Image of the Day: Dark Energy Survey kicks off second season cataloging the wonders of deep space

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This image of the NGC 1398 galaxy was taken with the Dark Energy Camera. This galaxy lives in the Fornax Cluster, roughly 65 million light-years from Earth. It is 135,000 light-years in diameter, just slightly larger than the Milky Way galaxy, and contains more than 100 billion stars. On August 15, with its successful first season behind it, the Dark Energy Survey collaboration began its second year of mapping the southern sky in unprecedented detail. Using the Dark Energy Camera, a 570 megapixel imaging device built by the collaboration and mounted on the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile, the survey’s five-year mission is to unravel the fundamental mystery of dark energy and its impact on the universe. Along the way, the survey will take some of the most breathtaking pictures of the cosmos ever captured.

Image credit: Dark Energy Survey

Tom Hughes: Remembering a non-lifer

Thomas Hughes, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT and Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away Feb. 3, 2014 at age 89. Hughes, who pioneered the field of the history of technology, was also a founder of the Society for the History of Technology. Below is a reflection on his life and contributions by his MIT colleague Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology. 

MIT is justifiably proud of its “lifers”: individuals who enter MIT as freshmen, continue here for graduate school, join the faculty, and live out their entire professional lives under the Great Dome. In some cases — Paul Gray and Sheila Widnall come to mind — the character of the individual becomes so intertwined with the character of the Institute that it becomes hard to know where one stops and the other begins.

Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014) was a non-lifer. He came to MIT in the 1960s for a short stint as an assistant professor. He soon moved on to other institutions, where over time he developed into the nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology. When he returned to MIT as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the 1990s and early 2000s, he brought with him a deep understanding of how the history of technology transforms our understanding of general history, as well as of the role and responsibilities of engineering. 

Would he have developed such perspectives if he had spent his whole career at MIT? This is an unanswerable question, but without question Tom Hughes reminds us of the invigorating role of non-lifers in our community.

The nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology 

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Thomas Parke Hughes served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. He stayed there to get his doctorate in modern European history in 1953. Tom came to MIT in the mid-1960s, when the relatively new School of Humanities and Social Science was trying to figure out how to stock a faculty for an amorphous Course XXI. He was part of a cohort of 13 junior faculty; only one of them (Bruce Mazlish, in history) was ultimately tenured. Along with the rest, Tom departed MIT, first for a temporary appointment at Johns Hopkins University and then for a professorship at Southern Methodist University.

At SMU, Tom published a biography of Elmer Sperry (1971), still valuable reading for anyone interested in engineering control systems and their role in 20th-century history. Primarily on the strength of this acclaimed study, he was invited to become a professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was 50 years old when he accepted the appointment, which elevated both him and the department to academic fame and glory. Graduate students applied to Penn to work with Tom, and the Philadelphia area became a magnet for historians of technology.

Conceptualizing technological systems, defining structures of modern life 

Tom sealed his pre-eminence in the field with the 1983 publication of “Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.” This was more than a comparative history of electrification in the United States, Britain, and Germany: It was also a manifesto declaring the concept of technological systems, which reoriented the history of technology from a focus on the invention of devices to a focus on the construction of large complex systems. Because such systems are defining structures of modern life, this reorientation confirmed the history of technology as an element of general history.

Tom began to write for broader audiences, most notably in “American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970″ (1989), which was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. Also in 1990, Tom returned to MIT as a visiting professor. He taught here for a semester and returned for shorter visits to help supervise graduate students and to run workshops on technological systems. The latter involved faculty from across the Institute, especially from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and from the School of Engineering. 

An enduring affinity for MIT

After retiring from Penn in 1994, Tom was elevated to Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT, and spent even more time here. In 1998, he was on campus for two months giving a series of lectures on “open technological systems,” which he defined as ones exhibiting “a complex mix of technical, economic, political, social, and environmental factors.” His favorite example was the Central Artery and Tunnel (CAT, better known as Boston’s “Big Dig”), with Fred Salvucci playing the role as chief system-builder. The CAT, along with the SAGE computer-based defense system and ARPANET, were featured in Tom’s book “Rescuing Prometheus” (1998), an influential cluster of case studies of open technological systems.

In a 2002 email to Philip Khoury (then dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requesting a renewal of his visiting appointment, Tom wrote: “I am so pleased to have the MIT appointment. For years, even decades, I have felt close to MIT, sharing its notable achievements and sensing its problems and opportunities.”

He went on to explain why he felt this closeness: “Over the years, I have tried to understand the character of the engineering profession and, in a limited way, broaden its horizons by helping it to see the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world. Engineers lament that they are not appreciated. They do not need the appreciation of others so much as they need secure self-esteem. This would come, I believe, if they accepted the messy complexity and moral dimensions of their calling.”

Technology as a part of a broader human history

Tom was already engaged with the problems and opportunities of engineering when I first met him in the mid-1960s, as a Radcliffe College senior serving him as a research assistant. I enjoyed visiting Tom to discuss my assignments, but the questions he asked me to research were sober and difficult. The imprint of World War II was pronounced. He was already studying the Manhattan Project as an engineering project, a topic he later wrote about in “American Genesis.” He was also, with obvious emotional difficulty, trying to understand the mechanisms of slaughter used in the Holocaust. Many years later I heard him discuss in a seminar the concept of “technological sin” as something both historians and engineers need to contemplate, because the historical world is a sinful one. 

Like William Barton Rogers himself, Tom Hughes came to MIT from Virginia with a vision of what technology and engineering mean in the broad context of human experience. Providing scholarly grounding for that vision was a difficult problem — but Tom would quote Sperry to the effect that he chose the most difficult problems because doing this was a way to avoid vulgar competition.

It took Tom many years in the academic wilderness to redefine technological systems and engineering practice as part of larger history. These views do not come naturally to MIT. We have too much invested in defining engineering as a specialized or semispecialized activity that brings order and moral clarity to the world. But engineering cannot assume “the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world” unless we confront its messy complexities and moral ambiguities. They inevitably arise because engineering is inseparable from political, economic, social, and legal structures and activities. By reminding us of this broad historical perspective, Tom Hughes, MIT non-lifer, made an immeasurable contribution to the life of the Institute.

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Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Communication and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Associate News Manager: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski 

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Image of the Day: Gulf fritillary

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Pictured at left is the gulf fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae). The gulf fritillary is of the family Nymphalidae, the largest family of butterflies with over 6,000 species. The top of the gulf fritillary’s wings are bright orange in color and have a span of 2.4 to3.7 inches. Its underwings are buff in color, with large silvery spots. It takes its common name from its migration over the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf fritillary is commonly seen in parks and gardens, as well as in open country. This butterfly’s range extends from Argentina through Central America, the Caribbean, the southern United States, to as far north as the San Francisco Bay Area.

Image credit: Elizabeth A. Sellers, USGS

Image of the Day: Rings around the ring nebula

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It is a familiar sight to sky enthusiasts with even a small telescope. There is much more to the Ring Nebula (M57), however, than can be seen through a small telescope. The easily visible central ring is about one light-year across, but this remarkably deep exposure – a collaborative effort combining data from three different large telescopes – explores the looping filaments of glowing gas extending much farther from the nebula’s central star. This remarkable composite image includes a narrowband hydrogen image, visible light emission, and infrared light emission. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from a dying, sun-like star.

Image credit: Robert Gendler

Startup with MIT roots wins R&D 100 Award

Leslie Bromberg, a research scientist at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and Alexander Sappok ’09 have been recognized by R&D Magazine for inventing one of the top 100 technologies of the year: the RF-DPF™ Diesel Particulate Filter Sensor. Sappok and Bromberg created the technology, which measures the amount, type, and distribution of contaminants on filters used to reduce engine and vehicle emissions, while Sappok was still a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory.

The two first met when Bromberg attended Sappok’s Sloan Lab seminar about his research on diesel particulate filters (DPF).  “After the seminar, Leslie talked to me about an idea he had regarding the potential use of microwaves to try and measure the soot build-up inside the DPF,” Sappok notes. “The core idea was to use inexpensive circuit chips already mass produced for cell phones and other wireless devices in a new and unique application. Rather than transmitting data wirelessly, our approach was to monitor changes in the wireless signal itself, and use the signal to sense specific quantities of interest, such as soot, in the DPF.”

Bromberg had a number of DPFs in his lab, left over from plasma experiments focused on making auto engines burn fuel more cleanly and efficiently. In their spare time Bromberg and Sappok conducted preliminary tests, first using toothpicks to simulate soot loading in the tiny filter channels.  

From those early primitive measurements they were able to demonstrate the proof-of-concept, and over the next few years they worked on the idea, eventually building a business case around the technology. Entering the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2009, they made it to the semifinals for the MIT Clean Energy Prize. They also worked closely with MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).

In 2009 Bromberg and Sappok formally incorporated their company as Filter Sensing Technologies, Inc. (FST). On the day of his graduation that year, Sappok received a letter from the National Science Foundation notifying him of a grant to further develop the technology.  This allowed FST to build a rough prototype and conduct an engine test at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to prove that the sensing method would work on an engine. The company has since grown, and in 2011 it received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further develop and commercialize the technology.

Bromberg and Sappok expect their sensing technology to offer an economical alternative to the current pressure sensor-based controls, which measure the amount of contaminants indirectly and suffer from a large degree of error. The RF-DPF can measure the amount of soot and ash directly and more accurately, enabling improved engine control and reduced fuel consumption. Results from fleet testing with Volvo/Mack trucks operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation have shown the potential to reduce the DPF-related fuel consumption by up to a factor of two, and have helped attract interest from major engine and vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers.

By Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center

Image of the Day: Bubble nucleation in stout beers

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This image was taken from a video showing cellulose fibers submerged in stout beer, observed under a microscope. Pockets of air trapped inside the fibers become seed bubbles that trigger nucleation (the formation of additional bubbles). In this final frame in a series, the bubble has left the fiber and floats up through the body of liquid, while a new seed bubble has formed inside the fiber. Research by Michael Devereux, a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Limerick in Ireland, found that microscopic plant fibers can be used to froth stout as well as a widget, the device developed by Guinness that’s currently used to form the frothy, creamy head in many stout brews.

Image credit: Michael Devereux, MACSI, University of Limerick, Ireland

Alan Guth shares $1 million Kavli Prize in Astrophysics

Alan Guth, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT, was awarded the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, announced yesterday by the Kavli Foundation in Oslo, linked by satellite to a session at the World Science Festival in New York.

Guth will share the $1 million prize with Andrei Linde of Stanford University and Alexei Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics in Russia. Together, they are cited by the Kavli Foundation “for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation.” 

Guth proposed the theory of cosmic inflation in 1980, the same year he joined the MIT faculty. The theory describes a period of extremely rapid exponential expansion within the first infinitesimal fraction of a second of the universe’s existence. At the end of inflation, approximately 14 billion years ago, the universe was in an extremely hot, dense, and small state, at the beginning of the more leisurely phase of expansion described by the conventional “Big Bang” theory. The conventional theory most successfully explains what happened after the bang, describing how the universe has cooled with expansion and how its expansion has been slowed by the attractive forces of gravity.

However, the conventional theory does not describe the mechanism that propelled the expansion of the universe in the first place, but the theory of cosmological inflation does: Guth hypothesized that the expansion of the universe was driven by repulsive gravitational forces generated by an exotic form of matter. Supported by three decades of development, including contributions from Linde, Andreas Albrecht, and Paul Steinhardt, Guth’s theory is now widely accepted by physicists.

The theory was further supported by an announcement in March by astronomers working on the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization telescope, which discovered evidence of gravitational waves produced by inflation. This experiment, however, has not yet been confirmed.

Cosmological inflation builds on general relativity’s description of gravity as a distortion of space-time, which allows for the possibility of repulsive gravity. At very high energies, like those that existed at the beginning of the universe, modern particle theory suggests that forms of matter that generate repulsive gravity should exist.

Inflation posits that this material inhabited at least a very small part of the universe, perhaps no more than 10-24 centimeters across, 100 billion times smaller than a proton. As the material began to expand, doubling every 10-37 seconds, any normal matter would thin out to a density of nearly zero.

Repulsive-gravity material behaves very differently, however, maintaining a constant density as it expands. While appearing to violate the principle of the conservation of energy, the constant density is enabled by an unusual feature of gravity: The energy of a gravitational field is negative.

As repulsive-gravity material exponentially expanded in the early universe, it created more and more energy in the form of matter. In turn, the gravitational field generated by matter created more and more negative energy.  The total energy remained constant. When inflation ended, the repulsive-gravity material decayed into a hot soup of the ordinary particles that would be the starting point for the conventional Big Bang.

Awarded in alternating years since 2008, the Kavli Prize recognizes outstanding scientific achievements in the categories of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. Guth, along with this year’s eight other recipients, will be presented with the award by King Harald of Norway at a ceremony in Oslo on Sept. 9.

The Kavli Prize was established in 2005 by the founder of the Kavli Foundation, Fred Kavli, as well as Kristin Clemet, Norway’s minister of education and research, and Jan Fridthjof Bernt, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Before the prize was established, Guth met Kavli several times, including at a dinner Kavli organized to discuss his philanthropic goals with a contingent of physicists. While opinions at the table differed, the group advised him against establishing the Kavli Prize.

“I don’t think I voiced an opinion on that subject,” Guth says, “but now I’m glad that we didn’t talk him out of it. I now think that prizes of this sort actually do help to put scientists in the spotlight, and that helps to elevate the status of scientists in the eyes of young people choosing careers. Nobody should go into science for the money, but it is important that science is viewed as something valued by society. Through the prizes and also through his funding of Kavli Institutes around the world, including at MIT, Fred Kavli has been crucially important in furthering the cause of science.”

Guth’s previous honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Franklin Medal for Physics from the Franklin Institute; the Dirac Prize from the International Center for Theoretical Physics; the Cosmology Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation; the Newton Prize of the Institute of Physics (U.K.); and the Fundamental Physics Prize of the Milner Foundation. 

By Bendta Schroeder | School of Science

Image of the Day: Probing new stellar explosion

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Pictured at left is an artist’s conception of the expanding blast wave from the star Eta Carinae’s 1843 eruption, an explosive, huge outburst that created the well-known, two-lobed Homunculus nebula (a slow-moving shell of gas and dust) and the fast shock wave that propagates ahead of it. In this image, taken from a sequence of images, as time passes, we see both the faster shock wave and the denser Homunculus expand and fill the interior of the old shell. Eventually, the faster blast wave begins to catch up, with and overtake parts of the older shell, producing a bright fireworks display that heats the older shell (the collision of the two generates X-rays ‘orange’, which have been observed by an orbiting observatory).

Image credit: Gemini Observatory artwork by Lynette Cook

Startup with MIT roots wins R&D 100 Award

Leslie Bromberg, a research scientist at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and Alexander Sappok ’09 have been recognized by R&D Magazine for inventing one of the top 100 technologies of the year: the RF-DPF™ Diesel Particulate Filter Sensor. Sappok and Bromberg created the technology, which measures the amount, type, and distribution of contaminants on filters used to reduce engine and vehicle emissions, while Sappok was still a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory.

The two first met when Bromberg attended Sappok’s Sloan Lab seminar about his research on diesel particulate filters (DPF).  “After the seminar, Leslie talked to me about an idea he had regarding the potential use of microwaves to try and measure the soot build-up inside the DPF,” Sappok notes. “The core idea was to use inexpensive circuit chips already mass produced for cell phones and other wireless devices in a new and unique application. Rather than transmitting data wirelessly, our approach was to monitor changes in the wireless signal itself, and use the signal to sense specific quantities of interest, such as soot, in the DPF.”

Bromberg had a number of DPFs in his lab, left over from plasma experiments focused on making auto engines burn fuel more cleanly and efficiently. In their spare time Bromberg and Sappok conducted preliminary tests, first using toothpicks to simulate soot loading in the tiny filter channels.  

From those early primitive measurements they were able to demonstrate the proof-of-concept, and over the next few years they worked on the idea, eventually building a business case around the technology. Entering the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2009, they made it to the semifinals for the MIT Clean Energy Prize. They also worked closely with MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).

In 2009 Bromberg and Sappok formally incorporated their company as Filter Sensing Technologies, Inc. (FST). On the day of his graduation that year, Sappok received a letter from the National Science Foundation notifying him of a grant to further develop the technology.  This allowed FST to build a rough prototype and conduct an engine test at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to prove that the sensing method would work on an engine. The company has since grown, and in 2011 it received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further develop and commercialize the technology.

Bromberg and Sappok expect their sensing technology to offer an economical alternative to the current pressure sensor-based controls, which measure the amount of contaminants indirectly and suffer from a large degree of error. The RF-DPF can measure the amount of soot and ash directly and more accurately, enabling improved engine control and reduced fuel consumption. Results from fleet testing with Volvo/Mack trucks operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation have shown the potential to reduce the DPF-related fuel consumption by up to a factor of two, and have helped attract interest from major engine and vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers.

By Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center

Image of the Day: ALMA confirms comets forge organic molecules in their dusty atmospheres

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An international team of scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has made incredible 3-D images of the ghostly atmospheres surrounding comets ISON and Lemmon. These new observations provided important insights into how and where comets forge new chemicals, including intriguing organic compounds.

Image credit: Visualization by Brian Kent (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

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