MacArthur confers “genius” awards for playful math and practical art

A mathematician and an artist with MIT connections were among the 21 lucky recipients a few weeks ago of a surprise phone call from the MacArthur Foundation. They had been selected, through a secret nomination process, as MacArthur “Genius” Fellows — receiving $625K with no strings attached, plus a rush of prestige and validation when the official announcement came on September 17.

Jacob Lurie PhD ’04, a former MIT associate professor who is now on the mathematics faculty at Harvard University, was recognized for creating a conceptual foundation for derived algebraic geometry. “At an oversimplified level,” the MacArthur website helpfully supplies, “he is transforming algebraic geometry to derived algebraic geometry — replacing the role of sets by topological spaces — making it applicable to other areas in new ways.” Lurie is now training young theorists in his mathematical vision, and he also hopes to inspire a sense of excitement about math in high school students and college undergraduates.

“Mathematics is a giant playground filled with all kinds of toys that the human mind can play with,” Lurie says in a video on his MacArthur profile, “but many of these toys have very long operating manuals.”

Another honoree, Rick Lowe, a 2014 Mel King Community Fellow at MIT’s Community Innovators Lab, received the MacArthur not for his original vocation as a painter, but for his two decades improving communities through public art. In 1993, he founded Project Row Houses, which transformed a block and a half of run-down buildings in Houston’s historically significant and culturally charged Third Ward neighborhood into an arts venue and community center. Lowe has also spearheaded arts-driven redevelopment projects in North Dallas, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

See Lowe’s MacArthur profile, and listen to a public radio interview in which he describes his vision for energizing urban neighborhoods through art.

A third MacArthur grantee this year, Ai-jen Poo, also has a history with MIT: She was a fellow at the Community Innovators Lab in 2013. As director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, she is helping to transform the landscape of working conditions and labor standards for the estimated 1–2 million people employed in the United States as housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly or disabled.

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor | MIT Spectrum

Image of the Day: Cobalt oxide mesoporous nanospheres

Full Text:

To attack the problem of both mechanical and chemical degradation in lithium-ion batteries, a team of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute designed and developed an electrode from cobalt oxide mesoporous nanospheres. Shaped like tiny soccer balls with holes scattered across their surface, the hollow spheres suffer severe mechanical and chemical degradation and lose most of their energy storage capability. However, the research team discovered that, after many charge-discharge cycles, the hollow nanospheres are refined, reactivated, and eventually demonstrate unprecedented performance for a battery.

Image credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Letter to the community on the MIT Climate Change Conversation

The following email was sent today to the MIT community by Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research.

To the members of the MIT Community:

I am pleased to share important news about the MIT Climate Change Conversation.

Last May, President Reif announced that a team composed of myself, Provost Marty Schmidt, MIT Energy Initiative Director Bob Armstrong and Professor Susan Solomon, Director of MIT’s environmental initiative (now the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative) would launch an open, campus-wide conversation on the challenge of climate change.

Today, I am very pleased to announce the broader community committee that is primed to plan and implement that conversation. As you will see from the roster below, the Committee reflects a range of expertise and perspectives. We would like to thank everyone, including the members of Fossil Free MIT and the MIT Office of Sustainability, who provided input and ideas that helped us build a committee of community members who could do justice to the complexity of the subject, stimulate fresh ideas, and think boldly and wisely together.

The Committee has accepted the following charge:

Charge to the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation
The Committee will plan and implement the MIT Climate Change Conversation, reporting to the Conversation Leadership (Provost Marty Schmidt, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Environmental Solutions Initiative Director Susan Solomon and MITEI Director Bob Armstrong).

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 mitigation, including how the MIT community – through education, research and campus engagement – can constructively move the global and national agendas forward. Possible activities for the Campus Conversation could include a lecture series, panels and a survey in which all points of view of the MIT community are sought, presented and discussed.

The Committee should produce a final report to be delivered to the Conversation Leadership. The report should list, in unranked order, key suggestions with associated pros and cons that encompass the range of views of the community. The Committee should accomplish its work during the FY14-15 academic year and submit its report by Commencement 2015.

The Conversation Leadership will solicit reactions to the report from the MIT community and, from the collective input, recommend to the President a path forward.

*         *         *

As President Reif noted last spring, at MIT, we achieve breakthroughs by encouraging widely different minds to tackle hard problems together. We are very grateful to everyone who has agreed to serve on the Committee. It is worth noting that, without exception, every member of the Committee was deeply grateful for the opportunity to help lead our community forward in meeting the pressing civilizational challenge of climate change.

I look forward to joining with all of you in an intense year of open debate, deep learning and new ideas.


Maria T. Zuber

The Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation

Roman Stocker (chair)
Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Adam Berinsky
Professor of Political Science
Department of Political Science

Kerry Emanuel
Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science
Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Henry “Jake” Jacoby
William F. Pounds Professor of Management Emeritus
Sloan School of Management

Bernadette Johnson
Chief Technology Officer
Lincoln Lab

Jacqueline Kuo
Department of Mechanical Engineering

Christoph Reinhart
Associate Professor in Building Technology
Department of Architecture

Anne Slinn
Executive Director for Research
Center for Global Change Science

Tavneet Suri
Maurice J. Strong Career Development Associate Professor
Sloan School of Management

Geoffrey Supran
Graduate Student
Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Stian Ueland
Postdoctoral Associate
Department of Materials Science and Engineering

By News Office

Image of the Day: Cuckoo wasp

Full Text:

Cuckoo is the common name for a group of mostly small, stinging wasps. Cuckoo wasps are brilliant metallic blue, green, or reddish in color. They are parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of bees, wasps, and certain other insects, which are called their hosts. There are approximately 3000 species of cuckoo wasps throughout the world, including about 230 species in the United States and Canada. Cuckoo wasps are also called gold wasps, ruby wasps, and jewel wasps.

Image credit: Jena Johnson, Up Close Photography

Shrink-wrapping spacesuits

For future astronauts, the process of suiting up may go something like this: Instead of climbing into a conventional, bulky, gas-pressurized suit, an astronaut may don a lightweight, stretchy garment, lined with tiny, musclelike coils. She would then plug in to a spacecraft’s power supply, triggering the coils to contract and essentially shrink-wrap the garment around her body.

The skintight, pressurized suit would not only support the astronaut, but would give her much more freedom to move during planetary exploration. To take the suit off, she would only have to apply modest force, returning the suit to its looser form.

Now MIT researchers are one step closer to engineering such an active, “second-skin” spacesuit: Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, and her colleagues have engineered active compression garments that incorporate small, springlike coils that contract in response to heat. The coils are made from a shape-memory alloy (SMA) — a type of material that “remembers” an engineered shape and, when bent or deformed, can spring back to this shape when heated.

The team incorporated the coils in a tourniquet-like cuff, and applied a current to generate heat. At a certain trigger temperature, the coils contract to their “remembered” form, such as a fully coiled spring, tightening the cuff in the process. In subsequent tests, the group found that the pressure produced by the coils equaled that required to fully support an astronaut in space.

“With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space,” says Newman, who has worked for the past decade to design a form-fitting, flexible spacesuit of the future. “We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials. … Ultimately, the big advantage is mobility, and a very lightweight suit for planetary exploration.”

The coil design was conceived by Bradley Holschuh, a postdoc in Newman’s lab. Holschuh and Newman, along with graduate student Edward Obropta, detail the design in the journal IEEE/ASME: Transactions on Mechatronics.

How to train a spacesuit

While skintight spacesuits have been proposed in the past, there’s been one persistent design hurdle: how to squeeze in and out of a pressurized suit that’s engineered to be extremely tight. That’s where shape-memory alloys may provide a solution. Such materials only contract when heated, and can easily be stretched back to a looser shape when cool.

To find an active material that would be most suitable for use in space, Holschuh considered 14 types of shape-changing materials — ranging from dielectric elastomers to shape-memory polymers — before settling on nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys. When trained as tightly packed, small-diameter springs, this material contracts when heated to produce a significant amount of force, given its slight mass — ideal for use in a lightweight compression garment.

The material is commonly produced in reels of very thin, straight fiber. To transform the fiber into coils, Holschuh borrowed a technique from another MIT group that previously used coiled nickel-titanium to engineer a heat-activated robotic worm.

Shape-memory alloys like nickel-titanium can essentially be “trained” to return to an original shape in response to a certain temperature. To train the material, Holschuh first wound raw SMA fiber into extremely tight, millimeter-diameter coils  then heated the coils to 450 degrees Celsius to set them into an original, or “trained” shape. At room temperature, the coils may be stretched or bent, much like a paper clip. However, at a certain “trigger” temperature (in this case, as low as 60 C), the fiber will begin to spring back to its trained, tightly coiled state.

The researchers rigged an array of coils to an elastic cuff, attaching each coil to a small thread linked to the cuff. They then attached leads to the coils’ opposite ends and applied a voltage, generating heat. Between 60 and 160 C, the coils contracted, pulling the attached threads, and tightening the cuff.

“These are basically self-closing buckles,” Holschuh says. “Once you put the suit on, you can run a current through all these little features, and the suit will shrink-wrap you, and pull closed.”

Keeping it tight

The group’s next challenge is finding a way to keep the suit tight. To do this, Holschuh says there are only two options: either maintaining a constant, toasty temperature, or incorporating a locking mechanism to keep the coils from loosening. The first option would overheat an astronaut and require heavy battery packs — a design that would significantly impede mobility, and is likely infeasible given the limited power resources available to astronauts in space. Holschuh and Newman are currently exploring the second option, looking into potential mechanisms to lock or clip the coils in place.

As for where the coils may be threaded within a spacesuit, Holschuh is contemplating several designs. For instance, an array of coils may be incorporated into the center of a suit, with each coil attached to a thread that radiates to the suit’s extremities. As the coils activate, they could pull on the attached threads — much like the strings of a puppet — to tighten and pressurize the suit. Or, smaller arrays of coils could be placed in strategic locations within a spacesuit to produce localized tension and pressure, depending on where they are needed to maintain full body compression.

While the researchers are concentrating mostly on applications in space, Holschuh says the group’s designs and active materials may be used for other purposes, such as in athletic wear or military uniforms.

“You could use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield,” Holschuh says. “If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it.”

“An integrated suit is exciting to think about to enhance human performance,” Newman adds. “We’re trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space.”

This research was funded by NASA and the MIT Portugal Program.

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

Image of the Day: Dasht-e Kavir

Full Text:

Roughly 300 kilometers (200 miles) east-southeast of Tehran lies Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir, or Great Salt Desert. To the untrained eye, Dasht-e Kavir looks like a place that has been bone-dry since the dawn of time. But to the well-trained eyes of a geologist, this desert tells a tale of wetter times. Tens of millions of years ago, a salt-rich ocean likely occupied this region, surrounding a microcontinent in what is now central Iran.

Image credit: USGS/NASA Landsat 7

Startup with MIT roots wins R&D 100 Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center

Image of the Day: Diatoms from Puget Sound, Washington

Full Text:

A research team from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and other institutions discovered that diatoms have an animal-like urea cycle, and that this cycle enables the diatoms to efficiently use carbon and nitrogen from their environment. The team believes the cycle could be a reason for the domination of diatoms in marine environments, especially after upwelling events–the upward movement of nutrient rich waters from the deep ocean to the surface. In response to ocean upwelling, diatoms are able to quickly recover from prolonged periods of nutrient deprivation and rapidly proliferate.

Image credit: Adrian Marchetti, University of Washington, and Andrew Allen, JCVI

Image of the Day: Cometary globule CG4

Full Text:

The flower-like image of this star-forming region in Earth’s southern skies was imaged using a 64-megapixel Mosaic imaging camera on the National Science Foundation’s Victor M. Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Cometary globules are isolated, relatively small clouds of gas and dust within the Milky Way. This example, called CG4, is about 1,300 light years from Earth. Its head is some 1.5 light-years in diameter, and its tail is about eight light-years long. The dusty cloud contains enough material to make several sun-sized stars. CG4 is located in the constellation of Puppis.

Image credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF

Image of the Day: Tie dye fly

Full Text:

It may look like a poster for the Grateful Dead, but these day-glo rainbow stripes belong to a fruit fly. Duke biologist Amy Bejsovec is studying the patterns that emerge during a fruit fly’s development from egg to adult — information that may help treat diseases that arise when normal development goes awry. The red stripes stain a protein called Wingless, which helps cells grow and multiply and develop into different cell types. Blue marks cell nuclei. The green areas contain a protein that keeps Wingless in check — a key factor in avoiding cancer.

Image credit:

Amy Bejsovec, Duke University

« Older Entries