Image of the Day: STAR detector

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Solenoidal Tracker (STAR) at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) is a detector which specializes in tracking the thousands of particles produced by each ion collision at RHIC. Weighing 1,200 tons and as large as a house, STAR is a massive detector. It is used to search for signatures of the form of matter that RHIC was designed to create: the quark-gluon plasma. It is also used to investigate the behavior of matter at high energy densities by making measurements over a large area.

Image credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Plasma shield

High above Earth’s atmosphere, electrons whiz past at close to the speed of light. Such ultrarelativistic electrons, which make up the outer band of the Van Allen radiation belt, can streak around the planet in a mere five minutes, bombarding anything in their path. Exposure to such high-energy radiation can wreak havoc on satellite electronics, and pose serious health risks to astronauts.

Now researchers at MIT, the University of Colorado, and elsewhere have found there’s a hard limit to how close ultrarelativistic electrons can get to the Earth. The team found that no matter where these electrons are circling around the planet’s equator, they can get no further than about 11,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface — despite their intense energy.  

What’s keeping this high-energy radiation at bay seems to be neither the Earth’s magnetic field nor long-range radio waves, but rather a phenomenon termed “plasmaspheric hiss” — very low-frequency electromagnetic waves in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that, when played through a speaker, resemble static, or white noise.

Based on their data and calculations, the researchers believe that plasmaspheric hiss essentially deflects incoming electrons, causing them to collide with neutral gas atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and ultimately disappear. This natural, impenetrable barrier appears to be extremely rigid, keeping high-energy electrons from coming no closer than about 2.8 Earth radii — or 11,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface.

“It’s a very unusual, extraordinary, and pronounced phenomenon,” says John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “What this tells us is if you parked a satellite or an orbiting space station with humans just inside this impenetrable barrier, you would expect them to have much longer lifetimes. That’s a good thing to know.”

Foster and his colleagues, including lead author Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, have published their results this week in the journal Nature.

Shields up

The team’s results are based on data collected by NASA’s Van Allen Probes — twin crafts that are orbiting within the harsh environments of the Van Allen radiation belts. Each probe is designed to withstand constant radiation bombardment in order to measure the behavior of high-energy electrons in space.

The researchers analyzed the first 20 months of data returned by the probes, and observed an “exceedingly sharp” barrier against ultrarelativistic electrons. This barrier held steady even against a solar wind shock, which drove electrons toward the Earth in a “step-like fashion” in October 2013. Even under such stellar pressure, the barrier kept electrons from penetrating further than 11,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

To determine the phenomenon behind the barrier, the researchers considered a few possibilities, including effects from the Earth’s magnetic field and transmissions from ground-based radios.

For the former, the team focused in particular on the South Atlantic Anomaly — a feature of the Earth’s magnetic field, just over South America, where the magnetic field strength is about 30 percent weaker than in any other region. If incoming electrons were affected by the Earth’s magnetic field, Foster reasoned, the South Atlantic Anomaly would act like a “hole in the path of their motion,” allowing them to fall deeper into the Earth’s atmosphere. Judging from the Van Allen probes’ data, however, the electrons kept their distance of 11,000 kilometers, even beyond the effects of the South Atlantic Anomaly — proof that the Earth’s magnetic field had little effect on the barrier.

Foster also considered the effect of long-range, very-low-frequency (VLF) radio transmissions, which others have proposed may cause significant loss of relatively high-energy electrons. Although VLF transmissions can leak into the upper atmosphere, the researchers found that such radio waves would only affect electrons with moderate energy levels, with little or no effect on ultrarelativistic electrons.

Instead, the group found that the natural barrier may be due to a balance between the electrons’ slow, earthward motion, and plasmaspheric hiss. This conclusion was based on the Van Allen probes’ measurement of electrons’ pitch angle — the degree to which an electron’s motion is parallel or perpendicular to the Earth’s magnetic field. The researchers found that plasmaspheric hiss acts slowly to rotate electrons’ paths, causing them to fall, parallel to a magnetic field line, into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where they are likely to collide with neutral atoms and disappear.

Mary Hudson, a professor of physics at Dartmouth College, says the data from the Van Allen probes “are providing remarkably detailed measurements” of the Earth’s radiation belts and their boundaries.

“These new observations confirm, over the two years since launch of the Van Allen probes, the persistence of this inner boundary, which places additional constraints on theories of particle acceleration and loss in magnetized astrophysical systems,” says Hudson, who did not participate in the research.

Seen through “new eyes”

Foster says this is the first time researchers have been able to characterize the Earth’s radiation belt, and the forces that keep it in check, in such detail. In the past, NASA and the U.S. military have launched particle detectors on satellites to measure the effects of the radiation belt: NASA was interested in designing better protection against such damaging radiation; the military, Foster says, had other motivations.

“In the 1960s, the military created artificial radiation belts around the Earth by the detonation of nuclear warheads in space,” Foster says. “They monitored the radiation belt changes, which were enormous. And it was realized that, in any kind of nuclear war situation, this could be one thing that could be done to neutralize anyone’s spy satellites.”

The data collected from such efforts was not nearly as precise as what is measured today by the Van Allen probes, mainly because previous satellites were not designed to fly in such harsh conditions. In contrast, the resilient Van Allen Probes have gathered the most detailed data yet on the behavior and limits of the Earth’s radiation belt.

“It’s like looking at the phenomenon with new eyes, with a new set of instrumentation, which give us the detail to say, ‘Yes, there is this hard, fast boundary,’” Foster says.

This research was funded in part by NASA.

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

Amphibious achiever

Early one morning last January, MIT undergraduate Theresa Oehmke was eating breakfast at the Kilauea Military Camp on Hawaii’s Big Island when a colleague burst into the room, yelling, “Oh my god, the plume, it’s moving! We have to go chase it now!”

Without asking questions, Oehmke threw together a few belongings, grabbed a few slices of cheese for sustenance, and hopped into a van. She and her peers were in hot pursuit of a column of volcanic smog that was quickly rising out of reach.

The experience was part of course 1.092 (Traveling Research Environmental Experiences, or TREX), offered by MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) during each January’s Independent Activities Period. Through the course, Oehmke, a CEE major, embarked on a two-week journey to Hawaii, collecting air samples from this volcanic plume to measure sulfur dioxide emissions — a somewhat precarious process that relies largely on calm winds and good timing.

When the Earth cools at night, a boundary layer — the layer of air closest to the planet’s surface —  decreases in size, trapping such volcanic plumes closer to the ground. But when the sun rises and the Earth warms again, this boundary layer rises, pushing the plume farther away, making it tougher to collect samples — so 6 a.m. expeditions, when the sun had barely risen, was par for the course for Oehmke and her group.

“It was a crazy experience,” Oehmke says. “We were basically like those people who chase extreme weather.” Depending on the plume’s height, she and her team sometimes relied on unmanned aerial vehicles to collect samples.

Although a memorable adventure, this wasn’t her first experience with fieldwork.

Sewerless in Senegal

Oehmke’s introduction to CEE came through a freshman seminar that exposed her to labs studying everything from soil moisture content to flow through wetlands. The course brought her to Boston’s “Big Dig” and to Cape Cod’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and taught her skills such as how to collect groundwater samples. Oehmke took to the subject, and immediately signed up for six weeks of summer fieldwork in Dakar, Senegal, where she studied how that city interacts with its water system.

“I think a lot of times when people hear about Africa they think that no one has clean drinking water, but they do in many parts, including Dakar,” Oehmke says. “What they didn’t have was a sewer system.”

She wondered what became of the city’s waste, and began interviewing local residents and water professionals to investigate the effects of not having a sewer system on the health of the community and the surrounding ecosystem. She wanted to know what exactly environmental engineers do before committing to the field.

“As the years have gone on I’ve realized that [environmental engineers] kind of do everything,” Oehmke says. “There’s the sustainability part, the soil hydrology part, there’s really everything that you could want to do in one field.”

She returned to MIT for her sophomore year, sure of her major and future career, but without formal lab experience.

Getting in on the ground level

The next summer, through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), Oehmke traveled to Paris to join Manuel Blouin’s lab at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, where she would study the effects of maize and earthworms on the greenhouse-gas emissions of soil.

The task was formidable: try her hand at lab work for the first time, and do it in French. She was thrown into Blouin’s lab alongside PhD candidates and postdocs who were six or seven years her senior — but despite the age, language, and cultural barriers, Oehmke remained enthusiastic.

She helped replicate a study that found that adding both maize and earthworms to soil reduced its carbon dioxide emissions, especially as temperatures rise. The finding challenged the notion that emissions are cumulative. Instead of separate emissions from soil, maize, and worms adding up to the sum of their parts, it’s possible that microbial interactions contribute to keeping some of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

This past summer, Oehmke was back in the U.S., researching debris flow at the University of Minnesota through a 10-week research placement funded by the National Science Foundation.

Unlike her experience in France, where she replicated a piece of an ongoing study, in Minneapolis Oehmke was part of the research process from the ground up — literally. She helped design a way to better understand debris flows — collections of soil and rock that rush downhill when water accumulates. Like avalanches and landslides, debris flows can grow in size as they travel; Oehmke wanted to learn how to predict their severity as they form.

“The research was interesting, and something I could really understand,” she says. “It’s how I discovered that I really liked looking at the land-water boundary.”

Amphibious achievers

This interaction of land and water flows through Oehmke’s life; her two biggest extracurricular commitments involve water. For four years, she has been the captain of the Women’s Water Polo Club, while also serving in a variety of leadership positions for Amphibious Achievement, an athletic and academic mentorship program run by MIT students for Boston-area high school students. The group aims to expose inner-city students to traditionally inaccessible athletic opportunities — like competitive swimming and rowing — and then teaches them to harness their athletic discipline for academic focus, SAT preparation, and college counseling.   

Oehmke finds the opportunity to teach high-school students to think outside the box exhilarating. “Instead of looking at a [test] question, and whether the answer is A, B, C, or D, we help [students] to see these topics as real-world situations,” she says. “We want them to think critically.”

Oehmke plans to continue her own education next year at graduate school, where she will pursue her interest in the interactions between land and water.

“I’m mostly looking at grad schools on coastlines,” she says with a laugh.

By Julia Sklar | MIT News correspondent

Image of the Day: The black sea devil

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On November 17, 2014, researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) used a used a remotely operated vehicle, a kind of undersea robot, to videotape this rare deep-sea anglerfish in Monterey Canyon, about 580 meters (1,900 feet) below the ocean surface. Anglerfish, like this Melanocetus, are among the most rarely seen of all deep-sea fishes. The shining spot at the tip of the “fishing pole” projecting from the fish’s head is a glowing lure. The anglerfish uses its light to attract prey in its deep, dark habitat. This picture marks the first time this fish was captured on camera in its natural habitat.

Image credit: (c) 2014 MBARI

By any media necessary

Nearly a decade ago, Sasha Costanza-Chock — now an assistant professor in MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing — volunteered at the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, an organization that advocates for the rights of low-wage workers. Activists at the group wanted to inform local garment workers, many of whom are immigrants, about their rights.

To do so, they surveyed workers about which kinds of media or communications they used. Some had cellphones; a few had Internet access. But many workers, especially those instructed not to talk to co-workers on the job, listened to the radio or music at work.

So Costanza-Chock, along with colleagues and workers themselves, produced CDs mixing public service announcements about rights with music, oral histories, poems, and other materials. This way, many of the more than 60,000 garment workers in Los Angeles became better informed about their rights — and, for immigrants, about potential paths to citizenship.

The efforts of the Garment Worker Center were among the many cases in which advocacy groups tried a variety of tools — social media, radio, newspapers, street demonstrations, and more — to organize the nation’s immigrant-rights movement. While the political outcome of the debate remains unclear, the movement has produced unprecedented visibility for the issue, in part because of its diversity of media strategies, according to Costanza-Chock.

“It’s quite rare that a particular tool or platform is the centerpiece of an effective media strategy for a social-movement organization or network,” Costanza-Chock says. “Instead, movements work across many platforms to create strong narratives and symbols that circulate by any media necessary. And increasingly, they invite people to participate in media production as a way of building strong movement identity.”

Now Costanza-Chock has detailed this process in a new book, “Out of the Shadows, into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,” published this month by the MIT Press — and appearing just as the immigration-rights issue is making new headlines, given President Barack Obama’s decision to take executive action on the matter last week. 

In the book, Costanza-Chock enters into the debate of recent years about the role of new social-media platforms in abetting social and political change — a debate that precedes the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, but was amplified by them. Some observers have viewed social media as an essential spark for these movements; skeptics have said such platforms fail to create the lasting connections needed to make social movements successful. But Costanza-Chock thinks asking whether social media can build powerful movements is the “wrong question.” Rather, he offers, it is important to look at all of a movement’s organizing activities.

“If what we want to understand is the relationship between social movements and media technology, I think it’s a mistake to start from the technology, to start from the platform,” Costanza-Chock says. “It’s important to engage deeply with a particular social-movement network, if we want to look at all of the different ways people circulate media.”

Making media, building identity

In conducting his research, as Costanza-Chock makes clear in the book, he worked on several projects that aimed to develop media strategies for immigrant-rights groups, adopting the participatory approach familiar in anthropology. He emphasizes that actually making media — video clips, radio programming, social media messages, posters, newspaper columns — is important in how people start to identify with social movements.

“I felt there was something missing in terms of the way social-movement scholars understood the role of media, and media-making, in social-movement processes,” Costanza-Chock says. “The actual media-making process itself is very much part of forming social-movement identity.”

To be clear, Costanza-Chock does not downplay some of the changes brought about by online communications and communities; rather, in his view, he is placing those changes in a broader perspective.

“I will say that I think the Internet has made the diffusion of social-movement tactics more rapid, so people are now able to more quickly see experiments other movements came up with,” he adds.

And some of those tactics get adopted by developing social movements: The immigrant-rights movement, for instance, has used an approach developed by the gay-rights community, in which immigrants “out” themselves as undocumented residents in YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, street signs, and more. In so doing, they are attempting to humanize what can be an abstract debate.

“It’s a real human being saying, ‘It’s me, I’m a person, and if we’re going to have a real conversation, you need to look me in the eye so we can talk about it,’” Costanza-Chock observes.

Costanza-Chock refrains from making predictions about the future of immigration policy in the U.S. But he hopes he can catch the attention of scholars, commentators, activists, and other observers to reinforce the point that the relationship between social movements and media is multifaceted, and that the starting point for understanding that relationship involves grappling with the dynamics of those movements and their organizations.

“At a very basic level, any social movement is a narrative, a story, an idea,” he notes. “It’s a set of ideas about who we are as people, and what types of values we want to see made real in the world.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Fitzgerald to step down as dean of SHASS

Deborah K. Fitzgerald announced today that she will step down as Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), effective July 1, 2015. Provost Martin Schmidt shared the news in an email to the MIT community.

Fitzgerald, who has served as dean of SHASS since 2007, and in the two preceding years as associate dean and acting dean, will return to her faculty position as a professor of the history of technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. 


“Under Deborah’s inspired leadership, SHASS has maintained the highest standards of academic excellence throughout its departments, centers and programs and has become an increasingly important contributor to the Institute’s overall capacity for innovation in teaching and research,” Schmidt wrote in his letter. “In particular, she was devoted to strengthening the core undergraduate education requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and among her achievements was the recent restructuring of several academic units in the humanities.”

“Deborah Fitzgerald has been a tremendous leader for SHASS and an influential advocate for the humanities, arts, and social sciences well beyond our campus,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “She understands that no matter how rigorously we educate our students in science and engineering, it is when we teach them about human culture and complexity that we truly equip them to change the world. For me personally, she has also been a wonderful colleague and counselor — wise, clear, candid, forward-looking, and deeply in tune with MIT.”

As dean, Fitzgerald has led a school of 170 faculty members in 13 fields of study: anthropology; economics; political science; global studies and languages; history; linguistics; literature; comparative media studies/writing; music, philosophy; theater arts; science, technology, and society; and women’s and gender studies. SHASS, which teaches all MIT undergraduates, is also home to seven graduate programs, and to many labs and centers, including the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab; Center for International Studies; HyperStudio (digital humanities); Security Studies Program; Knight Science Journalism Fellows; Game Lab; Open Documentary Lab; and Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative.

“Serving as dean of this school, at this great Institute, has been a profound and humbling privilege,” Fitzgerald says. “It has been an enormous pleasure to collaborate with distinguished and dedicated colleagues from many disciplines, and with alumni from around the globe, to help advance MIT’s research and educational mission in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.” 

Boosting graduate and undergraduate education

During her tenure, Fitzgerald has been committed to strengthening resources for SHASS’s distinguished graduate program. She also initiated restructuring of MIT’s academic requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS), improving its approach to HASS core education; re-energized undergraduate education in SHASS, including a program for developing innovative new classes; and spearheaded restructuring of several SHASS academic units to create a single, stronger unit centered on media studies and writing. 


Fitzgerald has also strengthened the Institute’s offerings in international education. She was a member of the MIT Global Council that produced a 2009 report, “Mens et Manus et Mundi,” that explored goals for the future of global education and research at MIT. And she has supported the continued growth of the SHASS-based MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Institute’s international education program, which prepares students to collaborate and lead around the globe. MISTI connects MIT students — some 5,500 to date — to fully funded internship, research, and teaching opportunities in 18 countries.  
 

The MISTI experience begins with preparatory coursework in the languages and cultures of the destination countries. “Giving MIT students deep knowledge of other languages and cultures, and the capacity to be global citizens and wise leaders, is vital to a 21st century education — and critical to the Institute’s leadership position,” Fitzgerald has said. 
 

Advancing the arts, empowering students

Fitzgerald also helped spur advances in MIT’s arts programming, including the launch of the MIT Center for Arts, Science, and Technology (CAST), a joint initiative between SHASS, the MIT Office of the Arts, and the School of Architecture and Planning. Established in 2012 with a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CAST was founded to further MIT’s leadership in integrating the arts into the curriculum and research of institutions of higher learning. Recognizing the powerful place that the performing arts have in the creativity, growth, and success of MIT students and alumni, Fitzgerald championed plans for a performing arts facility in music and theater at MIT.

To further share significant ideas, news, and research from SHASS, Fitzgerald established an in-house communications effort, creating a feature-rich website; a monthly digest, “Said and Done”; a permanent exhibition — “Great Ideas Change the World” — in Building 14N; active social media channels, including the Twitter account @SHASS4Students; the Listening Room, a curated, free, web-based collection of MIT’s finest student and faculty music; and the Tour de SHASS, an annual event at which MIT students meet and talk with SHASS faculty and explore the school’s academic offerings through a travel-themed expo.

An MIT faculty member since 1988, Fitzgerald is a leading historian of American agriculture and author of the award-winning “Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture” (Yale University Press, 2003). Fitzgerald is a past president and member of the Agricultural History Society, and a member of the Organization of American Historians and the Society for the History of Technology.

Speaking of her mission in returning to teaching MIT students, Fitzgerald said, “As educators, we know we cannot anticipate all the forms our students’ future challenges will take, but we can provide them with some fundamentals that will be guides for the ongoing process of exploration and discovery. We can help shape their resilience, and prepare them to analyze and problem-solve in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Calling on both the STEM and HASS disciplines, we aim to empower our young students, thinkers, and citizens with superb skills, habits of mind, and experiences that help them serve the world well, with innovations, and lives, that are rich in meaning and wisdom.” 

In his email to the MIT community, Schmidt said that he intends to appoint a faculty committee in the near future to advise on the selection of the next dean of SHASS. He also asked for insights and suggestions from the MIT community to help identify the best candidates for the next SHASS dean. All correspondence sent by email (shass-search@mit.edu) or letter (Room 3-208) will be treated as confidential.

By News Office

Two MIT seniors and an alumnus named Rhodes Scholars

Three MIT nominees — seniors Elliot Akama-Garren and Anisha Gururaj, and alumnus Noam Angrist ’13 — are among the 32 American recipients selected this weekend as Rhodes Scholars. Each will pursue graduate studies next year at Oxford University.

This year’s three Rhodes Scholars from MIT tie the Institute’s 2009 record for the most recipients in a single year. Akama-Garren, Gururaj, and Angrist bring to 49 the number of MIT winners of the prestigious international scholarships since they were first awarded to Americans in 1904.

Elliot Akama-Garren

Elliot Akama-Garren, from California, is an MIT senior majoring in biology. As a Rhodes Scholar, Akama-Garren plans to pursue an MSc in integrated immunology at Oxford before returning to the U.S. to pursue an MD-PhD degree. He hopes to pursue a career in academic medicine — specifically, studying the immune system to find improved treatments for a range of diseases.

Akama-Garren started conducting immunology research at Stanford University as a high school student, ultimately becoming second author on a research paper. During his time at MIT, Akama-Garren has continued work in this field, with research at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and at Massachusetts General Hospital. In recognition of his work, Akama-Garren was honored with this year’s Thomas J. Bardos Award for Undergraduate Students, awarded by the American Association for Cancer Research.

Since his freshman year, Akama-Garren has been an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of Tyler Jacks, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and director of the Koch Institute, where he has studied the potential therapeutic effectiveness of T cells in suppressing lung cancer. This work has resulted in two research papers that are currently under review for publication.

Akama-Garren has served for the last three years as editor-in-chief of the MIT Undergraduate Research Journal. Outside of the laboratory, he is president and co-captain of MIT’s ice hockey team. As team president, Akama-Garren organized a fundraiser game with the Israeli national ice hockey team that attracted more than 800 fans.

“Elliot is a serious thinker who is interested in ideas rather than glory,” says Kim Benard, assistant director of distinguished fellowships in MIT Global Education and Career Development. “In addition to his exemplary academic record, Elliot has been a pivotal member of the MIT hockey team and a dedicated volunteer at Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. He exudes brilliance with compassion.”

Anisha Gururaj

A native of Missouri, Anisha Gururaj is a senior majoring in chemical-biological engineering. As a Rhodes Scholar, she plans to pursue two degrees from Oxford: an MSc in engineering science research, with a focus in bioengineering, and a master’s in public policy. Ultimately, she hopes to build a career developing affordable biomedical devices for use in both the developed and the developing world.

For the past two years, Gururaj has conducted research at MIT’s Little Devices Lab, where she has worked on individualized medical devices that users can assemble themselves. This past summer, she conducted work at the Universidad del Desarollo in Chile to investigate how diagnostic kits created by the Little Devices Lab can be used in rural settings.

Under the supervision of Michael Yaffe, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering at MIT, Gururaj co-founded a project to design a low-cost, nonelectric fluid warmer for military trauma victims. During her time at the Institute, Gururaj has also conducted research in the MIT laboratory of Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor, and at the National University of Singapore through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

Gururaj’s interest in international development has also led her to projects beyond the development of medical devices: She has collaborated with Maiti Nepal, an organization that assists sex-trafficking victims, to expand Nepali girls’ access to K-12 education.

“Anisha Gururaj is an inspiration,” says Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and co-chair of MIT’s Presidential Committee on Distinguished Scholarships. “Her accomplishments are pretty remarkable, but what stands out most is how deeply she is committed to translating her knowledge and expertise into practical products and benefits that will make life better for people — whether those people are soldiers on the battlefield, young at-risk women in Nepal, or people living in rural villages with less access to modern health care. She perfectly exemplifies MIT’s mission in the world.”

Noam Angrist

Noam Angrist graduated from MIT in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics. He has worked at the intersection of economics and policy, with the goal of reforming education and international aid. As a Rhodes Scholar, Angrist will pursue an MSc in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation at Oxford.

Angrist, who hails from Massachusetts, was named a Fulbright Scholar to Botswana in 2013. He is currently working in Botswana on educational reform, conducting research on educational outcomes and on successful interventions in public health. He is the co-founder and executive director of Young 1ove, a nonprofit that connects young Africans with life-saving information related to HIV and AIDS.

As an MIT undergraduate, Angrist carried out research related to the Affordable Care Act. He also served as a research analyst for the Jameel Poverty Action Lab under the supervision of Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics. While at MIT, Angrist co-founded Amphibious Achievement, an afterschool enrichment program for urban youth that combines academics and aquatic athletics.

“Noam is a force for good in the world,” says John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Building Technology and Civil and Environmental Engineering and co-chair of MIT’s Presidential Committee on Distinguished Scholarships. “We are delighted that the Rhodes Scholarship will provide him with the opportunity to continue his work at Oxford. Noam has already made numerous important contributions, and the Rhodes Scholarship will greatly amplify his impact.”

By Nora Delaney | Global Education and Career Development

Q&A: Christopher Knittel on the EPA’s greenhouse gas plan

With cap-and-trade legislation on greenhouse-gas emissions having stalled in Congress in 2010, the Obama administration has taken a different approach to climate policy: It has used the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to propose a policy limiting power-plant emissions, since electricity consumption produces about 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases. (The administration also announced a bilateral agreement with China this week, which sets overall emissions-reductions targets.)

The EPA’s initial proposal is now under public review, before the agency issues a final rule in 2015. Christopher Knittel, the William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is one of 13 economists who co-authored an article about the policy in the journal Science this week. While the plan offers potential benefits, the economists assert, some of its details might limit the policy’s effectiveness. MIT News talked with Knittel about the issue.

Q. How is the EPA’s policy for power plants intended to work?

A. The Clean Power Plan calls for different emissions reductions depending on the state. This state-specific formula has four “buckets:” efficiency increases at the power plant; shifting from coal to natural gas; increases in generation from low-carbon renewables such as wind; and increases in energy efficiency within the state. So they applied these four things and asked what changes were “adequately demonstrated” to generate state-specific required reductions.

Q. The Science piece emphasizes that the EPA’s plan uses a ratio-based means of limiting emissions: the amount of greenhouse gases divided by the amount of electricity consumed. So a state could add renewable energy, lower its ratio, but not reduce total emissions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this?

A. The targets are an emissions rate: tons of CO2 [emitted] per megawatt-hour of electricity generation. Then it’s really up to the states to determine how they’re going to achieve the reductions in this rate. So one strategy is to increase total electricity generated. This compliance strategy, unfortunately, is what makes rate-based regulation economically inefficient.

The states also have the option to convert that rate-based ratio target into what the EPA is calling a mass-based target, total tons of greenhouse-gas emissions. This would effectively imply the state is going to adopt a cap-and-trade program to reach its requirements.

In current work, we — scholars Jim Bushnell, Stephen Holland, Jonathan Hughes, and I — are investigating the incentives states have to adopt to convert their rate-based mandate into a mass-based mandate. Unfortunately, we are finding that states rarely want to [use a mass-based target], which is a pity, because the mass-based regulation is the most efficient regulation, from an economist’s perspective. Holland, Hughes, and I have done work in the transportation sector that shows that when you do things on a rate base, as opposed to a mass base, it is at least three times more expensive, and more costly to society — often more than five times more costly.

Q. Why did the EPA approach it this way?

A. I can only speculate as to why the EPA chose to define the regulation as a rate instead of total greenhouse gas emissions. Regulating a rate is often cheaper from the firm’s perspective, even though it is economically inefficient. Why the EPA chose to define things at the state level is more clear: The Clean Air Act … is written in such a way to leave it up to the states.

But if everyone’s doing their own rate- or mass-based standard, then you don’t take advantage of potentially a large efficiency benefit from trading compliance across states. That is, it might be cheaper for one state to increase its reductions, allowing another state to abate less.

The most ideal regulatory model is that everyone’s under one giant mass-based standard, one big cap-and-trade market. Even if every state’s doing its own cap-and-trade market, that’s unlikely to lead to the efficient outcome. It might be cheaper for California or Montana or Oregon to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, but as soon as they meet their standard, they’re going to stop.

Q. The Science article says that certifying efficiency-based gains is a crucial factor. Could you explain this?

A. Given how the regulation treats efficiency, it really puts in the forefront the importance of understanding the real-world reduction in energy consumption coming from efficiency investments. Let’s say I reduce electricity consumption by 100 megawatt-hours through increasing efficiency in buildings. Within the [EPA’s] policy, that reduction is treated as if I’m generating 100 megawatt-hours from a zero-carbon technology. So that increases the denominator in the ratio [of greenhouse gases produced to electricity consumed]. One concern, though, is that often the actual returns from energy-efficiency investments aren’t as large as the predicted returns. And that can be because of rebound [the phenomenon by which better energy efficiency allows people to consume more of it], which is a hot topic now, or other behavioral changes.

Behavioral changes can make those efficiency gains larger or smaller, so getting the right number is very important. I’ve heard stories of people who get all-new windows, and the old windows used to let in air, but now they think the house is stuffy, so they keep their windows cracked. We should be doing more field experiments, more randomized controlled trials, to measure the actual returns to energy efficiency.

Another related concern is that it might be left up to the states to tell the EPA what the reduction was from these energy-efficiency investments. And the state might not have any incentive at all to measure them correctly. So there has to be an increase in oversight, and it likely has to be federal oversight.

Q. While you clearly have concerns about the efficacy of the policy, isn’t this one measure among others, intended to lessen the magnitude of the climate crisis?

A. For many of us, the potential real benefit from the clean power rule is that it will change the dynamic in Paris in the [forthcoming international climate] negotiations. For a long time the U.S. could say it was doing some improvements in transportation, but they really weren’t doing anything in electricity, for climate change. My view is there are a lot of countries out there that aren’t going to do anything unless the U.S. does. This might bring some of those countries on board.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Yellowfin tuna

Full Text:

This photo of a yellowfin tuna, often marketed as ahi, was taken aboard the research drillship JOIDES Resolution. The JOIDES is a seagoing research vessel that drills core samples and collects measurements from under the ocean floor, giving scientists a glimpse into Earth’s development. In operation since 1985, work aboard the vessel never ceases; operations continue 24 hours a day.

Image credit: Tim Fulton, IODP/TAMU

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