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

Image of the Day: Ice waves

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Along the southeastern coast of Greenland, an intricate network of fjords funnels glacial ice to the Atlantic Ocean. During the summer melting season, newly calved icebergs join slabs of sea ice and older, weathered bergs in an offshore slurry that the southward-flowing East Greenland Current sometimes swirls into stunning shapes.

Image credit: Landsat 7/USGS

Dava Newman nominated for NASA post

The White House has announced the nomination of MIT’s Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems, as NASA’s deputy administrator, the space agency’s No. 2 leadership position. Newman’s appointment will require approval by the U.S. Senate.

Newman, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1993, is director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and MIT Portugal Program, a faculty member in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and a Margaret McVicar Faculty Fellow.

Newman earned her BS from the University of Notre Dame in 1986, followed by three graduate degrees from MIT: two SM degrees, in aeronautics and astronautics and in technology and policy, in 1989, and a PhD in aerospace biomedical engineering, in 1992. She is the author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design” (McGraw-Hill, 2002), an introductory engineering textbook, and more than 200 papers presented in journals and at refereed conferences.

Newman’s research has included the development of a radical new spacesuit design that is tighter-fitting and would afford much greater mobility and lighter weight than today’s bulky pressure suits. She has focused on quantifying astronaut performance in space, including computer modeling of the dynamics of human motion in microgravity conditions. Newman has also developed exercise countermeasures, serving as principal investigator for three spaceflight experiments, and specializes in understanding partial-gravity locomotion for future planetary exploration. Her development of patented, wearable compression suits has also led her into research on assistive technologies for people with locomotion impairment.

“It’s very exciting, and an enormous honor,” Newman says of her nomination as NASA’s deputy administrator. “Aerospace engineering, of course, is my passion. Maybe I’ve been training for this my whole life!”

Newman says that NASA has “a clear vision” aligned with goals set by the Obama administration, with Mars as the destination in its long-term strategic plan. While the space program may draw most of the agency’s public attention, NASA’s research in aeronautics is no less significant, she says, and has produced “significant aviation advancements.”

The deputy administrator’s specific duties, Newman says, include NASA’s legislative and intergovernmental affairs; communications; the Mission Support Directorate; and international relationships, including the multinational partnership that manages the International Space Station. In addition, the post oversees educational programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Helping to spur the interest of young people in space, and in engineering in general, will be “a privilege,” Newman says. “I’d like to change the conversation with kids about what it means to be an engineer” — which she calls “the best job in the world, where you get to solve really challenging and extraordinary problems in the service of humankind.”

Newman and her partner Guillermo Trotti, an architect and designer, completed a round-the-world sailing voyage on their boat in 2003. The two are now live-in housemasters at MIT’s Baker House, an undergraduate residence hall.

Newman says she is eager for the challenges of her new job: “I love NASA’s portfolio, and what it’s tasked to do for the nation: pushing the boundaries and leading in aeronautics and space — aircraft, space, planetary and earth sciences, exploration, technology development, and education. I look forward to doing the best work I can, to applying myself 100 percent, to learning a lot, and to advancing our national aerospace goals.”

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Sagittarius Galaxy impacts Milky Way’s disk

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This is a computer simulation showing the impact of the Sagittarius Galaxy on the disk of the Milky Way. This impact had a major influence on the development of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. Also shown is the Sagittarius Stream, a long stream of stars and dark matter stripped from the Sagittarius Galaxy by the gravitational pull of the Milky Way.

Image credit: Erik Tollerud, Chris Purcell and James Bullock, University of California, Irvine

3 Questions: The launch of the MIT Climate Change Conversation

On Sept. 19, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, announced the membership of a community committee to plan and implement the MIT Climate Change Conversation. As Zuber noted, “The Committee should seek broad input from the Institute community on how the US and the world can most effectively address global climate change. The Conversation should explore pathways to effective climate change mitigation, including how the MIT community — through education, research and campus engagement — can constructively move the global and national agendas forward.”

Roman Stocker, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, spoke with MIT News about the committee’s charge, its progress to date, and its next steps.

Q. What does the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation aim to achieve?

A. We aim to explore and assess the broad range of actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to address climate change. The global nature of this problem and the amount of debate and polarization that surround it are daunting, but the premise of the committee is that the complexity of the problem is uniquely suited for MIT, given our strong problem-solving ethos, and that a leading technical institution can have unique roles to play in responding to the climate crisis. Identifying and evaluating these potential roles is the purpose of the Conversation.

Importantly, the committee will only be the catalyst of the Conversation: Its main actor will be the MIT community! In other words, what we really aim to achieve is the engagement of the widest possible fraction of the MIT community in developing and debating bold ideas — MIT-style! — to help identify the pros and cons of different options. We believe that this approach will allow us, as a community, to identify a broad spectrum of action items; estimate the effectiveness of each action in addressing the problem; and thereby determine how our Institute can most effectively drive forward the national and global agendas on climate change.

We will consider actions at all levels: from new educational initiatives at MIT and via its edX megaphone, to new opportunities for research that capitalize and expand on MIT’s presence in the field, to improvements to campus infrastructure and operations aimed at reducing MIT’s own carbon footprint, to leveraging MIT’s visibility to drive more effective policy.

These are but examples, as we do not want to constrain the creativity of the MIT community. We will welcome any and all ideas through the multiple opportunities for input and feedback that we will construct. We look forward to this Conversation as a catalyst for original ideas, debate, and sound analysis.      

Q. What has the committee done to date, since its membership was announced on Sept. 19?

A. Devising the right ingredients to make this MIT Conversation successful is what has kept us busy during this first month, and still is. Part of this effort consists of educating ourselves, within the committee, about the landscape of activities that already exist at MIT in the area of climate change, as some of these activities could represent important nucleation sites for bold ideas for action. At the same time, this knowledge will allow us to engage the MIT community in a more informed and meaningful way, through the Conversation activities we have begun to plan for the fall and spring.

Personally, this first month has also allowed me to appreciate the expertise we have on the committee, which I feel will be an invaluable asset in catalyzing this Conversation. The committee is composed of one faculty member per school, as well as representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, from the postdocs, and from the staff. Collectively, this group encompasses a wide range of expertise, covering both the science and the economics of climate change, as well as the on-campus infrastructural and operational aspects of a university planning for climate change.

The committee is unanimous in its feeling not only of the urgency of the problem — expressed with particular emphasis by the younger generations — but also of the unique opportunity that this Conversation represents for MIT to take on a visible leadership role in the solution of the problem.

Q. How can a member of MIT get engaged in this Conversation?

A. We will create multiple opportunities for engagement throughout the current academic year. In the next few weeks, we will launch both an Idea Bank and a survey. The Idea Bank intends to capture the expertise and creativity of the MIT community and to engage it in a campus-wide brainstorm about what actions MIT could take to address climate change. We will welcome input on the full spectrum of possible actions that MIT could take. We will particularly welcome bold, creative ideas, because we feel that the spectrum of options for action available to a leading technical institution has not been fully explored to date.

The survey is being designed to provide input for the committee in structuring the Conversation. With the survey, we aim to reach a wider fraction of the MIT community — hopefully, all of you! — and to understand how we can best support the community in this important Conversation.

We will carefully review the input we receive through both the Idea Bank and the survey, distill it into broad categories for potential action, and use it to inform the centerpiece of the Conversation, a series of high-profile forums to be held in the spring term. These forums will focus on the different action categories that MIT can consider investing in to further its role in addressing climate change, including education, research, financial actions, policy, campus operations — with specifics that will be refined based on community input.

The months ahead will represent a vibrant time to discuss climate-change actions at MIT. We invite everyone in the community to be part of this Conversation! 

By News Office

Image of the Day: Daya Bay antineutrino detector

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In this image, photomultiplier tubes line the walls of the Daya Bay neutrino detector. The tubes are designed to amplify and record the faint flashes of light that signify an antineutrino interaction. This experiment aims to measure the final unknown mixing angle that describes how neutrinos oscillate.

Image credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

George Shultz: “Climate is changing,” and we need more action

You might not picture former Secretary of State George Shultz PhD ’49 as someone who drives an electric car, or has solar panels on the roof of his home. But he does — and Shultz has become a vocal proponent of action to combat climate change.

Shultz brought that message to MIT in a talk on Tuesday afternoon, advocating further policy and research efforts to address the problem, and discussing ways to engage people who have not previously supported action on climate change.

“The climate is changing,” Shultz told an audience in MIT’s Wong Auditorium. Speaking of those who have resisted the scientific consensus on the matter, he added, “If you don’t like the science, use your eyes.”

Shultz’s preferred approach involves two main steps: a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and increased government funding of research on clean technologies. The carbon tax would apply to the sale of fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases that become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and raise temperatures; money raised by that tax would then be refunded to citizens — making the approach “revenue-neutral,” meaning the government would not take in added revenue.

Shultz suggested referring to such initiatives as an “insurance policy” in recruiting support among those reluctant to take climate action. These policies, Shultz emphasized, would not be costly, especially compared with the long-term expense of dealing with climate change.

“The insurance policy isn’t even that expensive,” Shultz asserted. When it comes to R&D funding, he said, “The amount of federal government dollars is trivial. It isn’t even a rounding error.”

Moreover, he added, “You get a multiple out of the federal effort”: Private-sector investors will want to join a growing area of technological innovation.

In particular, Shultz emphasized, better electricity storage, whether through batteries or other technologies, would be a highly significant development, allowing intermittent solar and wind energy to be used when the sun is not shining, or when there is no wind.

“One of the real breakthroughs is when someone figures out long-term storage capacity,” Shultz said.

He added that implementing policies can bring about subsequent cultural or social changes as well.

“Once you have something like this in [place], it has an effect on people’s attitudes,” Shultz said. He noted that the Canadian province of British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008, and has subsequently seen sales of hybrid and electric vehicles rise, perhaps as a result.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged”

Shultz’s talk, titled, “How to Think about Energy and Climate,” was hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative, where Shultz serves on the external advisory board. Working to address climate change “is very much in the MIT tradition,” Shultz told the audience.

Shultz received his PhD in economics at MIT, and served on the economics faculty in the 1950s. From 1969 through 1974, he served as U.S. secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and secretary of the Treasury. Shultz served as secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, during which time he helped construct the last major international agreement on the atmosphere — the Montreal Protocol of 1987 phasing out chlorofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone layer.

Then as now, Shultz recalled, some observers adopted a skeptical position about the scientific evidence. However, he noted, “In the case of the Montreal Protocol, the people who were worried [about the atmosphere] were right.”

Then-President Ronald Reagan also “thought we should take out an insurance policy,” Shultz said, and backed the treaty.

While a significant gulf exists between the nation’s two major political parties on the issue of climate policy, Shultz tried to persuade the audience that progress was still possible among congressional Republicans. “We have to think about how we approach people to find a common ground,” Shultz said, urging diplomacy toward those currently opposing action.

In 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have limited carbon emissions through a “cap-and-trade” system, but the measure died in the Senate. The Obama administration has since directed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse gases, a directive the Supreme Court largely upheld this summer, but the EPA’s efforts are still in their early stages.

Shultz also recommended that the U.S. and China pursue a bilateral agreement regarding climate and technology items where they could find common ground, and then use that to get other countries to sign on for further climate action, rather than waiting for global acceptance of a climate accord.

Shultz has made climate change one of his major interests as a policy advocate. In a 2013 interview with Scientific American, he noted that he had solar panels installed on his house several years ago and now drives an electric car, saying, “I figure I’ve got to walk the talk.” The presence of his four great-grandchildren, Shultz noted in those remarks, has helped give him a sense of urgency about the matter.

As difficult as the issue might seem, Shultz told his MIT audience yesterday, there is some progress being made, and more is possible.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged and think that nothing is happening,” Shultz said.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

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