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Science in the News

MIT researchers have been in the news lately on topics ranging from coiling honey to an engineer's approach to molecular biology.


Pour honey on a slice of toast, and it will fall in sticky coils. An MIT professor and colleagues recently reported equations that describe the coiling process in the journal Nature

The work caught the attention of journalists around the world, leading to stories in the April 7 New York Times, the March 12 Daily Telegraph (London), and the March 24 Le Figaro, as well as an interview March 14 on National Public Radio.

In addition to generating fun headlines -- "Science Team Makes Honey Solution Stick," wrote the Telegraph -- the work has a variety of potential applications.

"As we moved along, I found that there are people interested in this -- in the glass industry, for instance, in which glass fibers must be pulled from melted glass at just the right speed, and in the textile industry, in which liquid polymer is pulled through small holes to form fibers," Assistant Professor Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who conducted the work with colleagues at Harvard, told the New York Times.


MIT featured prominently in a two-hour Discovery Channel program that premiered last month. "Robots Rising" included interviews with Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab and a professor in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Jay Jaroslav, an AI lab scientist. Professor Brooks talked about robotics in general, his insect robots, and Cog the humanoid robot (MIT Tech Talk 3/18/98); Dr. Jaroslav about the future of robotics. Professor Gil Pratt and technical assistant Peter Dilworth, also of the AI Lab, described their robotic dinosaur, while John Kumph, a graduate student in ocean engineering, demonstrated his robotic fish (Wanda, the robopike).

In other TV news, in late February Professor Harry Asada and Dr. Boo-Ho Yang of mechanical engineering appeared on a Channel 5 newscast. They described work on a ring to monitor vital signs, a wheelchair that converts into a bed (both in MIT Tech Talk, April 3, 1997), and a wheelchair with "casters" that is much more maneuverable than current wheelchairs.


A new way to hide messages sent over the Internet was the focus of recent stories in The New York Times and New Scientist magazine.

The technique, introduced by Ronald Rivest, associate director of the Laboratory for Computer Science and an EECS professor, "couldundermine the US government's attempts to limit the spread of communication methods that can't be deciphered by its security forces," according to the April 4 issue of New Scientist.

Professor Rivest's paper describing the technique is on the web.


A talk by Professor Douglas Lauffenburger of chemical engineering resulted in a full-page story on "the engineering approach to molecular biology" in the March 30 issue of Chemical and Engineering News.

"Listening to Lauffenburger, you realize that engineers bring a very different mind-set to the problem of genetic engineering," wrote Rudy Baum.

Among Professor Lauffenburger's comments: "The goal is to change cell function by changing molecules, which also is the goal of biological sciences. The trick is that the engineering way of thinking adds an extra dimension to the approach. What we want to know is, as for any engineering system, can the output of the system -- in this case cell function -- be predicted based on the inputs? The inputs are not now flow rates, temperature, and pressure, but molecular properties such as biochemical binding���������������������������

"We need circuit diagrams for living systems that are analogous to circuit diagrams for a radio or television -- permitting design-based rather than empirical tuning of operation."

Mr. Baum concluded that "the implications of Lauffenburger's vision are significant��������������������������� Chemists and biologists have laid the intellectual foundations for [applications of molecular biology], and their teaming up with engineers promises to accelerate progress toward these goals."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 1998.

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