Planets beyond our horizon
In one hour on January 19, Institute Professor Emeritus Philip Morrison summarized 400 years of astonomy and recent breakthroughs in research, including the discovery of 40 exoplanets (planets circling stars other than our own sun) and three confirmed exosystems, as well as his own predictions of what's to come, astronomically speaking, in the next 100 years.
In his talk entitled "Planets, Planets" (with slides shown by his wife, Phylis Morrison), Professor Morrison noted that both the ancients and the astronomers of the 18th century reasoned that the observably bright, "fixed stars had moving companion planets like our own solar system; we just couldn't find the other solar systems." The 20th century was "marked by people who knew something but not enough" until 1995, when there was "proof complete -- we are not the only solar system" with planets.
Professor Morrison, who has taught physics at MIT since 1965, predicted the discovery of "earth or moon-like exoplanets by 2020;" "liquid HOH; rock-like, ice-like elements and habitable zones by 2050," and, by 2100, "a wide search for evolved life among the [tens of millions] of exosystems in our galaxy."
At the end of his talk, he noted the "important and marvelous tale" of locating not only other solar systems but also other Earths and life forms. He described the Kepler, a meter-sized telescope for observing planetary transits, as one of the tools for discovering Earth-like planets, but, he said, "going right to the top of the ladder" was already an option in the search for life elsewhere.
"SETI, carefully and cheerfully tended by people in the hills of Berkeley, California, is now the biggest computer currently operating," he said with enthusiasm. (SETI is an acronym for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.) Professor Morrison, widely known for his contributions to theoretical physics, first called for a coordinated scientific search for extraterrestrial signals via radio telescopes and other devices in 1959.
Just like the astronomers whose intuition told them that other solar systems exist, astronomers today are "looking for our symmetrical counterparts," Professor Morrison said. "You but not I will probably live to see this."
Sarah H. Wright
Red Sox course rich in lore but low on love
About a dozen students gathered to learn Red Sox lore at an IAP course called "Red Sox Nation-Building: The Seminar." At least one each Blue Jays, Yankee and Cardinals fan showed up with a couple of true Sox fans thrown in for good measure.
The two-hour course was taught by Associate Professor of Political Science Daniel Kryder , an Atlanta Braves fan who rooted for the Mets against the Sox in the 1986 World Series. Asked how he feels about the Sox now that he lives in Boston, he said, "I still don't like them." (To be fair, Professor Kryder said Braves fans can empathize with Sox fans. The Braves, he said, are a "team that has also suffered a great deal in terms of getting close to the World Series and never making it.")
A student of 20th-century American political history, Professor Kryder believed he could turn a "dispassionate" eye to his subject and share Sox knowledge with the uninitiated, the babes in arms who don't know the pain of rooting for a team that hasn't won a World Series since 1918. But let's face it, there's no such thing as a dispassionate Red Sox fan, so a dispassionate course on Sox history threw at least one student for a curve.
"The Red Sox are always seeking redemption. They've suffered such incredible heartbreak," was one of the first statements tossed to the class by Professor Kryder, who did a good job of hiding his lack of love for the Sox.
"The sixth game in the 1986 World Series is the most amazing game in baseball," he said. "It's like Kennedy's assassination. You know where you were" when it happened. Note to Sox fans: He showed the video. And rewound Bill Buckner's most famous moment about six times, trying to identify exactly how that ball rolled between Buckner's feet. Did it bounce on the rough field? "This is definitely a brooder," he said.
He laid the groundwork. Curse of the Bambino: Babe Ruth had a bad year and the Sox sold him to the Yankees in 1919, allegedly to help the Sox's owner fund a Broadway show. Ruth went on to hit the most home runs in baseball history and the Yankees since have won 25 World Series. The Sox -- not a single one. (The Sox had won five before that and were "the Yankees of that time," according to Professor Kryder.)
And he hit the high points. Ted Williams, the last player to hit over .400 (.406 in 1941), is the only player to be inducted into two sports Halls of Fame: baseball and fishing. Carl Yastrzemski was the last player to win the triple crown; in 1967 he had most RBIs, most home runs and best batting average in the American League.
Professor Kryder also offered 10 essential Fenway facts, among them: the short left-field line and the tall boundary wall (the Green Monster) have produced great left fielders who can handle a ball caroming off the wall, including Jim Rice, Williams and Yastrzemski. The combination also has neutralized some powerful right-handed power hitters, including Jose Canseco. The bullpen was moved to right to shorten the right-field line and benefit Williams. (It's now known as Williamsburg.)
Professor Kryder also highlighted a few controversies, mostly about the '86 series. (Did Roger Clemens really have a blister?) But didn't explain some basic Sox undertow, such as why the fans hate the Rocket.
New Sox fans, if you missed the class, don't worry. That's all history now. We all know this is the year.
Spark Forum looks at groundwater cleanup
The cleanup of polluted groundwater in the United States is an extremely expensive and multifaceted problem, from the technical challenges it poses to social issues such as public concern about the safety of treated water.
At a January 18 IAP talk, Associate Professor Patricia Culligan of civil and environmental engineering described her research to improve one treatment method. She also touched on the economic and public policy challenges that make the overall remediation problem so daunting.
There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 sites in the United States where groundwater contamination is an issue, said Professor Culligan. The estimated cost of cleaning these sites: $1.7 trillion. "We don't have enough money to treat all these sites," she said, so scientists must determine which should take priority.
Even when a site is cleaned, problems remain. Cape Cod is home to the Massachusetts Military Reservation Superfund site, where some 12 million gallons of polluted water are pumped from the ground every day. The treated water, Professor Culligan said, could meet an expected drinking-water shortfall on the upper Cape of 5 million to 15 million gallons a day in 2020.
"But the people won't drink it," even though "the water they are currently receiving at home is actually less pure than the treated water," said Professor Culligan, noting that in her native London, drinking water is pumped from the Thames River and treated.
Professor Culligan's own work focuses on air sparging, a treatment technique in which air is injected into the soil below the level of contamination. Since air naturally rises, it moves through the zone of contaminated soil. "The contaminant evaporates into the air, and we collect the contaminated air above ground," she said.
She noted that the treatment method currently favored by the EPA involves pumping contaminated water from the soil, then treating the water above ground. However, "it's much cheaper to treat contaminated air than contaminated water," Professor Culligan said. And it can take 25 years to pump contaminants from the ground.
The EPA prefers the pump-and-treat system, she explained, because it's considered more advanced than other processes, whereas air sparging is still largely empirical. She and her team are working to improve the technique; their research methods include spinning soil samples in a geotechnical centrifuge to model the air-sparging process and using magnetic resonance imaging to see what's happening to the size of pores in the soil.
Professor Culligan's talk was part of the Spark Forum, a lecture series in which young faculty members discuss their research to help students "rediscover the wonder and curiosity that led you to MIT." It is sponsored by the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education.
Elizabeth A. Thomson
International labor standards depend on where you're standing
An IAP presentation on "Rethinking International Labor Standards" looked at the effect of the global marketplace and international standards on individual workers and on community life in two cities in Mexico.
Professor of Economics Michael Piore described a small furniture-making factory in Cuidad Hidalgo which violated international child labor, environmental and safety standards on the one hand and on the other possessed an "indigenous structure" in its pace and household-like organization.
"Small children were running around near open vats of chemicals and unguarded power tools, babies were in corners and older children were doing various jobs. Standards we use were not being met. But the children were being watched by their parents, and the babies were being nursed when they cried.
"In Mexico, a shop like this is an extension of the household; its structure and rationality work like a household and its finances are blended between business and home. That first step towards industrialization described by Max Weber, in which the market economy is separated from the household economy, had not taken place. So, when a factory like this one responds to international competition, it doesn't 'regularize,' as one consultant recommended. It attempts to lower costs. The result? These 15 or so people end up violating our standards and their own. The mothers end up working more hours; they pay less attention to their children and babies, less attention to safety, and the whole production system becomes more dangerous for everyone.
"Imposing our labor standards on that system would have helped them compete -- for example, covering the open chemical vats would have kept sawdust out -- and it would have taken a toll, too," said Professor Piore.
Natasha Iskander, a doctoral student in the Sloan School's Institute for Work and Employment Research, described a different scenario in Tehuacan, where international firms had apparently met labor standards, creating high-paying jobs for individual workers in the denim garment industry. Yet environmental and community health issues worsened, and "hidden abuses," including forced overtime and suppression of health concerns, persist. She described this as "scorched-earth" development.
Ms. Iskander also noted the importance of problems "outside the factory walls." These range from lead-based dyes leaching into drinking and irrigation water ("the water flows a bright, opaque blue," she said) to social dislocation and divisiveness and to general anxiety that the firms might move to Oaxaca to pay lower wages.
Both speakers noted that labor standards were only a "piece of the picture," as Professor Piore put it. There followed discussions of cultural imperialism, an Italian system for sustaining small factories and the type of governing body to regulate labor and environmental issues internationally.
Sarah H. Wright
Dreyblatt is instrumental in making music
Arnold Dreyblatt, an instrument maker, acoustic theoretician and major contributor to American minimalism, held a series of workshops with MIT students on acoustic theory, tuning systems and musical instrument-building during IAP.
Their work culminates in a free concert on Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 7pm in Kresge Auditorium featuring Mr. Dreyblatt and his students performing on found object percussion and other instruments they've enhanced and created during the workshops.
The concert will also feature a new six-piece ensemble assembled by Mr. Dreyblatt, made up of composer and Professor Evan Ziporyn, guitarist Mark Stewart and bassist Robert Black (members of the NYC-based Bang on a Can All-Stars); percussionist Danny Tunick; violinist Lauren Smith, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science; and guitarist Jeff Lieberman (SB 2000). The group performed last week at Tonic in New York City and received praise from Ann Powers of the New York Times (Sunday, January 20), who called them a "stellar ensemble" and described Mr. Dreyblatt's music as "rewardingly visceral, a dual exploration of how instruments react to the touch and how musicians mesh with each other." The ensemble will record a CD while at MIT on Bang on a Can's new Cantaloupe label.
Mr. Dreyblatt, who lives in Berlin, Germany, has composed and performed works for his own ensemble of custom-designed and modified instruments since the late 1970s. He is considered an innovator and originator of the minimalist sound experiments that influenced decades of musicians and spawned explorations in rock, jazz and concert music worldwide.
For more information, call x3-2826.
Hoop dreams, MIT style
Having spent my undergraduate years at a large state school in the southwest where athletics consistently takes priority over academics (I won't name names, but did you catch the Orange Bowl?), I've been delighted to find that MIT has its own cadre of top-notch athletes who also value their education. Even if you weren't aware of MIT's academic reputation, the athlete's majors listed on the basketball programs give a big clue: these are smart kids.
During a halftime pause at the men Engineers game on January 11 in Rockwell Cage, the spirited student announcer, Erion Clark, a senior in urban studies and planning, thumbed through the IAP guide. He came up with this gem: "I just want to let you know that tomorrow at 12:15 in Rm 6-120, they're showing The Relation of Mathematics to Physics, one of the Feynman films," he announced over the loudspeaker.
As my companion (a Berkeley graduate) and I exchanged amused looks, cheers and applause suddenly erupted from the spectator-students in the bleachers. The MIT students weren't amused -- they were enthused.
That night, the men Engineers eked out a four-point win over Wentworth, after leading by 14 points early in the second period. The women Engineers trounced Salve Regina, 61-35.
Center Cristina Estrada, a senior in management, recently became the sixth player in MIT women's basketball history to reach the 1,000-point career scoring mark. The native of Bogota, Colombia reached that milestone in a game against Caltech on January 5. She averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds, had six blocks and two steals, and was named New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Player of the Week. She currently leads the NEWMAC in blocks per game with an average of 4.0.
Standings as of January 22 -- the men have eight wins and seven losses, while the women are 12 and 4.
Session looks at stratospheric spending in Election 2000
Attendees learned something about campaign finacing during "Billions and Billions: Money and the 2000 Elections," a January 10 IAP session.
David Strozzi, a graduate student in physics, provided a brief history of campaign contributions and attempts to regulate them, defined current terms for various types of contributions, and displayed figurative towering piles of money generated to drive the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns for the recent election.
No pile towered higher than the one representing the $200 million raised by President George W. Bush. Mr. Strozzi, whose talk was sponsored by the MIT Green Party, revealed his personal sense of dismay at this, while also delivering objective historical, legal and political information. He was careful to note, for example, that "not all PACs are evil subverters of democracy: civic groups such as the Sierra Club form PACs, too."
Mr. Strozzi also warned the audience that, while the presidential campaigns are over, the influence of money in elections persists. He noted the "insidious, powerful role" of "leadership PACs" in congressional and other races. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, had his own PAC through which he funded other politicians' campaigns, and Tom DeLay, House majority whip (R-TX), also has a PAC called Americans for a Republican Majority, Mr. Strozzi said. "These amount to one politician buying access to another."
Mr. Strozzi noted that Massachusetts has "clean money campaign reform bills" pending, but the legistature is "stonewalling" them. He also recommended some online resources to learn more about campaign finance and reform efforts. Among these, he was most enthusiastic about www.opensecrets.org .
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 2001.