Image of the Day: Orange garden spider

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Pictured here is an orange garden spider. Some orange spiders can measure approximately 14 mm in body length, and can range in color from bright orange to a faint yellow. Belonging to a group of spiders known as orb weavers, the shape of the orange garden spider’s web is that of a wheel. These webs feature supporting lines that act as a main framework. Attached to the supporting lines are silk threads that emanate from the center of the web, much like the spokes of a wheel. Orange garden spiders also create zigzag patterns within their webs. These threads vibrate in order to alert the spider of captured prey. Although their webs are sticky in nature, orange garden spiders secrete a substance that prevents them from adhering to their own silk.

Image credit: Jena Johnson, Up Close Photography

Francis Collins: Scientists must engage with the world

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins yesterday urged an MIT audience to “reflect on what our role is as scientists and citizens of the world.”

“What we’re engaged in is a noble enterprise,” Collins told attendees at the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture, who filled Room 10-250. “It is an opportunity to alleviate suffering and reach out to those who need help.”

This is all the more important in the face of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed nearly 5,000 lives and is expected to take many more, Collins said. He noted that the NIH has been supporting the search for Ebola vaccines since the mid-1990s, and now has two candidates poised to enter Phase II clinical trials in December. “I wish we were one or two years ahead of where we are now,” he added.

In what was undoubtedly the first Compton Lecture with a musical conclusion, Collins then summoned Pardis Sabeti, a Broad Institute researcher, guitarist Bob Katsiaficas, and the MIT Logarhythms a cappella group to help him lead the audience in performing a song, “One Truth,” which Sabeti and Katsiaficas wrote after the deaths of three of Sabeti’s colleagues in Sierra Leone who contracted Ebola last summer.

Striking a balance

During his lecture, Collins also acknowledged the budget limitations that have forced his agency to cut back on its funding of medical research. That only makes it more difficult for the NIH to achieve the right balance between its two missions: supporting basic scientific research and applying new knowledge to enhance human health, Collins said.

“We talk about that every day at NIH,” he said. “I wish we had more resources so we could do more of both.”

Collins noted that MIT received $103 million in NIH funding in fiscal year 2014 and highlighted some of the projects supported by that money. Linda Griffith, a professor in MIT’s biological engineering and mechanical engineering departments, is working on a “liver on a chip” — a small device designed to mimic the three-dimensional architecture of the human liver, allowing researchers to test potential drugs before they go into clinical trials. One version of the chip also includes breast cancer cells, enabling an investigation of what happens when cancer metastasizes to the liver.

Projects like this could help translate the vast amount of information scientists have learned about the molecular basis of disease into treatments for patients. Scientists now understand the causes of nearly 5,500 diseases, but effective therapies exist for only about 500 of those, Collins noted. “There’s a huge gap between what we know and what we’re able to do,” he said.

Devices such as the liver on a chip could help close that gap by reducing the time it takes to get a potential drug from the discovery process to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — a process that currently takes an average of 14 years.

“This kind of technology is enormously promising for understanding biology, and also to speed up the process of identifying what is a safe and effective drug,” Collins says.

Several MIT researchers were also among the recipients of the recently announced NIH Brain Initiative grants. Six of the 58 grants went to MIT, more than any other institution. At this early stage, most of the projects are dedicated to developing new technologies that will eventually help researchers understand how the brain’s 86 billion neurons communicate with each other to perform functions such as forming memories, processing sensory information, and initiating movement.

“It’s an audacious idea that we might be able to understand how circuits in the human brain do the amazing things they do,” Collins said.

A louder voice

Asked how scientists can help to persuade government officials and the public that scientific research deserves more resources, Collins said that all scientists should be ready to explain their work to anyone who asks about it.

“The job we all have is to be prepared at any moment to explain what we do and why it matters,” he said. “I don’t think the science community has a voice that has been heard as loudly as it should in terms of the importance of what we do.”

He also pointed out some achievements of health research over the past several decades. Over the past 60 years, U.S. deaths from cardiovascular disease have dropped 70 percent, while deaths from cancer are now falling by about 1 percent a year, a modest but hard-fought advance. Furthermore, patients diagnosed with HIV can now expect to live a full lifespan; 30 years ago, the diagnosis was considered a death sentence.

“We need to be tireless in making people aware of why this is a very important investment in our nation,” Collins said.

By Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Mexican free-tail bat

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The Mexican free-tailed bat, also known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat and Austonian bridge bat, is a medium-sized bat that is native to the Americas and is widely regarded as one of the most abundant mammals in North America. However, its proclivity towards roosting in large numbers in relatively few roosts makes it especially vulnerable to human disturbance and habitat destruction. In the western coastal state of California, the bat is considered a species of special concern as a result of declining populations.

Image credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer

Shifting up to higher octane

If the majority of light-duty vehicles in the United States ran on higher-octane gasoline, the automotive industry as a whole would reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million tons per year, saving up to $6 billion in fuel costs, according to a new analysis by MIT researchers.

In a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the team considered a scenario in which fuel is manufactured under a redefined octane rating — the measure of a gasoline’s ability to resist engine knocking during combustion.

Currently in the United States, a car’s octane rating is based on the antiknock index (AKI) — a specification for fuel composition that is determined by a standard research octane number (RON) and a motor octane number (MON). The resulting octane ratings for today’s car engines typically range from 87 (regular fuel) to 93 (premium, or high-octane, fuel) — numbers that are commonly displayed at the pump. The higher the octane rating, the more resistant the fuel is to knocking.

However, the MIT researchers deemed AKI — and more specifically, MON — to be an outdated measure of engine performance, originally designed to apply to older, carbureted engines rather than modern, fuel-injected engines. To bring the octane rating system up to date, the team considered doing away with MON, and basing engine performance solely on RON.

The revised octane rating system would boost the fuel grade of regular gasoline to 93, and premium to 98. The researchers reasoned that the higher fuel grades, while still appropriate for use in today’s engines, could also give oil refiners the opportunity to produce higher-octane fuel, which in turn could spur manufacturers to design vehicles to run on higher-octane — an innovation that could lead to more efficient vehicles.

“The efficiency of gasoline engines depends on the octane number, but that’s not something that’s changed in quite a while,” says Raymond Speth, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “If [manufacturers] know the gasoline is higher-octane, they can design engines to have a higher compression ratio, which would make the engine smaller and more efficient, both of which are a benefit.”

A high-octane lifecycle

To explore the economic and environmental consequences of a higher-octane fleet, Speth and his colleagues first modeled a vehicle fleet transition from regular to higher-octane gasoline. The team factored in a policy-decision period of about three years to put in place a revised octane rating system, and an additional three to five years for manufacturers to redesign engines to meet the new standards. Based on these constraints, the researchers estimate that by 2040, 80 percent of light-duty vehicles in the U.S. would transition to higher-octane fuel.

The researchers estimated the environmental and economic cost of such a scenario by running simulations of the oil-refining process and vehicle performance, and performing a life-cycle analysis of the resulting carbon dioxide emissions.

The team found that vehicles running on higher-octane fuel would be more efficient, consuming 3 to 4.5 percent less gasoline, for a projected savings of up to $6.4 billion per year by 2040.

Based on its oil-refinery modeling, the group found that producing higher-octane fuel would increase an oil refinery’s emissions by 6 percent — an increase that is minor when compared with the balance of emissions from fuel production. When assessing the emissions produced by everything from extracting crude oil to transporting it to refineries and burning it in car engines, the team found that a higher-octane vehicle fleet would reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million tons per year — a decrease that stems mostly from more-efficient engines.

“Overall, you’re decreasing carbon dioxide emissions by 3 to 4 percent, at negative cost,” says Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and co-author of the paper. “It’s one of the few things you can do to decrease carbon dioxide, while at the same time saving money.”

In sum, the researchers found that redefining the octane rating system in the U.S. to encourage higher-octane consumption would have both economic and environmental benefits. To change the system, however, will require consensus from multiple parties.

“It’s an issue that has a lot of stakeholders that will have to agree,” Speth says. “When you have this evidence that there’s this real economic benefit, hopefully you can say, ‘Look, there are pieces of the pie that can be divvied up to provide a benefit to almost everyone involved: the refineries, the vehicle manufacturers, and the consumers.’”

The paper’s co-authors include John Heywood, William Green, Eric Chow, and Robert Malina. The research was sponsored through the BP-MIT Conversion Program.

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Cloud-to-ground lightning

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Cloud-to-ground lightning occurs when an electrical charge travels between a negatively charged cloud base and the positively charged ground. This is the most spectacular variation of lightning, forming brilliant, jagged bolts between the sky and the ground. Each lightning stroke lasts a fraction of a second. Sometimes a number of strokes is needed to discharge the electrical build-up, giving the lightning a flickering appearance. Often the main stroke combines with smaller offshoots that discharge into the air or inside the cloud.

Image credit: Greg Thompson, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

AeroAstro turns 100

On Friday, 11 astronauts — all MIT alumni — took to the stage of Kresge Auditorium to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The elite corps of explorers reminisced about their unique on-the-job experiences, from day-to-day tasks on the International Space Station to high-pressure exercises, such as the emergency dismantling of a handrail on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Moderator Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems who was nominated last week by President Barack Obama to serve as NASA’s deputy administrator, took a moment to direct a question to the packed auditorium: “Who wants [the astronauts’] job?”

In response, it seemed nearly everyone raised a hand.

Indeed, a recurring theme during AeroAstro’s three-day centennial celebration was the sending of more humans into space — and in particular, the prospect of establishing a human settlement on Mars.

“One hundred years from now, students will be studying the Lewis and Clark-like expedition to Mars,” predicted astronaut Christopher Cassidy SM ’00. 

Just as with that 19th-century trek, a journey to the Red Planet would require enormous resources, ingenuity, and a good amount of risk — a point that was raised by another generation of risk-takers: nine Apollo-era astronauts, including Apollo 11 crewmates Buzz Aldrin ScD ’63 and Michael Collins, who reunited at MIT to celebrate AeroAstro’s centennial.

Questions of whether and how humans might establish a Martian colony prompted a spirited discussion among the Apollo astronauts, who debated the merits of carrying out such a monumental mission either through NASA or private companies like SpaceX.  

“In the risk-averse society we’ve become, we need to find a way to take a risk … to cross that boundary and go to the next frontier,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham said.

Russell “Rusty” Schweickart ’56, SM ’63, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 9, said the places where risks are now taken — and innovations are made — are in private enterprise.

“When you go today to any gathering of people involved in private space initiatives, the juices are flowing,” Schweickart said. “I mean, it’s a rock concert, man … things are really bubbling.”

On an “upward-sloping sine wave”

One of the rock stars in the commercial space arena was on hand to offer some thoughts on the subject: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, was a featured speaker at the event. In a one-on-one conversation with department head Jaime Peraire, the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Musk talked about his vision for advancing rocket technology to launch future colonists to Mars.

Toward that goal, he revealed plans to land the company’s Falcon 9 rocket booster on a small, floating platform as soon as December. If the rocket lands safely, it could be a big step toward the development of reusable rockets, which Musk estimates could save 90 percent in launch costs.

“Our pace of innovation is much faster than the big aerospace companies,” Musk said. “That has to be true from a Darwinian perspective, because small companies would die otherwise.”

On the topic of human evolution, Musk advocated for a multiplanetary species, seeing the establishment of a colony on Mars as “insurance” against human extinction on Earth. As aerospace technology continues to improve on an “upward-sloping sine wave,” Musk hopes to jump at the chance to expand to Mars.

“This is the first time this window [to Mars] has been open in the history of Earth,” Musk said. “I hope it will always be open, but it may close.”

A fluid transition

The seizing of technological opportunities has been a hallmark of AeroAstro since 1914, when it established the country’s first course in aeronautical engineering.

Since then, the department has had a hand in shaping aerospace milestones, from building the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel in 1938 — a facility used to test World War II aircraft — to developing the Apollo spacecraft’s guidance, control, and computer systems.

AeroAstro alumni have gone on to lead important aerospace achievements, from the development of the B-2 stealth bomber to the design of the Mars Pathfinder’s laser altimeter.

“AeroAstro at MIT has had a more extraordinary influence on our technology than almost any other institution,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “MIT has made a fluid transition from air to space, and keeps on going.”

Changing the world

Looking to the future of aerospace, experts at MIT and elsewhere considered the state of aviation, autonomous systems, small satellites, and aeronautical education.

As in space exploration, the aviation industry may benefit from taking a few risks to enable innovations in fuel efficiency, said John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems.

“We’re sort of a victim of our own success,” Hansman said. “When the system works so well, it’s hard to move off of the design point.”

In the arena of autonomous systems, panelists explored the possibility of airspace and roadways populated with robots.

“There’s a trust element to all these autonomous systems,” said Jonathan How, the Richard Cockburn Maclaurin Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “At what point are you willing to hop in the back seat and let the system drive? How do we convey enough information to the human so they feel comfortable with the system?”

How and his students are working to improve navigation and control of autonomous air and ground vehicles in uncertain environments.

In a conversation revolving around the development of small satellites, David Miller, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and chief technologist at NASA, pointed to shoebox-sized satellites as express tracks to space.

“It’s access to space on a modest budget,” Miller said. “And they’ve encapsulated risk … if you scramble the yolk inside, you won’t mess up the rest of the vehicle.”

Kerri Cahoy, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, is designing a constellation of small satellites that will work together to point small mirrors in a configuration to mimic a large space telescope’s mirror. The hope is to deploy such an array in space to detect faraway objects, such as exoplanets.

“It comes down to one of the things MIT is really awesome at, which is using algorithms, clever architecture designs, to get these distributed satellite systems controlled and looking where we want, and discussing amongst themselves,” Cahoy said.

In a panel exploring the future of aeronautical education, Karen Willcox, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, noted the lofty aspirations and weighty course load of the average MIT student.

“Students are not here just to learn the nitty-gritty of aeronautics, but they also want to change the world,” Willcox said. “How do we help them pack all this into an already-overflowing four-year degree?”

One way, Willcox said, is through the department’s flexible curriculum, 16-ENG, in which students combine a pared-down core of AeroAstro classes with another concentration in, for example, planetary science, or autonomous systems.

Hats off

While there’s been much emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins urged the adoption of STEEM, or STEAM — variants of STEM that include English and the arts.

To make his case, Collins invoked Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost.” From a STEM perspective, “It’s about a guy who falls off a cliff,” Collins said. To demonstrate a perspective that takes the humanities into account, Collins recited an excerpt from the poem, prompting a burst of applause.

On Friday, Collins’ modern counterparts — current and recent astronauts — took the stage to talk about life in zero gravity, and historic missions to deliver the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

Franklin Chang-Diaz ScD ’77 recalled receiving that first call from NASA — “I thought it was a joke” — welcoming him into the astronaut corps.

Cassidy remembered his first time stepping out into space — an event that was preceded by an errant drinking straw that escaped the airlock and “disappeared down in the clouds,” Cassidy said. “I remember gripping down and thinking, I don’t want to be that straw.”

Mike Massimino SM ’88, PhD ’92 recounted his most harrowing moment, trying to remove a handrail on the Hubble Space Telescope. The handrail was an obstacle to an instrument that needed repair, but the required tools wouldn’t budge it. Instead, Massimino was instructed to rip the handrail off with brute force — an experience he still describes as “a nightmare.”

As the panel opened the session to questions from the audience, Collins approached the microphone, not with a question, but a comment.

“I’d just like to take my hat off to you guys,” Collins said. “Thank you for doing what you do so beautifully well.”

To make sure the audience didn’t forget its history, Massimino quipped, “You know who that was, right?” 

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

Can the U.S. and Russia make more progress on nuclear security?

Political tensions between the U.S. and Russia have increased in the last year, raising concerns about how effectively the two states will be able to pursue nuclear arms-reduction goals.

Striking a note of cautious optimism in an MIT talk yesterday, Rose Gottenmoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, praised Russia’s “businesslike” enforcement of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty, but cited a need for continued progress in other areas of nuclear security.

“The United States and Russia are continuing to implement the treaty in a businesslike manner, despite all the tensions,” Gottenmoeller said, referring to the military conflict in the Ukraine. The U.S. accuses Russia of occupying Ukrainian territory in Crimea; Russia claims the area is historically its own.

The U.S. and Russia inspect each other’s facilities 18 times a year as part of the New START Treaty, which was signed in 2010, went into effect in 2011, and calls for a reduction to 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on certain delivery systems by the year 2018.

Gottenmoeller said that “the Russians have been good partners” on issues such as removing chemical weapons from Syria, and reiterated American willingness to reduce nuclear arsenals by a further one-third, an offer President Barack Obama made publicly at a speech in Berlin in 2013.

“The greatest prize at the current time is if we can get the Russians to [pursue] the Berlin” proposal, Gottenmoeller said.

Still, as Gottenmoeller made clear in her remarks, areas of arms-control friction remain between the two states right now. She noted a central one early in her talk: The U.S. contends that Russia has been in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 U.S.-Soviet Union pact that bans ground-launched nuclear and conventional weapons with a range of up to 5,500 kilometers.

“We have been attempting to press this very serious matter with the Russian Federation,” Gottenmoeller said, emphasizing that the U.S. is “fully committed to the continued viability of the INF treaty, and we are in full compliance with it.”

The road ahead

Gottenmoeller’s public talk — “Future Prospects for U.S.-Russia Arms Control” — was delivered Thursday afternoon in MIT’s Building 54, in front of an audience that included students, faculty, diplomats, and peace activists. 

She emphasized that public awareness of both the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons and of recent progress in arms control needs to be enhanced.

“At the end of the Cold War, the looming threat of nuclear war seemed to drift away,” Gottenmoeller said. Public support for nuclear security has a practical dimension to it, since the U.S. Senate must ratify arms treaties — and public opinion has the ability to sway senators.

The U.S. has also significantly reduced a stockpile of what was once 31,000 nuclear weapons, Gottenmoeller noted; in another area of progress, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated on a program that has repurposed Russian nuclear materials — the equivalent of thousands of bombs — into nuclear-energy fuel in the U.S.

As for the next steps for nuclear security, Gottenmoeller suggested that further bilateral arms reductions between the U.S. and Russia should take precedence over multilateral arms-reduction talks among several of the world’s nuclear powers, including Britain, France, and China.

“To my mind, this [multilateral approach] doesn’t make sense, because the U.S. and Russia control 90 percent of nuclear weapons,” Gottenmoeller said.

The U.S. and Russia will also need to work together next spring to perform the mandated five-year review of 1970’s Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Weapons (NPT), the world’s largest and longest-lasting global nuclear-weapons agreement.

Gottenmoeller said it could be “a difficult review conference” for multiple reasons, including U.S. concerns over the spread of nuclear materials in the Middle East. However, she stated, “I want the NPT regime to be increasingly and constantly strengthened.”

Moreover, Gottenmoeller emphasized, “It is in the U.S. interest, and in the interest of countries around the world, that the 70-year history of nonuse of nuclear weapons be continued.” She concluded her talk by quoting former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, in what could be a mantra for arms negotiators: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Blue-footed Boobies

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This image of Blue-footed Boobies is part of NSF-funded research on what may ultimately cause the species’ extinction. A survey of Blue-footed Boobies throughout the taxon’s range in Galápagos, Ecuador, found approximately 6400 adults, compared to a rough estimate of 20,000 in the 1960s. Few pairs bred in 2011-2013, and almost no birds in juvenile plumage were seen. Long-term data suggest that poor breeding began in 1998. The poor reproduction seems to be linked to diet. Previous work indicated that sardine and herring supported successful breeding, but these fish were mostly absent from the birds’ diet during the study.

Image credit: David Anchundia, Wake Forest University

Image of the Day: The small blue yonder

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These are yttrium oxide crystals, activated using a special technique called atomic layer deposition to make them luminescent. Each crystal is smaller than the diameter of a single strand of spider silk. Yttrium oxide is used as a starter material to make everything from the red color in color TV picture tubes, to lasers and microwave filters.

Image credit: Angel Yanguas-Gil, Jeffrey W. Elam, and John N. Hryn

Historian David Mindell named 2015 AAIA Associate Fellow

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has selected MIT historian and engineer David A. Mindell as a 2015 AIAA Associate Fellow. 

“It is great honor to be selected,” said Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program of Science, Technology and Society (STS), and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “As aerospace engineering grapples with the critical importance of human beings in robotic and unmanned systems, it is heartening to see that the profession values humanistic perspectives.”

The AIAA selects individuals who have accomplished important engineering or scientific research; created original works of outstanding merit; or have made notable contributions to the arts, sciences, or technology of aeronautics or astronautics.

“David’s research has spanned all three areas — arts, sciences, and technology — showing how they are inseparable in the history of flight and space exploration,” said Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Head of STS. “His election as an AIAA fellow brings honor to STS, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and to MIT, fittingly on the eve of the Institute’s centennial celebration of the nation’s most distinguished aerospace program.”

Mindell will receive the award on Jan. 5, 2015, at a ceremony held in conjunction with the AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition in Kissimmee, Florida.


By Kierstin Wesolowski | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

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