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Tech Day sessions offer scooters, Boomwackers

Robotic dinosaurs, human-powered flying machines, Professor Woodie Flowers making a grand entrance on a scooter, and a rousing finale with the entire Kresge Auditorium audience beating out a cacophonous symphony on percussion tubes marked a decidedly playful Technology Day 1997.

President Charles M. Vest set the light-hearted tone for the Saturday morning program of "Technology at Play/The World of Sports, Games and Toys," sponsored by the MIT Association of Alumni and Alumnae, by making a mock announcement that members of seven classes had to retake their swimming tests.

"Good luck," said President Vest. "We look forward to your swift return to today's program--assuming, of course, that you still qualify as alumni when you're done."

On a more serious note, he remarked on the important roles athletics and playful competition have traditionally played at the Institute. "There has always been a complex inter-mingling of work and play at MIT," he said. "One reason for this is that the heart of the Institute--its student body--remains forever young, and young people prefer to blend their pleasure and their labor.

"Another reason is that brilliance is often and fortunately paired with a vigorous if sometimes warped sense of humor and fun," President Vest said. "We are blessed by a brilliant faculty and by brilliant students, and so it should come as no surprise that sports, games and other diversions are such prominent features of the MIT landscape."

The keynote speaker, Stephen C. Jacobsen (PhD '73), director of the University of Utah Center for Engineering Design, focused on the design of entertainment robots, particularly the dinosaurs for the Jurassic Park theme park. He noted that robots for this project ranged from one as small as a chip to Tyrannosaurus Rex, which weighs 80,000 pounds.

The hardest thing about the project, he said, "was getting a consensus between the engineers and the artistic people." He showed a slide of a worker inside T. Rex's mouth, legs and arms hanging over the sides, and joked, "This is our lawyer."

Theme parks are a major source of revenue for Sarcos, Inc., Dr. Jacobsen's company, which has also created King Kong for Universal and has done numerous designs for Disney, including an arm for Abraham Lincoln at the Hall of Presidents.

The work is fun, he said, and lucrative. Besides, he said, "we love machines."

The next speaker, Professor Seymour Papert of the MIT Media Laboratory, praised computers as an educational tool for children and chided the forces in society who want to censor the Internet.

"These people ought to be thinking about what parenting is about," he said. Noting that computers make children less dependent on adults, he suggested that this encourages them to learn--as opposed to being taught, as they are in school. "School by its nature is deeply corrupting," said Dr. Papert, because in a traditional classroom setting, "children are doing things because they're getting a star or a checkmark. They are doing things because they get approval."

Making the acquisition of knowledge fun, as Dr. Papert has done in using LEGOs as a learning tool, encourages children to proceed on their own. "If we stop teaching kids how to read, they will read more," he said.

Professor Edward F. Crawley (SB '76, SM, PhD), head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, noted how technological advances had led to improved equipment--golf clubs, tennis rackets, lacrosse sticks, skis, etc.--which in turn have allowed athletes to perform at a higher level of proficiency.

"There are three great traditions at MIT--hacks, sports and technology," he said. "If you can combine all three, you've got a winner."

Noting that most sports (baseball and cricket excluded) mimic combat with the goal to push ahead and force your opponent to retreat, Professor Crawley mused about inventing a sport that required one team to move north to south and the other east to west.

He showed a video of the Daedalus Project in 1988, a human-powered flight from Crete to Santorini commemorating the mythical trips of Icarus and Daedalus. For nearly 80 miles, the weather was perfect and the trip was flawless. However, when the machine reached the beach at Santorini, severe winds thwarted the landing and finally snapped the tail boom, dropping it into the sea, within yards of the goal. "If you didn't believe in the gods of Olympus," Dr. Crawley said, quoting a colleague who was on the beach when the aircraft crashed, "they were palpable that morning. They were going to let these mortals go just so far."

Finally, Professor Flowers (SM '73, PhD) literally scooted on-stage and presented a slide show/video performance on "hard fun," peppering it with quotations, quips, aphorisms, witty asides and even some wisdom.

After showing tapes of 2.70, FIRST and other design competitions, Professor Flowers said these experiences help students develop a sense of unity and encourage creativity and daring.

"You want to push the envelope as far as you can without tearing it," he said. He also cited the positive role pressure can play. "I tell students you have to make friends with that knot in your stomach," said Professor Flowers, the faculty advisor for Tech Day.

Sometimes, he said, he wonders how much society understands or appreciates scientific achievement. Using the Ted Williams Tunnel to make this point, Professor Flowers said, "Here you have a multimillion-dollar engineering triumph, and it's named after a guy who could hit a rock with a stick."

He left the audience with this message, via slide: "'Trust God, but tie your camel.' Rumi, 1200 AD."

Before leaving the stage, Professor Flowers introduced Craig Ramsell (SB '73, SM), inventor of the Boomwhacker, a cylindrical plastic tube that comes in many colors and sizes and emits a different sound when banged against the user's hand, the side of his or her head, or the arm of a chair. The tubes were distributed to the audience and Mr. Ramsell, acting as a choirmaster, said, "Let 'er rip."

The exit was far from "Pomp and Circumstance."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 11, 1997.

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