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Letters

A Renaissance Woman
I really enjoyed your article on ­Sangeeta Bhatia, SM ’93, PhD ’97 (“A Renaissance Woman for the Nano Age,” March/April 2016). The article captures how she spans so many areas, bringing collaborators from different fields together in her academic research as well as in the companies she has founded.

Even when she was a freshman engineering student at Brown, you could tell that Sangeeta had the intelligence, drive, and curiosity to do amazing things in biomedical engineering.

This story is part of the May/June 2016 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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Like Sangeeta’s, my parents are immigrants, so the line about how her parents thought there were only three potentially acceptable occupations—engineer, doctor, or entrepreneur—really resonated with me. Sangeeta has managed to “become all three.” This is her way in work and in her life: it is always AND, not OR.

Theresia Gouw
Venture capitalist and cofounder, Aspect Ventures
San Francisco, California

Words of Winkdom
When I arrived at MIT in August 1972, I was temporarily assigned to ­MacGregor House’s B-Entry living group. On my first day, upperclassmen were shooting tiddlywinks along the carpet and down the center staircase (that’s not how it is played competitively!). Days later, I became a winker, learning to pot winks (shoot them into a target container) and squop (cover opponents’ winks to disable them) as I mastered the intricacies of tiddlywinks strategy. 

Little did I know when I decided to live there that MacGregor House was a major center of tiddlywinks at MIT, or that MIT had sent a team just months before to compete in England, where they won all but one match, very much surprising the Brits.

Top winker Larry Kahn ’75 (“Unsquoppable,” March/April 2016) was a winking partner of mine for many years. We won the North American Tiddlywinks Association Pairs Cham-pionship in 1996. Larry has a natural knack for making shots: he makes them look easy, though often they are not. Larry is also always a potting marvel—if you are an opponent, don’t let him have all six of his winks free (unsquopped), since he’ll likely shoot all six into the pot in one turn without missing, and beat you.

As a tiddlywinks historian, I’m pleased to report that many winkers who have played for MIT since 1966 will be joining winkers from all of winkdom around the globe to mark the 50th anniversary of the North American Tiddlywinks Association this year. Celebrations will be held in August in Massachusetts and the Washington, D.C., area. Winkers can find details at tiddlywinks.org/50th.

Rick Tucker ’76
Alexandria, Virginia

What More MIT Should Do About the Climate Challenge
I commend MIT for deciding to make the danger of global heating a major focus (“Act Now,” January/February 2016). However, the report, “MIT and the Climate Challenge,” omits some important actions that I believe MIT should take.

First of all, MIT should stop using the term “climate change,” which was imposed by Bush’s officials to obscure what is at stake. “Change” can go in many directions; it can be good, bad, or neutral. Thus, the term “climate change” avoids the crucial point about these particular changes: they have a known overall direction, which is going to be very, very bad. The term encourages people to downplay the need for action, which is why denialists chose it.

Since that outcome is not what MIT seeks, I suggest MIT use the terms “global heating” and “climate mayhem,” which reflect the gravity of the problem.

The report proposes that MIT institute an internal “carbon price”—a term generally associated with the “cap and trade” system in which companies buy and sell emissions quotas.

Properly designed and carefully applied, emissions quota trading can be effective; the hard parts are the design and the application. This won’t be hard within MIT. MIT is small enough, and well-governed enough, for any emissions trading scheme it adopts to really be carried out. If flaws appear, MIT will be able to correct them so that the scheme functions. MIT’s emissions trading might well be a success on its own terms.

That doesn’t mean it will provide a useful example for the world, because the world has already tried this method. Applying it to the world, or even a continent, would lead to problems that won’t arise within MIT.

Greenhouse emission trading in Europe is a flop because companies game the system. The price of carbon emission in Europe has become so small that it discourages nothing. Companies have increased their carbon emissions since 2000, in exchange for the “decreases” of factories that shut down in the ’90s. The broken scheme has not been fixed, not because it is hard to come up with a fix but because industrial lobbies block it.

We have also seen schemes that purport to offset today’s carbon emissions by planting trees that will grow over the course of 20 years, if they aren’t killed by global-heating effects—assuming they are really planted.

In order for MIT’s carbon price to set an example useful at the world level, it should be implemented through an internal carbon tax that each cost center would pay based on its emissions. This might replace part of the overhead payments that research contracts charge now. If this scheme succeeds, it will provide an example that could be a useful lesson for the world.

I especially commend the attention paid in the report to harm done by disinformation, which sabotages the use of science in public decision-making and sometimes also (as in Canada) scientific research and the communication of its results. Political, funded global-heating denial, as documented in the film Merchants of Doubt, is the reason humanity has not adopted policies that can avoid global-heating disaster. Wealthy planet roasters have even infiltrated WGBH-TV, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Museum of Natural History. While it is hard for us to determine what concrete effect they have had on those organizations, we can suppose they consider it sufficient to be worth their time and money.

I chose the term “planet roasters” with care, to describe a campaign that callously risks destroying human civilization and wiping out most species of life on Earth. Fighting them requires and justifies righteous disgust; a dispassionate tone understates what’s at stake. In researching methods to overcome disinformation, MIT should consider this method.

MIT should go beyond studying corrective measures; it should make use of all its communications to work against disinformation. Every MIT website, every MIT publication, every MIT Press publication, every letter sent on MIT letterhead, should carry this message.

Efforts to obstruct and sabotage science are not limited to greenhouse gases and global heating. They are especially strong in the pharmaceutical field, where companies have created “medical journals” to publish positive results about their products—while they use research contracts to suppress publication of negative results. Meanwhile, the paywalls on most scientific journals undermine science in general.

I therefore suggest that MIT plan to become a living laboratory for integrity in doing and using science.

Richard Stallman
Visiting scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), founder and president of the Free Software Foundation
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

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