Current research, “Ingenious Machines” open new MIT Museum gallery.
When students and alumni walk into the Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery at the MIT Museum, they may experience slight déjà vu. The exposed ductwork and tangle of pipes evoke a lab-like atmosphere, and the exhibits offer glimpses into working labs. The gallery’s interactive media space, MIT 360, can even link world-class scientists and museum visitors in real-time virtual discussions.
The new gallery spans 5,000 square feet on the ground floor of the MIT Museum (see web.mit.edu/museum/), with a wall of windows on Massachusetts Avenue symbolizing the intention to share current research with the public. MIT 360 is furnished with benches and equipped with a 7-by-12-foot screen for data and video presentations; one of its features, called Live-Link, can connect audiences to researchers in their laboratories on campus and worldwide. MIT 360 will also extend the museum’s popular Soap Box salon-style discussions with top researchers to live online audiences. Museum director John Durant expects MIT 360 to appeal in particular to alumni eager to talk to scientists working on pioneering projects. Molecular-biology professor Nancy Hopkins might provide updates on her zebrafish gene-mapping project from her campus lab, or engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute might chat as they receive and interpret data from remotely operated vehicles on the ocean floor.
“We can’t easily take audiences to Woods Hole on the Cape, but we can have them Live-Link to engineers on the Cape,” Durant says. “We can have audiences viewing that data in real time along with the researchers, who can discuss how they’re viewing it.”
The Innovation Gallery also hosts an evolving set of multimedia exhibits and programs designed to foster public engagement with science in general–and MIT in particular. Opening exhibits include a stackable electric car for cities and robots that explore the ocean floor–including Jason Jr., the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that explored the Titanic, and the original Jason, an ROV built by Ron Walrod ‘70, SM ‘70, more than 30 years ago. Visitors can use a state-of-the-art simulator to operate a virtual ROV, view archival underwater footage, and watch video interviews with MIT scientists and engineers (see “Untethered in the Deep,” p. M18).
Durant says that the Innovation Gallery introduces the public to a research world that’s mostly closed to nonscientists. With this new access, the museum hopes, the public’s enthusiasm for science and technology will grow.
The gallery “tells MIT’s story, but it’s also an education vehicle,” says Mark Epstein ‘63, a leading supporter. “That’s one of the functions of MIT. These outreach efforts help the world and the United States.” Other major contributors to the $3 million museum renovation are Daniel B. Grunberg ‘83, SM ‘83, PhD ‘86, vice chair of the MIT Museum Advisory Board; Phillip A. Sharp HM, Institute Professor of biology and a member of the advisory board; and Ron Cordover ‘64, SM ‘65, PhD ‘67, and his wife, Barbara.
As a counterpoint to current research, the “Ingenious Machines” exhibit highlights the work of the late professor emeritus Claude Shannon, SM ‘40, PhD ‘40, known as the father of digital communications and information theory. He was also a father of two who created fantastic mechanical toys to amuse his children. His inventions include a mechanical mouse that uses artificial intelligence to navigate through a maze to find cheese; a juggling W. C. Fields; and THROBAC, a calculator that uses Roman numerals.
Shannon’s creations illustrate the blend of genius and whimsy that fuels the Institute’s creative output, says exhibit curator Deborah Douglas. “I hope the display reveals qualities that all MIT alums recognize about the Institute. It’s a place that values creativity, but humor, too.”