To the naked eye, buildings and bridges appear fixed in place, unmoved by forces like wind and rain. But in fact, these large structures do experience imperceptibly small vibrations that, depending on their frequency, may indicate instability or structural damage.

MIT researchers have now developed a technique to “see” vibrations that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye, combining high-speed video with computer vision techniques.

Normally, high-speed video wouldn’t pick up such subtle vibrations from a building. To do this, the researchers employed a computer vision technique called “motion magnification” to break down high-speed frames into certain frequencies, essentially exaggerating tiny, subpixel motions.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers were able to detect tiny vibrations in a steel beam and a PVC pipe. The vibrations measured by the technique matched those picked up by accelerometers and laser vibrometry — precise but expensive techniques commonly used in infrastructure monitoring.

Oral Buyukozturk, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, says motion magnification provides a faster, cheaper, and noninvasive alternative to existing monitoring techniques.

“This could be a noncontact sensor technology that can be used for economic and speedy applications,” Buyukozturk says. “Depending on your objective, perhaps you could use the camera on your cellphone for screening, and if you detect something, you could concentrate on it with a high-power camera. There are levels of inspection, and you don’t always have to start with the highest-quality camera.”

Buyukozturk has co-authored a paper, along with lead author and graduate student Justin Chen, which appears in the Journal of Sound and Vibration. The paper’s other co-authors are graduate student Neal Wadhwa and postdoc Young-Jin Cha, along with professors of computer science and engineering Fredo Durand and William Freeman.

Magnifying a pulse

Today, engineers typically monitor infrastructure using multiple accelerometers — sensors that measure acceleration, which can then be used to calculate velocity and, ultimately, motion. Accelerometers are very precise, but expensive, costing more than $1,000 each, and a single accelerometer only measures a single point along a structure. Even with an array of sensors, Buyukozturk notes, accelerometers “can’t achieve high density of spatial measurements.” What’s more, as accelerometers are attached to the structures they monitor, they could potentially affect the overall motion, particularly if a given structure is relatively light.

As an alternative, laser vibrometry is a noncontact technique that exposes a structure to a laser beam and an acoustic wave, the velocities of which can be translated to calculate a structure’s displacement, or motion. This method also is incredibly precise — but, like accelerometers, laser vibrometry is time-consuming, measuring only a single point at a time. 

Instead, the researchers speculated that a high-speed camera might quickly and easily track vibrations across an entire structure, without making physical contact.

To test their theory, Buyukozturk worked with Durand and Freeman, the original developers of the motion magnification algorithms. In 2012, the pair presented software that effectively boosts certain frequencies in video frames, making it possible to “see” tiny motions, like a person’s pulse, or a vibrating violin string.

Durand and Freeman worked with Buyukozturk, Chen, Wadhwa, and Cha to adapt their code to monitor infrastructure. The code essentially filters a video image into amplitude and phase signals, which can then be combined to reconstruct the video image in which the apparent motions of certain objects are magnified at certain frequencies.

Finding the fundamental frequency

The team carried out experiments using a Phantom v10 high-speed camera. The researchers set up an experiment to compare the technique with standard accelerometers and laser vibrometers. With each technique, the researchers measured the vibrations from a cantilever beam and a PVC pipe after striking them with a hammer.

The subsequent measurements by the motion magnification technique compared well with those of the other sensors. The researchers observed that, without implementing the algorithms, the high-speed videos showed both the beam and pipe remaining apparently immobile. Once they ran the algorithm on the video data, however, they observed a range of shape deformations in each structure as they vibrated. For instance, the beam appears to wobble back and forth, while the pipe’s circumference changes from a circle to an oval, and back again.

Buyukozturk says the technique may be useful in remotely monitoring buildings and bridges, and may be especially useful in surveying pipelines; a pipe’s circumference is naturally symmetrical. If there is a defect on one side, it may not vibrate in the same way as if it were fully intact. The resulting vibration could then be a signal of potential damage.

The group plans to carry out video-monitoring experiments of MIT’s Green Building (Building 54), as well as Boston’s John Hancock Tower, Prudential Tower, and Zakim Bridge. Buyukozturk points out that detecting vibrations in a building or bridge doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong; every structure has a “fundamental frequency” at which it vibrates. Knowing that frequency, he says, may give engineers an idea of how a structure may respond to forces like wind, or even earthquakes.

“People have been working on structural monitoring for the past 30 to 40 years, but we still don’t have an integrated system that can be used readily for structural monitoring of a bridge, let’s say, or a pipe system,” Buyukozturk says. “Our objective is to make several steps of progress toward that, with new innovative methodologies.”

This research was supported in part by Royal Dutch Shell and MIT’s Energy Initiative.

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

This week Bob Young, 2014-15 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, was among those awarded a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news reporting at The Seattle Times. For more than 12 years, Bob Young covered politics and urban affairs at The Seattle Times. After Washington became one of the first states in the nation to legalize the production and sale of marijuana, Young transitioned into a new role as the paper’s primary marijuana reporter. He has been using the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) Fellowship to strengthen his understanding of the science of addiction and the effects of drugs on brain development.

Last March, just before he was selected as a Knight Fellow, Young became one of the Times reporters pulled into a massive project to report on a deadly mudslide in Oso, Washington, a small rural community in Snohomish County, northeast of Seattle. Which means that he’s also one of the team members being honored this week with the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting.

On Monday, April 20, Columbia University announced the Pulitzer winners in 21 categories. The breaking-news award went to the entire staff of The Seattle Times, “for its digital account of a landslide that killed 43 people and the impressive follow-up reporting that explored whether the calamity could have been avoided.”

I spoke with Young about the award on Tuesday, April 21. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Q: How did you first learn of the Oso mudslide?

A: It came on a Saturday, when I was off. The news of its severity crept out slowly. This is a remote, somewhat rural area, 90 miles from Seattle. There is one east-west road that this community is on, and that road was blocked [by the slide]. For a variety of reasons, the severity of the slide was not appreciated until sometime Sunday, maybe even later on Sunday.

Monday morning, I went into work, and by that time we understood the parameters. First thing Monday, the morning managing editor came up to me and said, “We need your help. We need you to put down your beat.” It was all-hands-on-deck. But there was a lot of talent in the newsroom and it was well deployed by our leaders.

Q: What was your assigned role?

A: My role, basically throughout, was to try and identify the victims. I spent the next six days doing that. It’s an example of our talent and our focus that after the slide hit, our researchers were able to identify all of the properties in the area through property records. Through the property records, they were able to identify the owners of the properties. Through the owners, the researchers have access to databases that allow them to look up phone numbers. So what they presented us with, at some point on Monday, was a spreadsheet with all the names of the property owners and all the names they could round up for the victims themselves and, more importantly, for the friends and families, because the calls to the victims’ phones were, of course, going unanswered.

That began it. Our researchers provided us with a great resource to work from, and then it was just a matter of cold-calling one person after another, in an ever-widening net from family members to friends and friends-of-friends.

We had a high standard to confirm that somebody was in the slide and was lost. We had to have a family member do that. In some cases, I was talking to the friends of victims who were telling me wonderful stories about the victims, but we couldn’t use that, because our standard was that it had to be confirmed by a family member.

Q: It must have been a fine line to walk, between the aggressive reporting that you have to do to get the details the public needs, and respecting what these people were going through.

A: The bottom line is, I think The Seattle Times did a really good job of honoring the victims and the community, which was just phenomenally strong in how it rallied to both try to rescue people and then to comfort the families who lost people. The people who lived in the path of the landslide did so because this was a spectacular place to live, with a towering hillside on one side and the Stillaguamish River on the other. It kind of ripped the heart out of this community, to lose 49 homes in the path of the slide.

The other thing that has to be stressed — far more than my small contribution — is that we really upheld the duty of accountability journalism. Immediately, public officials were saying that there was no warning, no indication that this was going to happen. What we found that there was ample evidence that this danger existed. So much so that county officials had, a few years before, considered buying out everybody in the community, because of the danger. They had been warned by scientists and others. You had a heavy rainfall that year, and you also had some clear-cut logging close to the ridge that collapsed. The Seattle Times has a fine and proud tradition of doing this, and we really went after the accountability angle.

I’m proud in this case of the balancing act where we did the accountability journalism, we had a strong explanatory component where we reported on the science — it was fortunate that we have reporters like Sandi Doughton, who had just written a book about the threat of earthquakes in the Northwest and was well-sourced in this area — and I think we were quite compassionate toward the victims.

Q: What was it like to be one of the reporters calling family members who’d been so recently traumatized?

A: It was a little stressful to cold-call family members who had just lost, or in some cases didn’t know if they had lost, a loved one. Some of them obviously didn’t want to talk to reporters. Some of them were being besieged by reporters.

What gave me comfort was writing a story about a young couple who were planning a marriage when the disaster struck. The mother of one of the victims told me I was the only reporter she was talking to, because when I approached her she found my approach respectful and compassionate. I asked her if she wanted to pay tribute to her son in any way through telling us about his life. That was my pitch, and she liked that. She said that so many of the other reporters would stick a microphone in her face and say “How do you feel?” He feeling was that they were just trying to elicit a teary response. Of course she had strong feelings, but she didn’t want to share that with the public through an intrusive reporter.

That’s a long way of saying, I felt it was a difficult assignment, but I felt comfortable about my work, because of the way the paper handled it all.

Q: How was the whole coverage operation organized in the newsroom?

A: The investigative team was taken off whatever ambitious projects they were on, to focus on the accountability aspect, along with some of our government reporters. We had environmental and science reporters focusing on the natural disaster. (It’s just stunning, the way this entire hillside collapsed and buried some of these structures under 60 feet of debris; people were getting accounts that were just chilling about the deafening roar of these huge, towering fir trees that were just being snapped like twigs.) We had another team that was sent up to the area and getting as close to the site as they could and going to the daily press conferences and talking to community members and neighbors about their amazing volunteer rescue efforts, and their pain. Then we had another team that was about a half-dozen strong, who were given this huge spreadsheet of phone numbers [of the victims and their families] and told to just call, call, call.

We were writing, at first, brief little bios, and when we got enough we would expand those into full-blown articles, something between a feature and an obituary. Meanwhile, the other teams were all funneling their reporting to a writer or two or three who would then shape that into a comprehensive daily story.

We knew when we started on Monday that we’d have two blank pages in the Sunday paper to fill with biographies of the lost and the missing. I was probably responsible for the bios of six or so of the victims. But when you got a story like the one about this young couple, which was so poignant, you went to an editor and said, “Hey, I have something that should run the next day,” and you’d stop for a minute and write something for the front page.

Q: The Seattle Times submitted its Pulitzer Prize entry in the name of the entire staff, rather than trying to call attention to individual reporters. Why was that the paper’s approach?

A: I think it was a good move to have the entire staff named. We have so many good people who might not have had a byline. Like the tremendous researchers, whom I can’t say enough good things about — they are the ones who dug up these phone numbers. All the people in production, page design, copyediting. The graphic artists were tremendous. The photographers.

But here is a better answer: It’s a common practice at The Seattle Times that when we have these really big breaking news stories, they are bylined “by The Seattle Times staff,” and the many reporters who contributed are named below. The chief writers are named ahead of them or right after them. We have a tradition of sharing credit in these big endeavors, because that’s what they are.

As to the Pulitzer Prize, I think that so many of my colleagues are deserving. It’s great for a regional paper like The Seattle Times that is struggling to survive in this environment to show that it’s capable of winning yet another Pulitzer. That’s something I’m terribly proud of. It’s no secret that Seattle is a great place, and because of that we attract tremendous talent who want to live and work in the area and work for the very smart editors of the Seattle Times.

What I want to say above all is that the Times quickly appreciated the severity of the story and smartly deployed most of the newsroom, from graphic designers to investigative reporters. Teams hunkered down on the accountability aspect and science of the slide; on the community as it bravely grappled with enormous loss; and on telling stories about the lives of the lost. Every day those teams rolled out individual stories and components for overarching dailies — with an emphasis on digital-first publishing.

By Wade Roush | Knight Science Journalism program

“Without discovery research, without innovation, applied research can only go so far,” says MIT Institute Professor Phillip Sharp. “There are strikingly important things we just don’t know exist, but discovering them through basic science changes the whole world.” 

That’s precisely what happened to Sharp. He came to MIT in 1974 to join the Center for Cancer Research, now the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where he conducted discovery research on the molecular biology of gene expression. Three years later, he discovered RNA splicing, which changed scientists’ understanding of the structure of genes, and in 1993, he won the Nobel Prize. 

His discovery was part of the foundation for Biogen, now Biogen Idec, which he helped launch in 1981. The company is a world leader in synthesizing therapeutics to treat cancer and multiple sclerosis and was the catalyst that helped launch the biotechnology revolution. 

“Fundamental discovery in biological science and its translation into science in the U.S. takes about 10 years,” Sharp says. “In the life sciences, fundamental research is the gatekeeper for advancing treatment and controlling disease. No question.” 

Discovery research can lead to applications, new companies, jobs, economic growth, and competitiveness in the world, says Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science. “With more basic science, there are more discoveries, more ideas, and more raw material for people to come up with new products, new companies, new solutions.” 

In fact, MIT has long been a force of innovation precisely because so many MIT discoveries enter the marketplace, he says, partly because of MIT’s Technology and Licensing Office, which makes licensing and patenting easier; partly because of the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Media Laboratory (“scientists partner with entrepreneurially minded people”); and partly because of MIT’s culture of cross-disciplinary research, blurring the boundaries between the schools of engineering and science. As a result, he adds, MIT leaders have transformed Kendall Square into a leading innovation cluster in the world. 

“If it weren’t for basic science, we’d still be in the Stone Age,” Sipser says. “We’ve always needed science and we always will. Science helps us find new ideas, and problems need new ideas to be solved.” 

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, adds that now more than ever, we need basic research to solve the great mysteries of our time — how the brain works, the search for life on other planets, the nature of dark matter, and more. And yet, federal funding in basic research is declining, she says, adding that in 1960, 55 percent of MIT’s campus revenue came from federal research dollars. By 2013, that figure fell to 22 percent. 

“The federal government historically made the investment in basic science, and now they’re cutting back. Are we going to have the array of advances in basic science needed to address problems of the future? When you cut back on basic science, it affects practical world problems. You might not see an answer a year from now, but 10 years from now you will.” 

Problem-solving is not the only reason to fund discovery research, Sipser says. Without it, we risk our technological edge in the world; we lose brilliant people to institutions where they’re better supported; and it’s trickier for faculty to embark on high-risk research, because they instead favor more certain outcomes. 

“We need breakthrough research now more than ever,” he says. “The country’s leadership in the world depends on it.”

By Liz Karagianis | MIT Spectrum

How fast is online learning evolving? Are wind turbines a promising investment? And how long before a cheap hoverboard makes it to market?

Attempting to answer such questions requires knowing something about the rate at which a technology is improving. Now engineers at MIT have devised a formula for estimating how fast a technology is advancing, based on information gleaned from relevant patents.

The researchers determined the improvement rates of 28 different technologies, including solar photovoltaics, 3-D printing, fuel-cell technology, and genome sequencing. They searched through the U.S. Patent Office database for patents associated with each domain — more than 500,000 total — by developing a novel method to quickly and accurately select the patents that best represent each technology.

Once these were identified, the researchers analyzed certain metrics across patents in each domain, and found that some were more likely to predict a technology’s improvement rate than others. In particular, forward citations — the number of times a patent is cited by subsequent patents — is a good predictor, as is the date of a patent’s publication: Technologies with more recent patents are likely innovating at a faster rate than those with older patents.

The team devised an equation incorporating a patent set’s average forward citation and average publication date, and calculated the rate of improvement for each technology domain. Their results matched closely with the rates determined through the more labor-intensive approach of finding numerous historical performance data points for each technology.

Among the 28 domains analyzed, the researchers found the fastest-developing technologies include optical and wireless communications, 3-D printing, and MRI technology, while domains such as batteries, wind turbines, and combustion engines appear to be improving at slower rates.

Chris Benson, a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the new prediction tool may be of interest to venture capitalists, startups, and government and industry labs looking to explore new technology.

“There’s a lot of nuance to our method, and I don’t see it as something to hand out to the masses to play with,” says Benson, who helped developed the prediction tool. “I see it more as something where we work with somebody to help them understand what the future technological capabilities that they’re interested in are. We’re probably more like a real estate agent, and less like Zillow.”

Benson and Chris Magee, a professor of the practice of engineering systems at MIT, have published their results this week in the journal PLoS ONE. The paper contains the fundamental findings and equations relating technological improvement to a variety of patent characteristics.

Technological dynamism

In 2003, Magee began determining the improvement rates of various technologies. At the time, he was curious how technologies were developing relative to Moore’s Law — an observation pertaining originally to computers, in which transistors on a computer chip double every two years.

“There were a lot of things that weren’t going as fast as Moore’s Law, and I started trying to get measures of them,” Magee recalls.

Magee initially approached the problem on a case-by-case basis, determining which metrics best represent productivity for a given domain. He then compiled data for each metric, such as the price and speed of manufacturing a product, and used the data to calculate the overall rate of improvement. In 2010, he realized that one of the most comprehensive resources on technology lay in the U.S. patent record.

“We thought, ‘Maybe there’s enough information there that we can do something about linking it to the dynamism of technical change,’” Magee says.

For several years, he and his group identified the most relevant patents in a technological domain, by literally reading through thousands of patents — an incredibly time-intensive process. The approach was not very reliable, as two people may choose entirely different sets of patents to represent the same technology.

A “Standard & Poor’s” for technology

In 2012, Magee and Benson came up with a more efficient, repeatable method for identifying relevant patent sets, by looking at the overlap between the U.S. and international patent-classification systems.

For each patent accepted by the U.S. Patent Office, a patent reviewer will file the patent under several classes within both classification systems. For instance, a solar photovoltaics patent may be entered under the U.S. classes “batteries” and “active solid-state devices” and within the international system as “semiconductor devices.”

The team found that by looking for patent overlap between both classification systems, they could repeatedly identify the same set of patents that best represent a technology, within a matter of hours, rather than months.

Once they identified a relevant set of patents, the researchers looked for metrics within patents that they could use to calculate a technology’s rate of improvement. They found that a patent set’s average forward citations within the first three years after publication, and the average date of publication, were the best predictors of technological improvement. Benson says they were also able to weed out less-helpful patent information.

“If a technology has more patents in general, it should be moving faster, but that turns out not to be the case,” Benson says. “3-D printing only has 300 to 500 patents, and that’s improving at the same rate as semiconductors, which have about 150,000 patents. So there’s almost zero correlation.”

The team devised a simple equation incorporating forward citation and publication date, and used the method to predict improvement rates for 28 technologies. The researchers then compared the rates with those they previously obtained using their more time-intensive, historical data-based approach, and found the results from both methods matched closely.

They then used their more efficient approach to predict the improvement rates of 11 emerging technologies in the next 10 years. Among these, the fastest-growing domains appear to be online learning and digital representation, while slower technologies include food engineering and nuclear fusion.

Doyne Farmer, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says that the notion that technological progress is predictable “is both intellectually fascinating and quite powerful in its practical implications.”

“[The group’s] methods should be useful to any organization that is considering investments in technology, in particular government funding agencies such as the [U.S. Department of Energy] that fund engineering applications; venture-capital firms; or firms that are actually in the technology business,” says Farmer, who was not involved in the research. “Making the right bets on technological progress is essential for solving problems such as climate change. Thus, we should all benefit from this work.”

Magee hopes the method may be used much like a rating system, similar to Standard & Poor’s and other stock-market indices. Such ratings could be useful for investors looking for the next big breakthrough, as well as scientific labs that are contemplating new research directions. Magee says knowing how various technologies may improve in the next decade could give innovators an idea of when “feeder technologies” may mature, and enable more pie-in-the-sky ideas, like mass-produced hoverboards and flying cars.

“We can help reduce the uncertainty of the capabilities of a technology in the future, not to zero, but to a more manageable number,” Benson says. “I believe that’s valuable in a lot of different ways.”

This research was funded in part by the SUTD/MIT International Design Center in Singapore.

By MIT News Office

How can sustainable consumption in U.S. cities be fostered? Can the ocean floor be mined in an ecologically benign way? What are the health risks associated with the mining of rare metals used in energy-efficient products like photovoltaic devices? And how can truly promising environmental solutions have a better chance of becoming real economic policies?

These are some of the complex questions that researchers at MIT will now be able to tackle, with support from the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). The initiative was established last May to inspire solutions to major environmental problems through collaborative partnership.

In response to a call for research proposals, the ESI received 59 submissions. In March, the initiative awarded seed grants of up to $200,000 to nine research groups over the next two years.

ESI director Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says the seed grants have jumpstarted new collaborations among a variety of disciplines across campus.

“I was really pleased that so many people reached out to colleagues and looked at new collaborations, which was exactly what we were hoping would occur as a result of this process,” Solomon says. “There’s a lot of new thinking here. … I’m really pleased that people began those conversations. I think they’re just going to continue to grow and blossom as this initiative moves forward.”

The nine winning proposals fell into four main themes: sustainability; metals and mining; healthy cities; and climate/risk/mitigation.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, humans have consumed more material and natural resources in the past 50 years than in the entire previous history of human existence. To curb consumption, the environmental community has encouraged the practice of sustainable consumption, using the mantra: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

But how are U.S. cities — hubs of materialism and consumption — actually practicing sustainable consumption? A group of urban planners, architects, and historians led by Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, will carry out a survey of 285 municipalities to explore the degree to which sustainable consumption goals have been adopted by local governments. The group wrote in its proposal that it hopes the survey will serve as a “valuable resource for cities that aspire to move toward sustainable consumption.”

Finding solutions to major environmental problems often involves input from both technology and policy experts — but it can be frustrating for both parties when they find that reasonable solutions can be difficult to put into practice. A classic example is the shared resource, such as a groundwater aquifer, that is overused to the point where it fails to benefit all parties. A group of engineers and economists, led by Dennis McLaughlin, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Parag Pathak, an associate professor of economics, will examine the behaviors that drive competition for natural resources using game theory, a framework that has been used to analyze cooperative behavior in economics.

“There is a gap between the promise of game theory and the continuing difficulty of designing workable policy solutions to environmental issues,” the team wrote in its grant proposal. “The ESI seed grant program gives us a chance to narrow these gaps, so that the environmental solutions we propose as a community have a better chance of being implemented as real policies.”

Metals and mining

Metals and mining products are increasingly used to support development. For example, they are essential to building wind turbines, solar panels, photovoltaic devices, and lithium-ion batteries.

But as societies depend more on rare metals for products, what impact will rising demand have on the environment? A group of engineers, led by Antoine Allanore, the Thomas B. King Assistant Professor in Metallurgy, and Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice, plans to launch a metals and mining initiative at MIT. As part of the project, the team will organize several symposia on campus that will connect industry stakeholders with MIT researchers to explore issues of sustainable mining.

Rare metals like indium and lanthanide are increasingly mined for use in high-efficiency photovoltaic devices, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and batteries for hybrid cars. The effects of these metals on the environment and human health are unknown. A team of engineers led by John Essigmann, the William R. and Betsy P. Leitch Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering; Bevin Engelward, a professor of biological engineering; and Harold Hemond, the William E. Leonhard Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will combine techniques in geochemistry and cell and molecular toxicology to assess the adverse effects of rare metals in the environment, and their potential impact on human health. Such an assessment, the team wrote in its proposal, should occur before new substances are introduced widely in the environment: “History provides numerous cautionary examples of the great economic and societal costs incurred when knowledge lags behind the deployment of new products.”

Deep below the ocean floor, there exist vast resources of gold, copper, platinum, and other rare metals — resources that are increasingly in demand for use in electronics and energy-efficient products. The world’s first deep-sea mining operation, scheduled to commence in 2017, will dig beneath the Bismarck Sea, off Papua New Guinea, for minerals. But scientists are concerned that mining operations may create currents that carry pollutants up from the deep sea, potentially poisoning marine species and the humans that consume them.

A team led by Thomas Peacock and Pierre Lermusiaux, both associate professors of mechanical engineering, and Glenn Flierl, a professor of oceanography, will develop a detailed ocean model to identify key circulation patterns in the region and determine the biological impacts of the mining operations. The team says the modeling tools developed through this effort “can be applied to any proposed location for the growing field of deep-sea mining.”

Healthy cities

China has some of the world’s worst air pollution, as well as half its mercury emissions, due to its rising use of coal. In the last few years, the country has adopted policies to curb coal use and reduce air pollution. It is unclear, however, whether these measures will be consistent with the air-quality improvements set by newer policies.

A team of economists, engineers, and atmospheric chemists led by Valerie Karplus, an assistant professor of global economics and management, and Noelle Selin, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in the Engineering Systems Division and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, will examine how current efforts to reduce coal use in China affect toxic air pollution across Asia. The team will also estimate changes in coal demand throughout Asia, as China’s own demand for coal falls. The team’s proposal states: “Our systems approach enables us to fully evaluate and identify effective efforts to address regional air quality, taking into account both the complexity of economic interactions and atmospheric chemical behavior.”

Detailed measurements of air quality, particularly in urban environments, will ultimately help to reduce populations’ exposure to air pollutants. In recent years, advances in sensor technology have offered the promise of sensitive, distributed, urban air-quality networks, although few actually exist. A group of urban planners, atmospheric chemists, and civil engineers plans to address the need for air-quality networks, using “big data.” The team plans to examine air-quality measurements around the MIT campus and in Beijing, and apply advanced data-analysis techniques to gain “quantitative insight” into pollution sources.

This project, the team says, “would represent the first application of machine-learning tools to environmental sensors.” The work will be led by Marta Gonzalez, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Colette Heald, the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor in Contemporary Technology; Jesse Kroll, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Jinhua Zhao, the Edward H. and Joyce Linde Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.


Tropical peatlands, swamp forests found mostly in Southeast Asia, are thought to be vast carbon sinks, containing up to 70 billion tons of carbon — about 3 percent of the world’s soil carbon. Over the last 25 years, peatland forests have been cut and drained so that the underlying peat acts not as a sink, but a source, emitting enormous stores of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Policymakers and researchers suggest that controlling these emissions would be a cost-effective way to reduce the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. But there’s little knowledge about the physical and biological processes within peatlands that control carbon and methane fluxes. A group of engineers and atmospheric scientists will study soil processes in Brunei, on the island of Borneo, to characterize the flow of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. The researchers ultimately hope to apply their results to strategies for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The group includes Charles Harvey, Benjamin Kocar, and Martin Polz of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Shuhei Ono and Roger Summons of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

While two-thirds of greenhouse-gas-induced warming is due to carbon dioxide, other gases, such as methane and halogen-containing gases, contribute significantly to climate change. In the near future, these emissions may increase as a fraction of total greenhouse-gas emissions, as policies to reduce carbon dioxide bear results. As countries transition from coal to natural gas for electricity, more methane may escape into the atmosphere through leaks in natural-gas pipelines.

A team led by Jessika Trancik, the Atlantic Richfield Career Development Assistant Professor in Energy Studies, and Francis O’Sullivan, director of research and analytics at the MIT Energy Initiative, will develop metrics to compare climate impacts of non-carbon dioxide emissions, such as methane. The researchers will use the metrics to identify ways to reduce these emissions, particularly those of methane through the natural-gas supply chain. The team will use these results to inform current U.S. policy, including a new federal initiative to reduce methane. “Climate change mitigation is a multi-gas problem,” the researchers wrote in their grant proposal. “This work will inform important policy decisions that are slated to be made in the next few years.”

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

What do data scientists and social scientists have in common? Not nearly enough — yet. But now, MIT is creating a new institute that will bring together researchers working in the mathematical, behavioral, and empirical sciences to capitalize on their shared interest in tackling complex societal problems.

As announced today by the deans of all five of the Institute’s schools, MIT will officially launch the new Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) on July 1. Offering a range of cross-disciplinary academic programs, including a new undergraduate minor in statistics, IDSS will be directed by Munther Dahleh, the William A. Coolidge Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

While providing a structure and incentives for new alliances among researchers from across MIT, IDSS will become a central “home” for faculty from the Engineering Systems Division and a number of existing units, including the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center. IDSS will also launch a new MIT center on statistics.

“The Institute for Data, Systems, and Society will be a platform for some of the most exciting research and educational activity in complex systems at MIT,” Provost Martin Schmidt says. “Its formation is the result of intensive consultations among more than three dozen faculty members over many months. Those consultations have helped define many of the challenges that need to be addressed. I am deeply grateful to Munther for his leadership throughout this process.”

“This new institute allows MIT to bring all of its strengths to bear in exciting new directions,” says Ian A. Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering. “The modern proliferation of data and networks means that every problem, solution, or idea can be modeled, tested, and analyzed in ways and on scales that were unheard of 20, or even 10, years ago. This is leading to unprecedented challenges in areas like cybersecurity, and to spectacular opportunities for innovation, as in global online learning.”

“Engineering and science are always embedded in social realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions,” says Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “IDSS will allow the deep, original thinking about the physical universe that is done by our scientists and engineers to come together with the rigorous work of MIT’s great social scientists and economists.”

Students and researchers working with IDSS have a “nearly infinite pool of societal challenges they can begin to address together,” Dahleh says. In fields such as energy, transportation, social networks, health care, and financial systems, the explosion of data sources and networks is redefining not only social systems and infrastructure, but many of the disciplines that investigate them.

“In order to understand things like power outages and bank failures, you still need electrical engineers and economists — but today you also need anthropologists and data scientists, too,” Dahleh says. “Our ability to collect and aggregate data is already well beyond our ability to understand what it could tell us — and no single discipline, on its own, holds the keys to solving this problem.”

New demand, new program

Dahleh is building out the IDSS leadership team, which already begun to lay the foundations of its academic and research activities. One committee created has already completed the design of an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in statistics.

A new PhD program anchored in both analytical tools and social sciences is also in the planning stages. The PhD will be problem-driven, requiring every student to gain in-depth expertise in a wide range of analytical tools; deep understanding of a coherent program in social science; and substantial knowledge in one application domain area.

“Bringing social-science dimensions to our strengths in science and engineering will have an enormous impact,” says Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science. “Statistics has become the fastest growing college major in the country, and the IDSS will give us an opportunity to meet this demand in a distinctively MIT way.”

Also charged with hiring new faculty, the IDSS leadership has successfully recruited a top theoretical statistician to join MIT; they will continue to identify candidates in networked systems and connection science who have broad interests in engineering, economics, and social networks. They have also organized a statistics workshop, to be held May 14 and 15, to bring together thought leaders in statistics around exciting challenges created by the new era of data-rich applications. The speakers will offer technical presentations in mathematical statistics, machine learning, econometrics, and biostatistics.

By News Office

Celebrating Einstein

April 25, 2015

Wherever you may be on the space-time continuum, it’s time to celebrate!

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and to honor the occasion, MIT faculty have organized Celebrating Einstein, a series of panel discussions, performances, and other events that will take place this month as a special feature of the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival.

An extension of ongoing programs in the history of science and public engagement with science and technology led by MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the Celebrating Einstein series is designed to demystify the man who has become an international icon of genius.

“Einstein did a kind of science that very few people understand. He’s the public symbol of the incomprehensibility of science for most ordinary folks,” says MIT Museum Director John Durant, a SHASS faculty member, executive director of the Cambridge Science Festival, and one of three principal organizers of the series. “If you want to say science can be something for you, too — there’s no better place to start than with Einstein.”

Einstein in your pocket

In fact, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the importance of Einstein’s theory — even if his earth-shaking physics formula, Rµv–½gµvR=(8πG/c4) Tµv, is daunting to many of us. Every day, Einstein’s work is employed by a huge percentage of the human population — including everyone who uses a global positioning system (GPS).

“It’s Einstein in your pocket,” says Scott Hughes, MIT physics professor and a co-organizer of Celebrating Einstein. “If the principles due to Einstein’s theory of relativity were not built into GPS, it would be useless.”

Einstein’s theory revealed that time runs more slowly near a strong source of gravity — an idea that revolutionized physics when first presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in November 1915, but would have no practical applications for decades, because the technologies that could make use of the theory did not yet exist. “There’s this mythology around Einstein now,” Hughes observes, “but for the first 50 years, the implications of his general relativity theory were diddly-squat.”

Today, Einstein’s discovery makes it possible to ensure GPS devices sync up properly with satellites far from the Earth’s center of gravity. “This is the benefit of fundamental research,” notes Durant, who teaches in the SHASS Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). “In the course of doing it, out come all sorts of implications that will have applications.”

Einstein on stage

Einstein’s thinking was profound and revolutionary, but the principles he laid out are actually quite accessible, according to the event organizers. “The principles are not that hard to understand,” Hughes says, encouragingly.

To underscore that point, Celebrating Einstein will bring more than 50 students from MIT and other area universities into about 30 classrooms this spring to teach elements of Einstein’s theory to 8th and 9th graders in Boston and Cambridge. The students will explain the curvature of space-time and conduct hands-on activities, giving the middle-schoolers the chance, for example, to measure the speed of light.

Officially, Celebrating Einstein kicks off on April 17, and will launch the Cambridge Science Festival with “Speaking of Einstein,” a panel discussion on how Einstein shaped our world, and where his influence will continue to push the frontiers of science. Featuring three noted physicists and a historian of science, the panel will be moderated by MIT’s David Kaiser, historian of science, physicist, and head of STS. “Our four guests span the cutting-edge of research going on today in relativity,” says Kaiser.

Celebrating Einstein will also feature eight other events, including “Shout Across Time,” a multimedia performance encompassing music, dance, and a film related to ideas inspired by general relativity; an interactive video-art experience, “Black (W)hole,” intended to engage visitors in the wonders of the universe; and “The Story Collider,” an evening of true, funny, and poignant personal stories about science and gravity.

“We’re living through an incredibly creative period of celebrating science. People are happy to mix going into the classroom with storytelling, dance, music,” Durant says, noting that the Einstein program will give the Cambridge Science Festival a fresh edge. “We want the festival each year to include surprises,” he says. “Celebrating Einstein is a big, special deal this year. We’ve never done anything like it before.”

Einstein in public

This year’s Einstein celebration has roots in a project developed by scientists, artists, and education specialists in Bozeman, Montana. In 2013, the Bozeman group created and premiered a series of events, under the banner “Celebrating Einstein.” Soon thereafter one of the leaders of that effort, Nicolas Yunes — former MIT postdoc, now assistant professor of physics at Montana State University — participated in an MIT workshop on science engagement. “We began our planning for the Cambridge 2015 program by saying, let’s look at what they did,” Hughes says, of the Montana team. “They get all the credit for planting the seed, growing this beautiful thing, and allowing the rest of us to take cuttings.”

Intended to draw not only MIT affiliates but the broader local population, Celebrating Einstein will take place at venues all around Cambridge — not just on campus. “The local community that MIT is a part of is extraordinarily rich, and that richness deserves to be shared as widely as possible,” Durant says.

The hope, organizers say, is that Celebrating Einstein will build on MIT’s substantial existing efforts to support public engagement with science — which range from the several MIT SHASS-based endeavors (Graduate Program in Science Writing; Program in Science, Technology and Society; and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships) to the Cambridge Science Festival itself, which was founded by MIT nine years ago and, in 2014, drew more than 55,000 attendees over its 10-day run.

“What seems so exciting to us is that Einstein’s body of work is the basis for further-flung ideas about where we came from and where we’re going,” Kaiser says. “You get to cover a lot of territory by thinking about Einstein.”

Celebrating Einstein is supported by the following MIT groups: SHASS Program in Science, Technology, and Society; Department of Physics; Office of the Dean of the School of Science; Provost’s Council for the Arts, and the Office of the Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Story prepared by SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Computer-network security breaches are never out of the news for long, but lately, they’ve been hogging the headlines: the Sony hack, the Uber hack, and last month, the revelation that an international gang of cybercriminals had used malware to steal an estimated billion dollars from financial institutions over two years.

In this context, MIT yesterday announced plans to address the problem of cybersecurity from three angles: technology, public policy, and organizational management.

At an event at MIT’s Stata Center, the home of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), with more than 200 students, academics, and industry representatives in attendance, MIT faculty and administrators unveiled three new cybersecurity initiatives, to be housed at CSAIL and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Funded with a $15 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the MIT Cybersecurity Policy Initiative will pool the expertise of researchers at CSAIL, MIT Sloan, the MIT departments of political science and economics, and the Science, Technology, and Society program to better characterize the security dynamics of large networked systems, with the aim of guiding policymakers.

Cybersecurity@CSAIL will provide funding and coordination for the lab’s ongoing research into hardware- and software-based approaches to computer security, while MIT Sloan’s Interdisciplinary Consortium for Improving Critical Infrastructure in Cybersecurity, or (IC)3, will focus on the human element — how organizations can ensure that their employees or volunteers are not creating security vulnerabilities, whether intentionally or not.

The launch event was emceed by Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, and the speakers included representatives of each of the three initiatives and MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

In his opening remarks, Reif emphasized both the new initiatives’ partnerships with industry and the interdependence of their research programs. “New technologies will require new policies and incentives,” he said. “Emerging policies must adapt to future technologies. And none of that matters if they cannot make the present a safe place to do business.”

“Security by default”

Reif was followed by Daniela Rus, the Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of CSAIL. Rus began by emphasizing MIT’s long history of involvement in cybersecurity: as the home of one of the first computers to allow multiple simultaneous users, it was also the birthplace of the computer password.

But Rus also gave some sense of what the future of cybersecurity would look like. “Many of today’s cybersecurity issues stem from older, poorly designed systems that viewed security as an afterthought,” she said. “Organizations learned to ‘patch and pray,’ planning to manage attacks as they happened rather than fighting them systematically. But we can change that. Instead of looking for patches, we can move towards security by default.”

Rus then introduced Howard Shrobe, a principal research scientist at CSAIL, who will direct Cybersecurity@CSAIL. Shrobe elaborated on Rus’s historical observations, pointing out that the researchers who developed MIT’s multiuser computer, under the auspices of Project MAC, in fact wrote an operating system that had “security by default.” But the computers of the time simply weren’t powerful enough to execute its security protocols efficiently.

Today, however, “on every criterion that you can think of, machines are 50,000 times more powerful than when Project MAC started,” Shrobe said. “We can now start to use those resources to enforce security in a systematic way.”

Cybersecurity@CSAIL, Shrobe added, would focus on three themes: prevention, or designing systems that are harder to hack; resilience, or designing systems that can offer secure transactions even after they’ve been compromised; and regeneration, or designing systems that can repair themselves when breaches are detected.

The founding member companies of Cybersecurity@CSAIL are BAE Systems, BBVA, Boeing, BP and Raytheon.

Square one

Danny Weitzner, a CSAIL principal research scientist and director of the new Cybersecurity Policy Initiative, took the podium next. No one, Weitzner said — neither researchers nor policy makers — has a very good understanding of the dynamics of cybersecurity. But that doesn’t prevent policy makers from trying to control them.

“The United States government, in last year’s budget, is spending over $13 billion on cybersecurity efforts,” Weitzner said. “That’s 1 percent of discretionary spending.”

Weitzner then offered an example from his own two-year stint as the U.S. deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy. During that time, he said, the U.S. Congress was debating the Stop Online Piracy Act, which included what Weitzner called a “seemingly simple proposal to require Internet service providers to use some features of the domain name system to block access to [content pirates’] websites.”

Discussions of the proposal elicited a letter from 83 distinguished Internet engineers — including MIT’s David Clark, who was the Internet’s chief architect for most of the 1980s — who argued that tampering with the Internet’s domain name system, which translates human-readable URLs into machine-readable IP addresses, could have potentially disastrous consequences.

“Their intuition as really good Internet engineers was that it could cause some problems,” Weitzner said. “But really, there was no science presented, no formal model of the interaction between the domain name system and the rest of the Internet — certainly no understanding of how individuals would behave at large scales.” Generating that type of multidisciplinary model is one of the goals of the Cybersecurity Policy Initiative.

Human factors

S. P. Kothari, the Gordon Y. Billard Professor in Management and deputy dean at MIT Sloan, then introduced the final speaker, Stuart Madnick, the Maguire Professor of Information Technologies at MIT Sloan and a professor of engineering systems, who will lead (IC)3.

“It’s great to hear about the work being done to improve the technology by our colleagues at CSAIL and the regulatory considerations being studied by CPI,” Madnick said. “But various studies have shown that up to 80 percent of the incidents [of cybersecurity breaches] are aided or abetted by authorized users.”

“Understanding the organizational, managerial, and strategic issues about cybersecurity is of great importance to protecting our critical infrastructure,” he added, “and that is the focus of (IC)3.”

By Larry Hardesty | MIT News Office

Science journalism is the central way many of us learn how advances in science and technology are affecting and changing our lives — in everything from daily choices about food or health care, to issues that impact the planet as a whole.

But crafting great science journalism is a formidable challenge. Science journalists must be schooled deeply in complex scientific and technological practices, theories, and information. They must have superb skills in writing, video, and other media in order to convey the facts, import, and implications of new discoveries and data. They must be ace reporters, bringing critical thinking and hard questions to their investigations. They must have command of language that is both nuanced enough to communicate intricate ideas, and compelling enough to engage a broad public audience.

For the past 30 years, the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program at MIT, has been helping talented science journalists meet that challenge. Many fellows describe their year at MIT as one of the most productive of their lives, and as a source of eduring strength. As one of this year’s fellows commented, “The power of MIT-style, interdisciplinary teamwork — combining varied skillsets and problem-solving methods to accomplish something that none of us could have done on our own — is a lesson I will take back with me to my newsroom.”

A world leader

The MIT KSJ fellowship, the leading program of its kind in the world, admits 10 to 15 seasoned journalists each year to spend two terms at MIT exploring new fields, solidifying their understanding of a particular research area, and getting up to date on the latest developments. Over nine lively months, the selected science and technology journalists build expertise and community in a program structured around course work, seminars, field trips, and workshops. 

Hailing from all across the globe, the 2015 class of fellows pursue science journalism in a diverse array of media, from traditional newspapers to online video, as beat reporters, editors, and producers. They cover a broad range of scientific fields, including climate change, public health, and astrophysics.

“Working with this group of caring, curious, and committed Knight Fellows has made my year as acting director of the program a real joy,” says Wade Roush, a former editor-at-large for Xconomy who holds a PhD from MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program. “When I think about the concrete things they’ve accomplished and the things I know they’ll do in the future, my worries about the journalism business fade away.”

SHASS Communications recently spoke with a number of the current Knight Fellows about their fellowship year at MIT, the science stories they think are most important, and their views about journalism. Click on the “Interview” links to read a short Q&A with each KSJ Fellow:

Rachael Buchanan
Medical producer, BBC News, United Kingdom

“The explosion of social media platforms and digital story telling tools has complicated questions of who is a journalist and what journalism is.”

Ian Cheney
Director/producer of Wicked Delicate Films, Massachusetts

“Human narratives not only hook viewers, but also provide context and grounding for otherwise complex or intangible ideas.”

Olga Dobrovidova
Science and environmental producer and head of desk for RIA Novosti, Russia

“Science journalism, when it’s accurate, balanced, and not overhyped, can have an incredible public impact.”

Gideon Gil
Health and science editor for The Boston Globe, Massachusetts

“The power of MIT-style, interdisciplinary teamwork — combining varied skillsets and problem-solving methods to accomplish something that none of us could have done on our own — is a lesson I will take back with me to my newsroom.”

Giovana Girardi
Reporter with O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil

“We all will be affected on some level by climate change. But I am afraid that journalists have been losing relevance in this area, and we need new strategies to communicate the importance of this dramatic issue. One big step in that direction is to understand the science and the politics of climate change better.”

Scott Huler
Independent writer/producer, North Carolina

“The fundamental questions we learned to ask in philosophy, the basic understandings we glean from history, politics, economics — these all form the foundation on which you base your understanding of any science, research, or policy.”

Kathleen McLaughlin
Independent journalist, China

“It’s great to be away from China at MIT this year to recalibrate and think about how we frame important issues related to China and the rest of world.”

George Musser
Freelance journalist, New Jersey

“History and philosophy, especially, are essential to how I think about the fields I write about. We have math, we have the empirical scientific method, and we have philosophical analysis. To neglect any one of these would be like trying to sit on a two-legged stool.”

Bob Young
Staff reporter at The Seattle Times, Washington

“From neuroscience classes to medical-evidence workshops — and much more — the MIT fellowship has propelled me toward my goal of becoming the best-informed reporter on the beat.”

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

At this year’s Armory Show in New York City, Art Jameel and Edge of Arabia will present the latest iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” as part of the fair’s regional focus on MENAM (Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean). The Armory Show, March 5-8, is but one stop on “CULTURUNNERS’” nationwide tour. The project debuted in 2014 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, before traveling to Boston, where it stopped at MIT for a weeklong series of workshops and a symposium the first week of October 2014.

“CULTURUNNERS” is a Gulf Stream RV-cum-performance/exhibition/broadcast studio that hosts artistic journeys and exchanges between the United States and the Middle East. Azra Akšamija, the Class of 1922 Career Development Professor in the MIT Department of Architecture and an assistant professor in the MIT Art, Culture and Technology Program (ACT), and Stephen Stapleton, director of Edge of Arabia, created “CULTURUNNERS” in collaboration with artists who have spent a decade traveling between the U.S. and the Middle East — from the UK over Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and from the Balkans over Central Europe to the United States. Akšamija was working on a project called the Islamobile when ACT research affiliate Daanish Masood, a member of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, introduced her to Stephen Stapleton and the Edge of Arabia organization, and the project took its current shape as “CULTURUNNERS.”

The project is a platform for the production and sharing of a range of content, including performances, sound, and video installations, food production, rituals, social media, and adaptable wearables. By developing new “cultural technologies,” “CULTURUNNERS” imports personal narratives and unofficial histories from the MENAM region to audiences in the U.S. Akšamija points out, “Technology can help us create weird and unexpected encounters,” and help us cultivate “cultural empathy through dialogue.”

At the Armory Show, “CULTURUNNERS” will feature custom-built artistic technologies to map, archive, and broadcast voices and ideas from the FOCUS: MENAM section of the fair. The RV will be on site at Pier 92 and Pier 94, and will also take to the road to visit Middle Eastern neighborhoods throughout New York, such as 125th Street in Harlem, and “Little Syria” near Battery Park.

This iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” features projects by Akšamija, Dietmar Offenhuber, Nick Beauchamp, Chris Riedl, Darvish Fakhr, Madeleine Gallagher, John Steiner, and Orkan Telhan. Many of these artists have ties to the Institute. As Akšamija stresses, “this project and ACT facilitate involvement of creative individuals across MIT.” “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory was curated by Akšamija and produced with assistant curator Jessica Varner, a PhD student in the MIT Program in History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture.


Akšamija’s project, “Yarn-dez-vous,” a growing wearable quilt made of American and Middle Eastern textiles that can be transformed into letterman’s jackets, addresses ideas related to cultural fabric and social identity, or collectivity and individuality. The title “Yarn-dez-vous” plays upon the double meaning of the word yarn and the romance of a rendezvous, Akšamija explains. The jacket design and prototypes were developed with Andrea Boit, Lillian Harden, and Karina Silvester MArch ’14. The fabrication team includes Emily Tow, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT; Bjorn Eric Sparrman, a graduate student in ACT Program; and Emma Harden and Elliot McLaughlin. Gedney H. Barclay, a graduate student in the ACT Program, and Sooyoung Kwon MS ’14, an ACT Program alumna, produced the project videos, which feature participation of 20 MIT students and staff members.

Another iteration of “Yarn-dez-vous” will be developed in a new course for freshmen in the School of Architecture, 4.S10 (Exploring Design: Thinking Through Making). In this version, Akšamija will use raincoats to signify “shelter for the bigger community.”

“A Now for MENAM” 

Orkan Telhan, assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, holds a PhD in design and computation from MIT’s Department of Architecture. He was part of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Laboratory and the Mobile Experience Lab at the MIT Design Laboratory. His work, “A Now for MENAM,” integrates various historical and contemporary practices of time keeping across the cultural geography of Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, eschewing the idea of unifying the different time zones and calendar systems used within this vast geography. The calendar works as a mobile application that delivers images, videos, information, or text from different archives and online sources. The format refers to the calendars published in Turkey since 1900s known as the “educational calendar with time.”  “A Now for MENAM” offers a contemporary take on this format. The calendar also functions as a temporal navigator for the “CULTURUNNERS” RV and customizes its content based on the RV’s travel routes.

“MENAM Art Map”

Dietmar Offenhuber is an assistant professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Art + Design, where he heads the MFA program in information design and visualization. He holds a PhD in urban studies from MIT, and degrees from the MIT Media Lab and the Vienna University of Technology. Together with Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor in political science at Northeastern, Christoph Riedl, assistant professor for information systems at Northeastern, and research assistants Armin Akhavan and Rohith Vallu, they created “MENAM Art Map.”

“MENAM Art Map” is an interactive visualization of the institutional connections, life trajectories, and centers of prominent members of the Middle Eastern art scene exhibiting in the West. The geo-spatial network representation is based on information extracted from a large corpus of artist biographies. It represents the first stage of a project dedicated to the analysis of text networks at the NU Lab for Texts, Maps and Networks at Northeastern University in Boston.


“Autoluminescence” is multimedia installation and performance series that uses geometric and mathematical patterns of traditional Islamic art and music as a structure to manipulate transmissions of media and sound surrounding the “CULTURUNNERS” RV as it travels on a cross-country road trip through United States. Through light and music, “Autoluminescence” transforms the “CULTURUNNERS” RV interior into a lounge space to relax, connect, reflect, possibly decode, and/or invent meaning from the floating world of media surrounding us.

Madeleine Gallagher, a media associate in ACT at MIT, is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, and educator. John Steiner, a media assistant in MIT Program in ACT is a performer, songwriter, and visual artist working in audio, sculpture, electronic media, and design.

“RV Skin-NY” and more

Among the other projects hosted by “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory are Darvish Fakhr’s “The Flying Carpet” and Edge of Arabia’s online broadcast platform, “FREEWAY.” “The Flying Carpet” is a customized, motorized longboard with a Persian carpet attached, on which Fakhr will travel through the MENAM communities of New York and perform. “FREEWAY” will explore connections between the Armory Focus and MENAM communities across New York.

“RV Skin-NY” is an interactive re-skinning of the exterior of the “CULTURUNNERS” RV linked to phase 2 of the “CULTURUNNERS” website (by One Darnley Road), which will be launched on the first day of the fair. Azra Akšamija and Stephen Stapleton lead this piece, which was designed by Kuba Rudzinski.

On Friday, March 6, the lead education partner for the Armory Symposium, Art Jameel, will host a special “CULTURUNNERS” panel discussion, moderated by Renata Papsch, general manager at Art Jameel. Featured panelists include Azra Akšamija; Husam Al Sayed of Telfaz 11; Matthew Mazzotta, artist and former lecturer in ACT; and Ava Ansari, Edge of Arabia associate curator.

The “CULTURUNNERS” RV will then take Route 2 from New York to Nebraska.

By Sharon Lacey | Arts at MIT