005), apparently have not recognized that many explosives such as organic peroxides, hydroperoxides, and perchlorates are not “nitrobodies” and do not emit nitrogen oxides or nitric vapors, and that some have very low vapor pressures. Also, it is a simple matter to hermetically seal nitrate or other explosives so that they do not emit vapors. It will therefore be necessary to thoroughly inspect all hand baggage, checked baggage, and air-mailed packages for suspicious solids or liquids and for explosion initiators to prevent explosions on aircraft.

Richard W. Prugh ‘52
Plainsboro, NJ

Timothy Swager, head of the Department of Chemistry at MIT, responds: It is correct that detecting nitroaromatics is not a comprehensive solution to explosives detection, and I would never suggest otherwise. However, semiconducting polymers offer endless possibilities for molecular design, and polymers have been developed that are selectively responsive to scores of analytes (including some of the other explosives mentioned). No technology can detect every threat, but each contribution adds logistical complexity to the terrorist and increases the chances for detection. Vapor detection at levels below those exhibited by trained canines is a major advance over present detectors, which detect particles of explosives. Hermetically sealed explosives have a much larger physical footprint and, hence, are easily detected by other methods, such as simple physical inspection.

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