Flower Dance

News from around campus

Martian Meteorology Comes to Light

Last fall, Mars came closer to Earth than it has in nearly 60,000 years. It was an exciting event for novice astronomers, focusing media attention on the planet and once again raising the question geophysics professor Maria T. Zuber has been pondering since childhood: was there ever life on Mars?

Zuber, along with researchers from NASA, the Russian Space Research Institute, and the University of Arizona, has been gathering information about Mars to reconstruct the history of water on the planet. The researchers estimate that, currently, the top meter of ground at polar latitudes is 90 percent by volume water in ice form. But images show that water once flowed on the planet, even if temperatures were just barely above freezing when it did. Zuber’s question is, how long did the thaw last? The longer there was liquid water on Mars, the higher the odds that life could have been sustained. “On Earth, everywhere you have water, you have life,” says Zuber, who became head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences in July.

Zuber’s research combines the data relayed by two NASA spacecraft with gamma ray spectrometers that can distinguish the planet’s elements, such as hydrogen, and altimeters that measure its topography. “Our perceptions of Mars have changed drastically in the last decade,” Zuber says, noting we once thought of Mars as a desert rather than a frozen tundra. “It’s been a golden age of exploration.”

Paper Chaser

Electrical engineering and computer science assistant professor Erik Demaine was inspired to tackle some of the most difficult problems in computational geometry by an unlikely muse: origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.

The 22-year-old theoretical computer scientist is a pioneer in computational origami, a new area of computer science that explores algorithms for solving paper-folding problems. Demaine’s first theorem, which he proved in 1998 as a graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, holds that any conceivable shape can be created from a folded piece of paper if one straight cut is made through it.

Folding algorithms have plenty of real-world applications: they could help mechanical engineers create complex three-dimensional structures out of individual pieces of sheet metal, or biologists better understand protein folding.

For his unique work, Demaine was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” in October. He currently is collaborating with Robert Lang, a former laser physicist and full-time origamist and is finishing a book on folding with Smith College computer science professor Joseph O’Rourke.

Jones to Head News Office

MIT’s News Office regularly reports what’s afoot on campus, whether it’s an event, new research, or a new department or construction project. This August, the office had a story of its own: Arthur L. Jones was taking the helm as its director, replacing Kenneth D. Campbell, who retired in June after 17 years of service.

Jones “has the kind of manner that enables him to engage with people inside and outside the institution easily,” says Kathryn Willmore, vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation.

That quality comes from more than 30 years’ experience in communications. Jones is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist who has served as director of communications for the city of Boston, assistant press secretary to Governor Michael Dukakis, and deputy White House press secretary. He taught journalism at Boston University and, most recently, worked as a political and media consultant. Willmore believes that Jones’s expertise makes him a good fit for the office, which recently adopted a more strategic approach to communications. Jones will work not only to be responsive to calls, but to look ahead-ideally, weeks and months ahead-to identify ways to promote MIT nationally. Willmore expects that Jones will tap into his reservoir of national contacts.

Jones’s plans for the immediate future include a revamped News Office Web site that should launch in late 2003. And his overall plan is simple: “I’m looking to raise the awareness of what this office can be to the MIT community as a communication tool,” he says.

Swimming with Sticks

Jason LaPenta was a regular player of underwater hockey at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now an electrical engineer at Lincoln Laboratory, he missed the game and thought it might be just the kind of intense, offbeat sport that could thrive at MIT.

Underwater hockey began in 1954 in England with a game called “Octopush,” which diver Alan Blake invented to keep local diving club members active during the winter, but which soon began to spread throughout Europe. Participants don snorkel masks and fins and use short, curved sticks to chase a 1.4-kilogram, plastic-coated lead puck around the bottom of a pool. Teams score when the puck lands in the goal, which is a 1.8-meter-long metal tray at the bottom of the pool.

Underwater-hockey players “play very seriously, especially in other countries,” LaPenta says. By last spring he had rounded up enough potential players to seek Graduate Student Council funding for a club sport.

The newly named MIT Underwater Hockey Club, a division of the Scuba Club, then secured practice time in the new Zesiger Center pool. As word spread, the club grew to about 50 members. They now practice weekly against each other, hoping that in the future they’ll have the chance to compete against other teams.

Wendy Gu, a graduate student in bioengineering, played one game and was hooked. “The action is fast paced,” she says. “I’m exhausted after each game, but it’s a satisfying sort of exhaustion.”

Executive Programs Merge

Starting in June, the Sloan school will combine its two executive degree programs, the Sloan Fellows Program and the Management of Technology Program, into one entity, to be called the MIT Sloan Fellows Program in Innovation and Global Leadership. Students in the Sloan Fellows Program, who traditionally have hailed from larger companies, need to better understand the entrepreneurial spirit and technological finesse of the smaller ones, says Marie Eiter, Sloan’s executive director of executive education. On the flip side, students in the Management of Technology Program who came from smaller, technology-driven companies need to understand corporate culture, networking, and how to work with the corporate giants. “There’s no reason why we should be separating these two groups anymore,” Eiter says.

Sloan hopes to enroll about 100 students in the new program, which will have a flexible-scheduling option. After three months of intensive summer courses on campus, students can remain in residence full time for another nine months or finish part time in two years, taking early-morning and late-afternoon classes. Eiter says this policy acknowledges the realities of the high-tech world within the I-495 radius, whose denizens Sloan hopes to attract. “When you’re in a company where the nature of the invention changes from month to month, you cannot take a year out of your career.”

Flower Dance

A bed of colorful robotic flowers that respond to human movement is causing a stir at the National Design Triennial at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Created by Cynthia Breazeal, PhD ‘00, and her robotic-life group at the Media Laboratory, the flowers were designed to challenge commonly held assumptions about what robots can be.

“People think robots are utilitarian, but they can touch you on an emotional and aesthetic level, too,” says Breazeal.

The 60-centimeter-high flowers, made of materials including translucent acrylic, aluminum, and copper, sit in a “soil” of metal shavings atop a table sheathed in brushed aluminum. At rest, the flowers pulse like a heartbeat, but when their built-in sensors detect a visitor approaching, they perk up and sway in response to the visitor’s movements.

“Children are dazzled by them, and adults are amazed,” says curator Donald Albrecht. “Then they want to know how they work.” Two large cutouts in the table show the G4 Macintosh below that runs the exhibit, some of the 58 motors that power the flowers, and a huge tangle of cables.

The exhibition runs through January 25 and also includes work by Media Lab professor Tod Machover, Benjamin Fry, SM ‘00, and Maggie Orth, SM ‘93, PhD ‘01.

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