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News from around campus.

History in Pictures
John Dower is using the Internet to change how we look at the past
By Mara E. Vatz

If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the power of a thousand pictures. John Dower, the Ford International Professor of History and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is using the Internet as a kind of slide projector to make available hundreds–soon to be thousands–of images that previously had made only limited public appearances in classroom slide shows, museum exhibits, or textbooks. Not only is Dower’s project changing the way we look at images, but it has the potential to change the way we view history.

The project began three years ago, when Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and Japanese, received seed money from the Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education to explore new ways of using technology to teach humanities. They used the funding to develop Visualizing Cultures, a new course that abandons textbooks and slides in favor of a compelling and innovative website where students can view images from Japanese history–Dower’s area of expertise–accompanied by interpretive text. More than just a history class, the course addresses broad questions about how historians can use visuals to understand the past. And because the site is hosted on MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Dower’s work is freely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Now, thanks to a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the New York City-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dower will be adding up to five new units to the Visualizing Cultures site over the next three years. The grant, which is part of a Mellon Foundation initiative to deepen and extend humanistic scholarship, will also enable Dower to spread his ideas beyond the halls of MIT through collaborations with other educational institutions and museums.

Images as Historical Texts
Some of the images featured in Visualizing Cultures’ main “exhibit,” Black Ships and Samurai, are woodblock prints, paintings, lithographs, maps, and scans of historic documents. Together, they tell the story of U.S. commodore Matthew Perry’s mission to Japan in 1853. The pictures come from scattered sources–museums, rare books, and private collections. Physically displaying them together would be next to impossible, and publishing them in a book would be exceedingly expensive, says Miyagawa. “So we needed a different outlet for this kind of content, and the Web is the obvious choice,” he says.

But, Miyagawa adds, “We don’t just put visuals there and hope that the viewers will get it. John Dower wrote this remarkable analytical text that teaches you how to see the visuals.” Indeed, the images on the Visualizing Cultures site, unlike those in a conventional history textbook, are not just illustrations of the text; they are also its subject. “You can look at visuals as what we call texts,” Dower says. “You look at them to see how people at the time viewed their world.” Where an art historian might concentrate on the high art produced during a particular historical period, however, Dower is interested in more-common, everyday images; those on the site allow students to explore issues of racism, war, and nation-building in a way that would be impossible by any other means.
The site is also a case study in how to organize and display vast quantities of visuals. In a section of the website devoted to images of Perry, Dower juxtaposes Japanese woodblock portraits of the commodore with American photographic portraits. In one well-known woodblock portrait, the whites of Perry’s eyes are blue–a detail that might easily be overlooked were it not for Dower’s supporting text. He explains that “Westerners were sometimes referred to as ‘blue-eyed barbarians,’ and it is possible that some artists were a bit confused concerning where such blueness resided.” Or, he goes on, Perry’s eyes may appear blue because “in colored woodblock prints in general…ferocious and threatening figures such as monsters and renegades were frequently stigmatized by the same strange blue eyeball.”

With the Mellon Foundation grant, Dower plans to expand the Visualizing Cultures site by adding up to five new units. Two, Yokohama Boomtown! Life in Treaty Port Japan and Ground Zero 1945: Drawings by Atomic-Bomb Survivors, are already under way. Dower and Miyagawa will also continue working with MIT’s Academic Computing division to develop better ways of organizing the images, making it easier for students to sort through troves of visuals.

Dower hopes that other institutions will use his website as a template for creating their own online exhibits, and he and Miyagawa are working with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to establish a site similar to Visualizing Cultures using materials from the museum’s collection. Dower says that adding images and text to a searchable database and displaying them online in this format will give a sense of permanence to otherwise ephemeral exhibits.

Though Dower himself is far from a technophile, he sees the value that technology can add to the study of humanities–and vice versa. “We keep talking about this being the information age, and the question is, what’s the content?” he says. “So much of the stuff up there is junk, and much of it is disorganized.” Dower hopes to bring a sophistication and richness to the Internet and in the process enable students and the general public to reconsider how they think about culture and how they look at the world.

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A Welcome to MIT’s New President
Susan Hockfield is invested as the Institute’s first woman president

Delegates from universities around the world donned their academic regalia and joined members of the MIT and Cambridge communities on campus in early May for the inauguration of Susan Hockfield as MIT’s 16th president. The ceremony was the high point of a week of festivities based on the theme “Uncommon | In Common,” which showcased MIT’s creativity and the exceptional aspects of MIT’s culture. In addition to Hockfield’s address, the ceremony included music composed for the occasion by MIT faculty members.

The week was marked by special exhibitions, receptions, and symposia that focused on art and technology and new directions in interdisciplinary research.

A webcast of the inauguration and the text of Hockfield’s speech are available at web/mit.edu/inauguration.

A full report on the inauguration will appear in the July issue of MIT News.

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Making Their Point MIT women fencers win
By Katharine Dunn

Fencing matches bear little resemblance to Zorro movies. Bouts last only three minutes and feature as much bouncing and pausing as thrusting and parrying.

But within those short bursts of attack, the MIT women’s fencing team has found time to dominate. In February, the Engineers won the three-weapon (foil, saber, and epee) team title at the New England Championships for the seventh year in a row. They finished the 2004-05 season atop the Northeast Fencing Conference for the fifth consecutive year–a result all the more impressive considering that in fencing, the three NCAA divisions compete against one another. That means MIT’s Division III fencers face scholarship athletes from Division I schools. Three of the Engineers–Suki Dorfman ‘05 and Gemma Mendel ‘06 in foil and Drew Reese ‘07 in saber–were named to the conference all-star team. Dorfman, who is captain of the team, won the foil event at the 2005 New England Championships for the fourth consecutive time, establishing a conference record. She went on to compete in the NCAA Women’s Fencing Championships in March.

Yet 60 percent of the MIT fencers had had no experience before college. So why is the team so strong? “Fencing is a really good fit for MIT,” says Jarek Koniusz, who just finished his 11th season as head coach at MIT. “Some call it physical chess,” explains Dorfman.

But maybe Koniusz is being too modest. Dorfman credits him with the team’s success, saying he tailors training to his athletes’ needs and gives individual lessons to every team member. Men and women fence each other in practice, which some of the women say greatly improves their skills. And the team has become more serious in recent years; there are now two-week-long tryouts every fall, and many fencers who make the squad stick with the sport throughout their MIT careers.

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Speed on the Deep
An MIT Museum exhibit explores the heyday of clipper ships
By Sally Atwood

For about two decades in the middle of the 19th century, clipper ships ruled the seas. Sparked by the opening of the China tea trade and gold rushes in California and Australia, it was a brief golden era marked by frenetic shipbuilding and exorbitant cargo rates that could pay for ships in a single voyage. Records for size and speed were shattered almost as soon as they were established, and just about anyone who owned part of a clipper ship was made wealthy, seemingly overnight.

The Clipper Ship Era, an exhibition at the MIT Museum, delves into the design and construction of these speedy merchant ships, their immense economic impact, and how they came to symbolize American ingenuity in shipbuilding technology. Highlights of the exhibit include half-hull models of famous clippers, the original plans of five celebrated ships by Donald McKay, a noted Boston shipbuilder, and lithographs of some of the most important clipper ships built in the United States and Britain. Rare books, photographs, and a rigged scale sailing model made by a relative of McKay also help tell the story of the clippers’ rise and fall. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of the compound steam engine signaled the beginning of the end of the sail era.

According to curator Kurt Hasselbalch, “The term ‘clipper’ was used to describe many fast sailing vessels.” The ships generally had three full-rigged masts with square sails, a more streamlined bow and stern than their predecessors, and lengths of 50 to 80 meters (although the largest built was 100 meters). “The purpose of the design was to carry perishable goods vast oceanic distances,” Hasselbalch says. “It was pushing up the threshold of speed and size.”

The exhibition, which is on view until July 10, is based on the collection of ship captain Arthur H. Clark. In 1922, Clark donated his collection to MIT.

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Space Suit Redux
An old design could yield the suit of the future
By Lisa Scanlon

Dava newman often shows her students films of prototype space suits developed in the 1960s as NASA was preparing to send astronauts to the Moon. One looks like a suit of armor; another is a large transparent bubble. “I show them to students to get them to think really creatively,” says Newman, SM ‘89, PhD ‘92, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. Some of these quirky designs were ahead of their time, she says. In fact, one is the inspiration for a lightweight, flexible space suit that Newman and her students are creating for possible long-term human exploration of Mars.

The researchers are revisiting a design for an elastic suit conceived by physiologist Paul Webb in the 1960s. Essentially a very tight leotard, the suit applies pressure to the skin. NASA didn’t pursue the concept because the suit proved too difficult to put on and take off; instead, it opted for the now familiar space suit that surrounds the body with a balloon of pressurized oxygen. At 140 kilograms, that suit works fine in low gravity, but it’s impractical for NASA’s long-term goal of human exploration of Mars. Newman believes that Webb’s design is better suited for Mars, and with advances in materials, its time may be nigh.

In a project sponsored by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, Newman and her students made a prototype pant leg that combines the pressurized-gas and tight-fabric techniques. Instead of relying only on pressure created by the fabric, the researchers generate additional pressure by pumping air into foam sandwiched between the suit’s layers. The outer layer, made of a less flexible fabric, constrains the foam and forces it to expand inward to produce pressure on the wearer’s leg.

Last February, the team tested a pant leg custom made for aero/astro graduate student Kristen Bethke. Bethke wriggled her way into the prototype–with the help of some talcum powder–and put her suited-up leg into a vacuum chamber. Then the team removed some of the air from the chamber and pumped air into the suit to generate the desired amount of pressure. Unfortunately, the sensors on Bethke’s leg indicated uneven pressure on her skin, and when she bent her leg, pressure on the joint increased dramatically. “Actually, [the suit] popped,” says Bethke. “The pressure increased so much that there’s a rip.” Previous prototypes tested on immobile parts of the body–like the shin–yielded very good results, but “it looks like for the knee we’re going to have to keep working,” says Bethke.

Another aero/astro graduate student, Liang Sim, has been working on an alternative suit design that involves wrapping the body with an elastic fabric much like an Ace bandage. Joints based on his design, Sim says, might solve Newman’s pressure problem, because the hoops of wound fabric can separate slightly as astronauts bend their limbs.

Newman hopes to build a working prototype of a space-suit leg by the end of the summer. But, the researchers caution, an operational suit is many decades away. “We want to make sure we have all the facts, we’ve done all the science, we’ve done the engineering design,” says Newman. For now, she says, she and her students are keeping their fingers crossed and enjoying thinking decades into the future.

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A Tropical Connection
The Amazon and the Congo River Basins have a see-saw relationship
By Courtney Humphries

The amazon and Congo River Basins together cover more than 11 million square kilometers, and the intense rainfall they receive helps shape the global climate. Now, researchers at MIT have found that these two giant watersheds appear to be engaged in a climatic tug of war. A study led by Elfatih Eltahir, SM ‘93, ScD ‘93, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, shows that when the Congo Basin is dry, the Amazon Basin tends to be wet, and vice versa.

Eltahir, who reported the discovery in the December 2004 Geophysical Research Letters, has termed this back-and-forth relationship a “see-saw oscillation.” His team uncovered the connection by examining both short-term and long-term weather data for the two regions. A bet-ter understanding of the relationship between their climate systems could lead to more-accurate predictions of periods of drought and flood.

The oscillation first drew notice in 2003, when Teresa K. Yamana ‘04, then an undergraduate, analyzed recent satellite data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which monitors weather conditions over the tropics. She noticed that the driest months in one region were consistently the wettest in the other.

But the satellite data had been collected only since 1997. “That’s clearly not long enough to investigate this phenomenon,” Eltahir says. Since the rainfall over these vast and in large part inaccessible regions has not been measured, Eltahir’s team turned to river flow data collected between 1905 and 1985. “Fluctuations in river flow from year to year reflect the fluctuations in rainfall over a large area,” he says. “We think of it as a big rain gauge.”

When another undergraduate, Brian Loux ‘04, analyzed the river flow data, he found that the relationship between the watersheds was not as simple as Yamana’s analyses originally suggested. The see-saw effect was most noticeable during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, between the months of January and March. And it appeared stronger in some decades than in others. “It has its own variability, like other oscillations in the atmosphere,” Eltahir says. He compares the phenomenon to El Nino, the unusually warm water current in the Pacific Ocean that shows up irregularly to shake up global weather patterns.

Loux, now a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, says the most exciting implication of the work is “the idea that climate is somehow largely connected across the Atlantic Ocean.” So how do regions half a world apart manage to play tug of war with water? Eltahir says that the mechanism of the effect is still unknown. But he believes it may resemble the one that lets El Nino exert far-reaching effects on tropical river flow. When air moves up in one region, he explains, it forces air down in the other. The upward-moving currents that bring rainfall to the Amazon might force the air over the Congo to sink, bringing dry weather.

To test this hypothesis, Eltahir and his colleagues will attempt to re-create the see-saw effect in a mathematical climate model. Then they can begin to test how other factors change the natural climatic balance between the two regions.

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A Star Student
MIT junior makes a big discovery
By Kathryn Beaumont

Last summer, emily Levesque ‘06 thought she had made a mistake. She and colleagues working at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, AZ, had been examining stars, and the data they’d collected seemed to suggest something big–red supergiants larger than any previously documented. Each would have to have a radius about 1,500 times that of the Sun.

Such a discovery was not what Levesque had in mind when she went to the observatory as one of several student astronomers sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Her charge was to create a new temperature scale for red supergiants–massive stars nearing the end of their existence–using previously constructed models and the data she gathered during her nighttime observations. Levesque and the project’s advisor, Philip Massey, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, then used the new scale to determine the radii of the stars. That’s how they came to the surprising conclusion that they’d found the three stars with the largest diameters among known normal stars.

Levesque subsequently compiled and analyzed the data, was lead author on a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal, and presented the findings in January at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego–not bad for a college junior.

Such enthusiasm and initiative are perhaps not surprising in someone who was reading Stephen Hawking in middle school in Taunton, MA, and who “harassed” her father to set up the family’s telescope even on cloudy nights. Already hard at work on her thesis, Levesque will compare the data from her Kitt Peak observations to temperature data she gathered from the Magellanic Clouds–nearby galaxies–in November 2004 at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

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Music in the Garden
Flower show visitors played Tod Machover’s hyperinstruments
By Sally Atwood

A sea of flowers in Minneapolis in the middle of March is a powerful inducement to hop into the car and brave the winter cold. This year residents had another incentive for visiting the annual Marshall Field’s and Bachman’s Spring Flower Show–the chance to make music on Tod Machover’s electronic “hyperinstruments.”

Machover, a composer and professor at the Media Lab, teamed up with landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, MCP ‘78, MAR ‘78, to bring the south of France alive with flowers and music. Messervy designed a warehouse-size garden whose re-creation of a Mediterranean seaside scene attracted more than 96,000 visitors. Machover created three interactive music stations that allowed visitors of all ages to experiment with his hyperinstruments, which are able to produce both synthetic and acoustic tones.

Visitors walking through the garden first encountered four pianos programmed to play music by Debussy, Satie, or Stravinsky. Each piano was connected to electronic touch pads. By moving their fingers around the pads, visitors could instantly change the music the pianos played, activating variations composed by Machover.

At another station were brightly colored, embroidered balls called Shapers, which emitted music that changed depending on how hard and how long the visitors squeezed them. The final station paired five paper pinwheels with wind chimes. The chimes were suspended from pine trees, and the only way to play them was to blow on the pinwheels. The pinwheels were so sensitive that even a toddler’s breath could create music.

The flower show marked the first time that this generation of Machover’s instruments had been made available to people outside of guided workshops. The wind chimes were especially popular with children, but Machover himself was particularly pleased with the pianos. “It was very compelling to hear the final results on an acoustic piano, not through a computer,” he says.

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2.009 exposes students to the rewards of product development
By Katharine Dunn

Last fall, mechanical-engineering seniors enrolled in 2.009, Product Engineering Processes, were asked to rank their career goals in a preclass survey. The results were perhaps characteristic of financially strapped students: more than half put management consulting at the top of their lists. Near the bottom for most was product development. “We were very profit minded,” says Christina Bonebreak ‘05.

But in a survey conducted at the end of the semester, Associate Professor David Wallace, SM ‘91, PhD ‘95, found that their goals had flipped: product development was at the top, management consulting at the bottom. One possible explanation is that the one-semester course offers students deadline-driven, real-world experiences that demonstrate to many of them, perhaps for the first time, how work they do can help people.

At the beginning of the semester, the 100 students in the class are randomly divided into six groups of 15 to 18 each. Their task is to devise a product around a theme, which last year was alternative energy, energy conservation, and cleaner energy. Each team spends the first two months of the class simply settling on a project. First, the teammates do market research and come up with about 100 product ideas. Then they attend a fair where researchers and nonprofits present problems they may choose to try to solve. Wallace, who has run the course since 1996, added the idea fair to the curriculum in 2002 as a way to introduce students to more service-related products.

Most of the teams developed products suggested at the 2004 fair. Kinkajuice, a human-powered battery charger that works like a rowing machine, solved a problem posed by the Cambridge, MA-based nonprofit Design That Matters. Another team built a charcoal extruder that creates charcoal briquettes from empty sugar cane stalks. The problem, posed by Amy Smith ‘84, Eng ‘95, SM ‘95, of the Edgerton Center, was to provide an alternative fuel that could be used in Haiti, whose main source of fuel has been depleted by deforestation. The fair also inspired students to create the Vacpac, a backpack refrigerator for carrying vaccines to remote villages in developing countries, and Sol-Pump, a water pump that runs off thermal energy collected in a solar trough. The idea for the Sol-Pump came from an engineering educational center in Lesotho, Africa, that develops alternative power sources. There were a couple consumer products, however. Students developed MP4ever, an MP3 player that uses a runner’s motion to charge itself, and Sonic Seesaw, a see-saw that powers a pipe organ as children rock up and down on it.

The teams are given lab space in which to build their products, a shed of tools, and $6,500 for supplies–a sum underwritten by corporate sponsors including Ford, General Motors, and United Technologies. Throughout the term, they’re graded and ranked against each other on sketch models, mock-ups, and final presentations, where they present their preliminary business plans and demonstrate prototypes.

But for many students, the class’s greatest reward has nothing to do with grades. Says Dexter Ang ‘05, who is fabricating a second-generation charcoal extruder for his undergraduate thesis, “It was what was missing from my MIT experience: using my mind to help people.” Some of the 2.009 products may do just that. The Sol-Pump has already been tested in Africa and the charcoal produced by the extruder in Haiti, and so far the responses to both devices have been encouraging.

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History in Pictures

A Welcome to MIT’s New President

Making Their Point

Speed on the Deep

Space Suit Redux

A Tropical Connection

A Star Student

Music in the Garden

Real-World Engineering

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