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Alumni letters


January 2, 2013

Life in a New Professor’s Lab
The Other Side of the Desk” by Sari Kalin (November/December 2012) offers a unique perspective on the life of a first-year professor striving to juggle research, teaching, administration, and various other new responsibilities. As one of the students who joined Professor Julie Shah’s Interactive Robotics Group (IRG) at its inception, I have been fortunate enough to participate in many of the entrepreneurial aspects of the lab’s beginnings and would like to offer an additional viewpoint.

The students who began with IRG were given freedom to help guide the lab’s direction. We were involved in choosing everything from our own lab furniture to new research topics. It was exhilarating to know that our simple decisions about how to arrange the room and what social events to initiate would help establish the lab’s culture. Despite the occasional frustration of not having senior lab members to show us the ropes, we gained hard-won knowledge as we made our own mistakes, wrote manuals, and prepared tutorials for the next generation of students.

Real-world application of our work drives the research choices made in IRG, and this is what excites most of us students. We have been privileged to be included in visits to and conversations with numerous manufacturing companies from various industries, affording each of us a detailed understanding of the current landscape and future paths where industry leaders are heading. Some of the applications we’ve chosen to focus on are human-robot team training, factory-scale robot coördination, human-robot communication interfaces, human-computer interaction for disaster planning, space robotics for extravehicular-­activity assistance, and mobile robotic team control for factory maneuvering.

While research is our primary focus, we believe that social and cultural aspects of the lab bolster motivation, inspiration, and collaboration. In the past several months, we’ve been to Red Sox games, local pool halls, and sushi bars. For a lab orientation to welcome new members, we tackled a ropes adventure course that had us dangling 40 feet in the air. And our second IRG Thanksgiving feast went off without a hitch, marking the first annual tradition for our team.

Ron Wilcox
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Vortex Testing at the Equator
I was pleased to see your article “Verifying a Vortex” (November/December 2012), because I have been interested in the vortex that forms around the drain in sinks and bathtubs since I read about it in junior high school. I would try to reverse the circulation around a sink drain by stirring in the opposite direction, but it always returned to counterclockwise quickly after I stopped stirring. I also wondered about the strength of the Coriolis effect near the equator.

In 1961 I was in a diesel submarine making a transit from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cape Town, South Africa, so as we neared the equator I repeatedly tested the vortex around the drain in a sink. It appeared just as strong as it did in more northern areas. As it happened, I had the bridge watch as we crossed the equator, so I could not test for a period of four hours during the crossing. (There was no electronic navigation system that covered that part of the ocean, so we determined our position by star sights and sun lines. We probably knew our position within three to five miles.) I believe that we crossed the line about halfway through the four-hour period. Therefore, I tested approximately two hours (15 to 25 nautical miles) north of the equator, and I tested again at a similar distance south of the equator. The circulation was counterclockwise north of the line and clockwise south of the line.

I did not have the capability of doing the type of controlled experiment described in the subject article. The ship rolled a little, and there were ventilation fans, etc., but the same conditions existed at the time of each test.

Robert (Bob) Warters ’64, NE ’64
Houston, Texas

Muddy Charles Mystery
I can clear up part of the mystery surrounding the photo of the Muddy Charles Pub (“A Physicist Walks into a Bar …,” January/February 2012, and Alumni Letters, March/April 2012).

The woman in the center of the photo is my ex-wife, Charyl Butterworth, who was working as a civil engineer at Metcalf & Eddy in Boston. I am in profile to her left. I don’t recognize the others.

I was at MIT from 1968 to ’72 and never visited the Muddy after that. Like Professor Kirtley, I do not recall having bottled beer at the Muddy, but there it is. Perhaps they served only bottled beer in the beginning (ca. 1969), or maybe something wasn’t working. As for the time, judging from the dress, open window, beer bottles, and darkness at about 6:30 p.m., maybe mid-April 1969.

Thomas A. Butterworth, PhD ’73
Tustin, California

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