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Alumni Letters

Letters from our readers
December 22, 2008

I enjoyed reading your article on open-source hardware (“Open Up and Say Eureka,” November/December 2008) and am inspired by all the fun projects.

I can almost hear the designers saying, “Look at this cool thing! Let me share it with you. Learn from it. Make it better.” Sharing designs gives engineers a chance to feel connected with and contribute to the greater community.

In my own efforts to encourage people to stop using gasoline, I’m publishing an open-source electric-vehicle conversion kit (see With energy prices so volatile, I hope that the open-source kit offers people a way to convert their own cars into ones that can run on renewable energy for much less than the cost of a Tesla Roadster. Your article also gave me new ideas for how to share this project more effectively.

Many thanks to all the people out there who have freely shared their designs.

Tim Kutscha ‘93, MEng ‘94
Chair, Oregon Electric Vehicle Association
Portland, OR

I enjoyed reading the recent article about Dianne Newman, PhD ‘98 (“Written in Stone,” November/December 2008). Here she is, back at MIT as the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Biology and Geobiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Having had the good fortune to serve as her graduate advisor at MIT, I take much joy in her success, and marvel as do others at her intellectual journey from Building 48 to Building 68.

But it seems to me that Dianne Newman’s success is an object lesson for the educational process from kindergarten to graduate school. When Dianne first arrived at the Institute as a first-year graduate student in civil and environmental engineering after majoring in German at Stanford, she really didn’t know much biology or geology–or even engineering, for that matter. But she had the same sense of wonder, the same creative impulse to bring together seemingly separate ideas, the same sense of what’s important, that have become the hallmarks of her work. So, smart people can always learn the facts they need to know. But how do we teach them the rest?

François Morel
Albert G. Blanke Professor of Geosciences
Princeton University

I was pleased to see the recent column by Phillip Cunio, SM ‘08, about the research that he and Zahra Khan, SM ‘08, and Arthur Guest did at the Mars Society’s research station in the Utah desert (“Martian Boot Camp,” November/December 2008).

With renewed interest in exploration, both in space and on Earth, it’s vital to test procedures and equipment before the actual missions, in an environment that provides similar conditions. This allows researchers to fine-tune equipment and procedures, and it reduces the risk of mishaps by giving the crew an opportunity for a low-risk trial run.

We’ve used analogue environments as a proving ground in the past, and the experience was extremely positive. In summer of 2005 a team of researchers from the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Engineering Systems Division conducted a field expedition to the remote Haughton Mars Project (HMP) research base, located a few hundred miles from the magnetic North Pole (www.marsonearth
.org). As part of a NASA-funded project on interplanetary supply chain management, the expedition investigated the similarities between logistics for remote terrestrial sites and supply chains for future moon and Mars exploration. The data gathered at HMP allowed us to design accurate models to help plan future space missions. The expedition also successfully deployed and tested technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID) for remote base operations.

While some may dismiss such exercises, we find again and again that going out into the field is a valuable experience. Today’s students tend to see the world through the lens of their laptops and PDAs. So leaving the clean and fully controlled laboratory environment and getting out in the real world to experience the effects of wind and weather, difficult logistics, hunger, sleep deprivation, lack of tools and spares, unexpected hiccups, and the harsh reality of life in remote locations with–God forbid–no cell phone or Wi-Fi coverage is very healthy. I applaud the “boot camp on Mars” crew and encourage all to go out in the field and rough it for a few days or weeks. Whether you are an engineer, biologist, geologist, or humanitarian-relief logistician, new and unexpected insights will come from such experiences, benefiting the thinking and research back home.

Olivier de Weck, SM ‘99, PhD ‘01
Associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems
and associate director, Engineering Systems Division

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