Thomas Hughes, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT and Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away Feb. 3, 2014 at age 89. Hughes, who pioneered the field of the history of technology, was also a founder of the Society for the History of Technology. Below is a reflection on his life and contributions by his MIT colleague Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology. 

MIT is justifiably proud of its “lifers”: individuals who enter MIT as freshmen, continue here for graduate school, join the faculty, and live out their entire professional lives under the Great Dome. In some cases — Paul Gray and Sheila Widnall come to mind — the character of the individual becomes so intertwined with the character of the Institute that it becomes hard to know where one stops and the other begins.

Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014) was a non-lifer. He came to MIT in the 1960s for a short stint as an assistant professor. He soon moved on to other institutions, where over time he developed into the nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology. When he returned to MIT as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the 1990s and early 2000s, he brought with him a deep understanding of how the history of technology transforms our understanding of general history, as well as of the role and responsibilities of engineering. 

Would he have developed such perspectives if he had spent his whole career at MIT? This is an unanswerable question, but without question Tom Hughes reminds us of the invigorating role of non-lifers in our community.

The nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology 

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Thomas Parke Hughes served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. He stayed there to get his doctorate in modern European history in 1953. Tom came to MIT in the mid-1960s, when the relatively new School of Humanities and Social Science was trying to figure out how to stock a faculty for an amorphous Course XXI. He was part of a cohort of 13 junior faculty; only one of them (Bruce Mazlish, in history) was ultimately tenured. Along with the rest, Tom departed MIT, first for a temporary appointment at Johns Hopkins University and then for a professorship at Southern Methodist University.

At SMU, Tom published a biography of Elmer Sperry (1971), still valuable reading for anyone interested in engineering control systems and their role in 20th-century history. Primarily on the strength of this acclaimed study, he was invited to become a professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was 50 years old when he accepted the appointment, which elevated both him and the department to academic fame and glory. Graduate students applied to Penn to work with Tom, and the Philadelphia area became a magnet for historians of technology.

Conceptualizing technological systems, defining structures of modern life 

Tom sealed his pre-eminence in the field with the 1983 publication of “Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.” This was more than a comparative history of electrification in the United States, Britain, and Germany: It was also a manifesto declaring the concept of technological systems, which reoriented the history of technology from a focus on the invention of devices to a focus on the construction of large complex systems. Because such systems are defining structures of modern life, this reorientation confirmed the history of technology as an element of general history.

Tom began to write for broader audiences, most notably in “American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970″ (1989), which was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. Also in 1990, Tom returned to MIT as a visiting professor. He taught here for a semester and returned for shorter visits to help supervise graduate students and to run workshops on technological systems. The latter involved faculty from across the Institute, especially from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and from the School of Engineering. 

An enduring affinity for MIT

After retiring from Penn in 1994, Tom was elevated to Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT, and spent even more time here. In 1998, he was on campus for two months giving a series of lectures on “open technological systems,” which he defined as ones exhibiting “a complex mix of technical, economic, political, social, and environmental factors.” His favorite example was the Central Artery and Tunnel (CAT, better known as Boston’s “Big Dig”), with Fred Salvucci playing the role as chief system-builder. The CAT, along with the SAGE computer-based defense system and ARPANET, were featured in Tom’s book “Rescuing Prometheus” (1998), an influential cluster of case studies of open technological systems.

In a 2002 email to Philip Khoury (then dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requesting a renewal of his visiting appointment, Tom wrote: “I am so pleased to have the MIT appointment. For years, even decades, I have felt close to MIT, sharing its notable achievements and sensing its problems and opportunities.”

He went on to explain why he felt this closeness: “Over the years, I have tried to understand the character of the engineering profession and, in a limited way, broaden its horizons by helping it to see the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world. Engineers lament that they are not appreciated. They do not need the appreciation of others so much as they need secure self-esteem. This would come, I believe, if they accepted the messy complexity and moral dimensions of their calling.”

Technology as a part of a broader human history

Tom was already engaged with the problems and opportunities of engineering when I first met him in the mid-1960s, as a Radcliffe College senior serving him as a research assistant. I enjoyed visiting Tom to discuss my assignments, but the questions he asked me to research were sober and difficult. The imprint of World War II was pronounced. He was already studying the Manhattan Project as an engineering project, a topic he later wrote about in “American Genesis.” He was also, with obvious emotional difficulty, trying to understand the mechanisms of slaughter used in the Holocaust. Many years later I heard him discuss in a seminar the concept of “technological sin” as something both historians and engineers need to contemplate, because the historical world is a sinful one. 

Like William Barton Rogers himself, Tom Hughes came to MIT from Virginia with a vision of what technology and engineering mean in the broad context of human experience. Providing scholarly grounding for that vision was a difficult problem — but Tom would quote Sperry to the effect that he chose the most difficult problems because doing this was a way to avoid vulgar competition.

It took Tom many years in the academic wilderness to redefine technological systems and engineering practice as part of larger history. These views do not come naturally to MIT. We have too much invested in defining engineering as a specialized or semispecialized activity that brings order and moral clarity to the world. But engineering cannot assume “the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world” unless we confront its messy complexities and moral ambiguities. They inevitably arise because engineering is inseparable from political, economic, social, and legal structures and activities. By reminding us of this broad historical perspective, Tom Hughes, MIT non-lifer, made an immeasurable contribution to the life of the Institute.


Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Communication and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Associate News Manager: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski 

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Seven MIT faculty members are among 204 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Elazer Reuven Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology
  • Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics
  • Keith Adam Nelson, a professor of chemistry
  • Paul A. Seidel, a professor of mathematics
  • Gigliola Staffilani, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics
  • Sherry Roxanne Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology
  • Robert Dirk van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

“It is a privilege to honor these men and women for their extraordinary individual accomplishments,” Don Randel, chair of the academy’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The knowledge and expertise of our members give the Academy a unique capacity — and responsibility — to provide practical policy solutions to the pressing challenges of the day. We look forward to engaging our new members in this work.”

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony held on Oct. 11 at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

By News Office

MIT Professor Emeritus Leo Marx wrote “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” in 1964, before cell phones, the Internet, and computers became omnipresent in American life. Yet today this work — centered on the tensions 19th-century authors saw as shaping American life — remains as relevant as ever.

On Nov. 8, Marx’s colleagues and former students gathered to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary in an afternoon symposium at MIT. Speakers recounted the legacy of this seminal work in American studies and of the teacher and scholar who penned it.

Through it all, the guest of honor, Marx himself, now 94, sat quietly in the front row. Afterward, Marx called the event “most unusual and terribly moving.”

Two visions that shaped America

“The book is about cultural ambivalences towards the encroaching of science and technology in everyday life,” said David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science. “Marx was writing about railroads and telegraphy, and the larger notion is that technology allows great things — it knit the nation together — but it also seemed to tear down what had been safe spaces of the pastoral.”

“The Machine in the Garden” examines the differences between the “pastoral” and “progressive” ideals that characterized early-19th-century American culture and that have evolved into the basis for current environmental debates.

“The power of Marx’s analysis and prose makes it still worth reading today,” added Kaiser, who is also head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which hosted the symposium jointly with the Marx family and Oxford University Press.

Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of MIT’s PhD program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society — which was marked on November 9 with a daylong symposium at MIT — the “Machine in the Garden” event drew more than 200 people to Wong Auditorium to reflect on Marx’s influence, both on his field and on the lives of his students and colleagues.

Daring, enduring, persuasive

After an introduction by Kaiser and a few words by Marx’s son Andrew, the event featured reflections by five key associates, beginning with a representative of the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press.

Emphasizing that it is “a remarkable accomplishment” for any book to remain in print continuously for 50 years, Niko Pfund, president and academic publisher of Oxford University Press USA, reminded everyone of what was happening the year “The Machine in the Garden” was first published: Barry Goldwater was running for president, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, and Elizabeth Taylor had just married Richard Burton (for the first time).

“Through it all, ‘Machine in the Garden’ has consistently been a book people thought was important to read, one that makes sense of our relationship to history and technology,” Pfund said. “The book has gone through dozens of printings and sold hundreds of thousands of copies — an impressive figure by any measure.”

Alan Trachtenberg, a former graduate student of Marx’s who is now a professor emeritus of English and American studies at Yale University, stressed the book’s antecedents in the Cold War. He said “The Machine in the Garden” reveals rich crosscurrents among literary, economic, and political spheres, reflecting both Marx’s experience as a veteran of World War II and his socialist politics.

“What moved me most of all as an aspiring American studies scholar — and has remained a major bequest of the book — was and still is the book’s daring and movingly persuasive historicism,” Trachtenberg said. “Fifty years later, ‘The Machine in the Garden’ remains a work to live up to.”

A legendary teacher

David Nye, professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark, emphasized that Marx was not only a great writer but a wonderful teacher. Nye studied with Marx as an undergraduate at Amherst College, where Marx taught before coming to MIT in the 1970s to help launch STS.

“One reason the book was so accessible is that it had been taught before it was written; it had been honed over time,” Nye said. “There’s an unfortunate pressure now to rush things into print. The link between teaching and research was clear here.”

Rebecca Herzig PhD ’98 also lauded Marx’s teaching. A former advisee of Marx’s, Herzig is now a professor of women and gender studies at Bates College. “I am and always will be Leo’s devoted student, striving to be half the teacher and half the mensch he is,” she said.

Rosalind Williams, Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, offered her recollections of teaching classes at MIT with Marx. What impressed her the most, she said, was his relentless dedication to the task. No syllabus was ever complete; Marx was always honing his approach to teaching great literature. And, Williams noted, “He is never teaching his book. He’s teaching the books in his book, classics like ‘Walden’ and ‘Moby Dick.’”

The afternoon’s formal remarks were followed by a lively comments period, which enabled Marx’s many admirers to offer their own recollections of the man and his work.

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

By School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Adrift in a sea of change

September 23, 2014

In 1890, living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter to his fellow writer Henry James, explaining a momentous decision on his part: Disillusioned with a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, Stevenson intended to remain in “exile” on the island, never to return to his native Britain.

“I was never fond of towns, houses, society or (it seems) civilisation,” Stevenson wrote, explaining his choice. Indeed, he died in Samoa four years later.

But how exactly did Stevenson, who grew up in a well-off family of Scottish civil engineers, wind up lamenting technological progress and its social effects from a remote island in the South Pacific? And how should we understand this kind of uneasy response to technological advancement more generally?

Those are among the questions MIT historian Rosalind Williams addresses in her new book, “The Triumph of Human Empire,” just published by the University of Chicago Press. It is a study of three famous authors — Stevenson, Jules Verne, and William Morris — and their complicated responses to technological and social change: embracing some innovations while lamenting that many changes were diminishing our sense of connection with the natural world and the past, and even creating new social inequities.

Much as the current day is awash in technology-based innovation, so too was the Victorian era: As Verne (1828-1905) noted in an 1891 interview, he had lived through the introduction or popularization of trains, trams, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, steamship, and commercial electricity.

In the book, Williams analyzes how the works of Verne, Morris (1834-1896), and Stevenson (1850-1894) — while often remembered for their flights of enjoyable fantasy — are actually deeply grounded in this “decisive turning point in the human story,” as she writes, when they could see that “human needs, desires, works and actions would more and more dominate the planet” in the future. That also speaks to our world, she believes, as we are confronted with resource scarcity, climate change, dangerous military conflicts, and changes in behavior oriented around technology.

“There is a deep belief in progress of science and technologies that you can see in the 19th century, and is extremely powerful today, but there is also the anxiety that comes from that belief,” says Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). “This book is intended to explore that paradox.”

‘They could see over the horizon’

Significantly, none of these writers had a lifelong, reactionary distaste for technology. Stevenson took pride in his family’s engineering feats, for instance, while Verne gained renown for his stories about futuristic submarines, moon landings, and even penned a (posthumously discovered) novel about life in Europe under a radically changed climate. They all shared, Williams asserts, a geographic link around the North Sea that made them especially interested in human exploration through water, but they thought about the impact of many technologies.

“What they’re writing about science and technology is astoundingly prescient and true,” Williams says. “They could see over the horizon.” Taking an approach Williams has used throughout her career, “The Triumph of Human Empire” employs fictional works as a window into the human response to rapid social transformation.

“Science and technologies have [created] astonishing accomplishments, and real material changes,” Williams says, “but I’m most interested in how they have an effect on people’s lived experiences.”

Those rapid changes form a recurring tension in Verne’s works, in which technology enables previously unimaginable journeys and feats of exploration, yet traps people in its grip. After all, Pierre Arronax, the scientist narrator of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” (1870), is imprisoned by Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus — privy to remarkable views of life undersea, but unable to escape.

Morris’ response to technology was more explicitly political: Famous for his poetry, in the 1880s he threw himself into left-wing politics, and founded a noted decorative arts company. As a writer, he suddenly started translating Icelandic sagas — as a way, Williams thinks, of aligning himself with a more pristine society than heavily technologized Britain.

“Our civilisation is passing like a blight, daily growing heavier and more poisonous, over the whole face of the country,” Morris wrote.

Stevenson’s grasp of the global effects of technological change seems to have emerged as he journeyed first to America by steamship and then across the United States by train, in pursuit of his future wife, Fanny, who was then living in California. The trip appears to have been an epiphany for Stevenson, as he realized how many of the world’s travelers were not journeying by choice, but as migrants displaced by a rapidly globalizing economy. After a few years in California, he set forth on a sailboat cruise of the South Pacific in search of a healthier climate, new adventures, and new income based on travel writing.

“All of them had to do some sort of pivot,” Williams says. “They grew up in one world and had to realize they were living in another one.”

“The Triumph of Human Empire” has been praised by colleagues; John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the book “engaging, highly informative, and entertaining.”

The ‘rolling apocalypse’

Williams concludes “The Triumph of Human Empire” by observing that Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all seemed to experience technological change not as a clean break from the past, but as a long-term “rolling apocalypse” in which their cherished worlds were erased over time. 

“I think this shows two coexisting visions of history,” Williams says. “One is history as progress, but there is also this other vision of history as rolling apocalypse. A lot of us are living with that ambiguity today, which is a very ambivalent moment in history. You can’t just say [changes] are good or bad — but we need to understand their complexity.”

This means, Williams says, that we should not regard the tales of Verne, Morris, and Stevenson as sheer escapism; that escapism is telling us something about their times.

“In each of their cases, their personal reinventions were as writers, too,” Williams observes. “It just shows how important writing is. Part of the subtext of the book is to take art seriously. That’s the first place to go to figure out what’s going on in the world.”
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

In search of transparency

September 23, 2014

Scientists and government officials have a pressing responsibility to create transparent public debates about our use of technology, the noted former military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said in a public lecture at MIT on Monday afternoon.

Citing Francis Bacon’s dictum that “science should exclusively benefit humanity,” Ellsberg noted that the presence of nuclear weapons and the ongoing threat posed by climate change now mean that we must also confront the potentially harmful consequences of progress. And yet, he asserted, a culture of secrecy prevents a fully informed public from weighing in on vital matters such as nuclear proliferation.

“This secrecy threatens our extinction, or, I would say, near-extinction,” Ellsberg declared.

Ellsberg’s talk, on “The Future of Secrecy, Democracy, and Humanity,” was the annual Morison Prize Lecture sponsored by MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). He gave his remarks before a crowd of about 200 people in Wong Auditorium.

Speaking at great length about nuclear arms, Ellsberg sharply criticized war planning that involves exchanges of hundreds of missiles — which, he said, often assumes hundreds of millions of civilian deaths, at a minimum. Ellsberg said that scientists who understand the planet-altering effects of such scenarios should continue to voice their concerns about the issue, and expressed disappointment that no government officials with access to such military plans had brought the scenarios directly into the public eye.

“Let’s see the actual plans and see what the [public] impact would be,” Ellsberg said.

Public disapproval of such scenarios, Ellsberg added, could help reduce arms stockpiles and make all nuclear scenarios, including responses to false alarms, less likely.

“If democracy doesn’t have a future, then humanity doesn’t have a future,” Ellsberg said.

Ellsberg was a visiting research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies when, in 1971, he leaked to The New York Times classified material about the Vietnam War now known as the “Pentagon Papers.” The documents helped reveal the government’s own understanding of the difficulties inherent in winning the war. Ellsberg was arrested for leaking the information, but the case against him was dismissed in 1973.

However, Ellsberg included himself as one of those who has not pushed hard enough for transparency in civic life. He told the audience that his greatest regret in life was not making public, during the 1964 presidential campaign, information about President Lyndon Johnson’s aims in Vietnam. Ellsberg was then an analyst in the Department of Defense.

“I knew the president was planning a wider war,” Ellsberg claimed on Monday. Had he released those documents, he said, “ I do not believe there would have been a Vietnam War.”

What a difference 40 years makes

Ellsberg’s public profile has risen recently in connection with highly publicized incidents involving former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of documents on the Iraq War, and former government contractor Edward Snowden, who released documents about the National Security Agency’s ability to monitor electronic communications.

When he leaked the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg said, “I expected to go to prison for the rest of my life.” In Manning and Snowden, Ellsberg added, he recognized the same kind of expectation. However, Ellsberg added, he had advantages that today’s informants lack, including a greater federal tolerance for informants — Ellsberg was released from prison while awaiting trial — and less governmental capacity to monitor communications.

He sounded a wary note about the latter issue. While “we don’t live in a police state,” Ellsberg said, people should be concerned about living in a society in which all the communications of citizens, including lawmakers, can potentially be reconstructed.

“Can there be independent branches [of government] when one branch knows every detail of everybody … in the other branches?” Ellsberg asked. Abstract though such concerns might sound, he added, the public should be invested in preserving its liberties to the fullest extent possible.

“If there is a chance of changing this situation, it can be done by pressure from the public on Congress,” he added.

The annual lecture is named after Elting Morison, an MIT faculty member for 35 years and a founder of the STS program, who wrote extensively about technology and military history. It is funded by a gift from Morison’s family along with the Hitchiner Manufacturing Company.
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

Said and Done for September 2013

September 23, 2014

Said and Done is the monthly, photo-rich publication from MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, integrating feature articles with news, research and events to give a distilled overview of the school’s endeavors. For the complete edition, visit Said and Done. A few of this month’s highlights include:

THE LISTENING ROOM | MIT Chamber Music Society
Octet for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and Strings ‘a huit’
Jean Francaix (1811-1997)

COMMUNITY | Welcoming new faculty
The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is very pleased to present the newest members of our faculty. They come to us with diverse backgrounds and vast knowledge in their areas of research: history of South Asia and South Asian diasporas; comparative politics; French history and visual culture; history of law focusing on slavery, abolition, and the Atlantic revolutionary period; international law; and classical Greek and contemporary rhetorical theory, and comparative media.
Meet our new faculty


Research Portfolio
Research is the engine for the School’s capacity to help meet the world’s great challenges. To name just a few areas of impact, MIT SHASS research helps alleviate poverty, safeguard elections, steer economies, understand the past and present, inform health policy, assess the impact of new technologies, understand human language, and create new forms at the juncture of art and science.
Research Portfolio

DEVELOPMENT ECONOMICS | What makes anti-poverty programs go viral? | Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee
New research from MIT development economists demonstrates how social networks can effectively promote poverty alleviation programs in poor countries. The economists developed a new measure of social influence that they call “diffusion centrality.” Examining the spread of microfinance programs in rural India, the researchers found that participation in the programs increases by about 11 percentage points when well-connected local residents are the first to gain access to them.

ECONOMICS | Rethinking investment risk | Alp Simsek
Does financial innovation inherently lead to greater risk in markets? An MIT economist takes a new look at the problem and says it does. A paper published by Simsek makes the case that even in theory, financial innovation does not lower portfolio risk. Instead, it raises portfolio risks by creating situations in which parties sit on opposing sides of deep disagreements about the value of certain investments.

The research of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences appears principally in the form of books and publications, and music and theater productions. These gems of the School provide new knowledge and analysis, innovation and insight, guidance for policy, and nourishment for lives.
Take a look


PHILOSOPHY | First introductory philosophy MOOC at an American university | Caspar Hare
MIT Philosopher Caspar Hare presents the first introductory philosophy “massive open online course” offered by an American university. In “24.00x, Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness,” Hare will lead students through the fundamental questions that underlay our understanding of existence, while grounding them in the basic practices of analytical philosophy.
Story | Video: Introduction to the Course

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIETY | Doctoral candidate Alma Steingart to join the Harvard Society of Fellows
Steingart’s work demonstrates how ideas about what counted as legitimate mathematical knowledge were deeply embedded in political, economic, and institutional contexts shaped by science during the Cold War. We think of math as timeless, but just over the course of the twentieth century, what counts as math to mathematicians has changed, sometimes quite significantly.
Story | Steingart webpage

LINGUISTICS | M@90 | Workshop to celebrate Morris Halle’s 90th birthday
The Department of Linguistics and Philosophy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will hold a 2-day workshop on Sept. 20 and 21, on the topic of “Metrical Structure: Stress, Meter and Textsetting,to celebrate the birthday of Professor of Linguistics emeritus Morris Halle.

PHILOSOPHY | Where are the professional women philosophers? | Sally Haslanger
“Although most philosophers these days are not old men with beards, most professional philosophers are men; in fact, white men. It is a surprise to almost everyone that the percentage of women earning philosophy doctorates is less than in most of the physical sciences. As recently as 2010, philosophy had a lower percentage of women doctorates than math, chemistry and economics. Note, however, that of these fields, philosophy has made the most progress on this count in the past five years.”
Commentary at The New York Times

MUSIC | Music at MIT Oral History Project launched
Delve into great stories from MIT’s acclaimed musical life and history, via online video interviews and recordings of significant composers, musicians, teachers, students, and scientists. “I’ll characterize MIT and music,” says John Corley, founder of the MIT Concert Band, “there’s no substitute for brains… We’re able to do things at MIT that I couldn’t do at a conservatory.”
Visit the site

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIETY | Why do we love “selfies”?
“It has to me the sense of ‘I share, therefore I am,'” says MIT Professor Sherry Turkle.
Story at NBC News
By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Alma Steingart, a doctoral candidate in MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) has been invited to join the Harvard Society of Fellows, an elite group dedicated to “the unregimented cultivation of scholarly genius.” The post-doctoral fellowship will enable her to spend three years at Harvard studying anything she likes, without formal requirements.

Steingart, who is completing her dissertation on the history of American mathematics in the 20th century, says she was “utterly speechless for days” when she learned she had been named a Junior Fellow. “Three years at the Harvard Society of Fellows is an honor and a fantastic opportunity — not only do I get to work full-time on my first book and make headway on my second project, but I’m looking forward to learning from the other Junior and Senior Fellows.”

An opportunity for young scholars of exceptional promise

To be eligible for a Harvard Society of Fellows Junior Fellowship, a candidate must be at an early stage of his or her scholarly career. Junior Fellows are selected for their resourcefulness, initiative, and intellectual curiosity, and because their work holds exceptional promise.

David Kaiser, head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and Steingart’s advisor, says, “I am over the moon at this news; words fail to express how proud I am of Alma and her work.” He notes that the Harvard Society is an elite organization. “They take the best people in the world, whoever they want from any field,” he says. Candidates may not apply for fellowships; they must be nominated.

Investigating the formation of modern mathematics

Steingart joined HASTS in 2007 and has focused her dissertation on the changes American mathematics underwent in the decades following World War II. “I demonstrate how ideas about what counted as legitimate mathematical knowledge were deeply embedded in political, economic and institutional contexts shaped by science during the Cold War,” she says.

“We think of math as timeless, but just over the course of the 20th century what counts as math to mathematicians has changed, sometimes quite significantly,” says Kaiser, who is also the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and a senior lecturer in physics. “[Steingart’s] work is fabulous; it’s really exciting.”

A new direction with MIT HASTS

Steingart received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Columbia University and only later became interested in the history and sociology of science, prompting her application to HASTS, according to Kaiser. “She made a journey from pure mathematics to the humanistic study of math,” he says.

Her experience at HASTS has been invaluable, Steingart says, because the program encompasses faculty members from History, Anthropology and STS. “I’ve been exposed to methodological and analytic approaches from a wide variety of fields and disciplines,” she says. “Working closely with faculty members from all three departments has pushed me to think critically and creatively. [And] it has truly been a pleasure to count myself as part of both HASTS and the broader MIT community.”

Redefining mathematical activity

Steingart is spending the current academic year as a predoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. There, in addition to working on her dissertation, she is pursuing a second project investigating how new techniques in mathematical modeling have affected the field. “She’s written brilliant papers on the rise of animations in understanding mathematics,” Kaiser says.

“I examine the efflorescence of new techniques by which mathematicians represent abstract ideas in multiple media (such as 3D physical modeling, early computer graphics, and immersive virtual environments),” Steingart says. “I call for a broader conception of what counts as mathematical activity, beyond the lone mathematician working with paper and pencil.”

Steingart will begin her fellowship at Harvard this fall.


MIT HASTS faculty and students employ historical, ethnographic, and sociological methods and theories to investigate a wide range of topics, including: cultures of engineering, the making of scientific tools and theories, conventions of laboratory practice, science and technology in military enterprise, the relation of technology to economic institutions, the relation of science and law, the politics of race and science, knowledge-production in biomedicine and life sciences, agricultural and environmental history, and science education.

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

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Are you influenced by the opinions of other people — say, in the comments sections of websites? If your answer is no, here’s another question: Are you sure?

A new study co-authored by an MIT professor suggests that many people are, in fact, heavily influenced by the positive opinions other people express online — but are much less swayed by negative opinions posted in the same venues. Certain topics, including politics, see much more of this “herding” effect than others.

The results, published today in the journal Science, detail a five-month experiment conducted on a major news-aggregation web site. The research group systematically altered the favorability ratings given to certain comments on the site, to see how perceptions of favorability affected people’s judgment about those comments. They found that comments whose ratings were manipulated in a favorable direction saw their popularity snowball, receiving a 25 percent higher average rating from other site users.

“This herding behavior happens systematically on positive signals of quality and ratings,” says Sinan Aral, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and one of three authors of the study. At the same time, Aral notes, the results “were asymmetric between positive and negative herding.” Comments given negative ratings attracted more negative judgments, but that increase was drowned out by what the researchers call a “correction effect” of additional positive responses.

“People are more skeptical of negative social influence,” Aral says. “They’re more likely to ‘correct’ a negative vote and give it a positive vote.”

While this phenomenon of social positivity sounds pleasant enough on the surface, Aral warns that there are pitfalls to it, such as the manipulation of online ratings by some political operatives, marketers or anyone who stands to profit by creating an exaggerated appearance of popularity.

“These positive ratings also represent bias and inflation,” Aral says. “The housing bubble was a spread of positivity, but when it burst, some people lost their savings and their houses went underwater. Stock bubbles represent a positive herding, and they can be dramatically bad in the wrong context.”

Still, the experiment also revealed topical limitations in herding: Stories under the rubrics of “politics,” “culture and society” and “business” generated positive herding, but stories posted under the topics of “economics,” “IT,” “fun” and “general news” did not.

More wisdom about crowds

In turn, Aral suggests, we should be as analytical as possible when it comes to harnessing collective judgments.

“We have to be careful about the design and analysis of systems that try to aggregate the wisdom of crowds,” Aral says.

The research was conducted by Lev Muchnik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Sean Taylor of New York University; and Aral, who joined MIT this summer.

The experiment was conducted on a news-aggregation site whose identity the researchers cannot disclose for legal reasons, although Aral allows that it operates along the lines of popular sites such as Reddit. Over the five-month period, the researchers randomly manipulated the ratings given to 101,281 comments to the site. In this way, they could see how readers evaluated the same comments when those comments were given different ratings.

This approach was necessary, Aral points out, because in most circumstances, “It’s hard to distinguish the effect of high quality from the effect of social influence bias. It could be that past positive ratings have snowballed to create a high score, or it could just be that those items likely to get high scores are just of high quality.”

The researchers also found that comments manipulated to have positive ratings were 32 percent more likely than untreated comments to receive a favorable rating from the very next viewer of those comments, and 30 percent more likely than untreated comments to obtain a very high favorable rating.

Positive ratings for the research — but more is needed

Other researchers who are familiar with the experiment say it is valuable, and helps suggest additional studies that could be conducted.

Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research, who has conducted pioneering work on social influence, believes the study is “well done,” and says it is an “interesting finding that positive manipulations persist whereas negative ones tend to be counteracted by ‘friends’ stepping in to correct them.”

That asymmetry would be more explicable, Watts suggests, if the site in question had a general positive bias in its comment threads overall. “One question is whether the positive bias is specific to this site, or is a general feature of social feedback,” he adds.

Both Watts and Matthew O. Jackson, an economist at Stanford University, say that more research is also needed to explore why opinion herding might be more prevalent in certain areas of life but not others.

“What accounts for the fact that some topics exhibit herding while others don’t?” Jackson asks. “Is it related to the subjectivity of the issue, or to emotional content of an issue? This provides a rich agenda for both theory and empirical studies of herding going forward.”

For his part, Aral agrees that the experiment “opens up as many questions as it answers.” He suggests that it would also be valuable to have more work “explaining the psychology of the correction effect on the negative side,” as a way of understanding how collective judgments are formed.  

“Our message is not that we should do away with crowd-based opinion aggregation,” Aral says. “Our point is that you need solid science under the hood trying to understand exactly how these mechanisms work in a broad population, what that means for the diffusion of opinion, and how can we design the systems to be fair, to have less incentives for manipulation and fraud, and be safe in aggregating opinions.”

Funding for the research was provided in part by a National Science Foundation Career Award and by a Microsoft Research faculty fellowship.
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

Michael Liebreich
Michael Liebreich
Photo courtesy of Bloomberg
New Energy Finance

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Subscribe today.

Michael Liebreich launched Bloomberg New Energy Finance in 2004 to provide analysis and advice on emerging energy technologies and related sectors to utilities, oil, gas, and renewable companies, as well as governments. He sold it to financial information giant Bloomberg in 2009.

Liebreich discussed his take on new energy markets, which currently face major challenges, during a visit to the MIT Energy Initiative’s 2012 research conference.

Q. Your background includes a degree in thermodynamics from Cambridge University, an MBA from Harvard, experience as an entrepreneur and as a media executive. How did you arrive at new energy?

A. I got fairly badly burned by the tech boom-bust cycle around the turn of the millennium. Rather than bounce back and try to win Web 2.0, I returned to my roots, which were in energy. I happened to know about databases, modern control technology and the Internet, as well as nanotech and biotech, because I had been in venture capital for a while. I felt we were going to build the smart grid, not specifically because it helps with electric vehicles or energy efficiency, but because that’s just how you’ll monitor the condition of the electrical system from generator to user. And it was just obvious that we would eventually switch to cleaner technologies as their costs come down. That’s where I came from.

Q. How has the financing landscape for new energy technologies changed since you began monitoring the scene?

A. It’s gone through a number of phases. When I started in 2004, there were only a few idealists wearing suits, some family offices, some visionaries, and an extraordinary level of ignorance about energy technology in the financial community. By 2006, professional venture capitalists, bankers, infrastructure finance people, project financiers, were beginning to pay serious attention. And then in 2007, an enormous amount of money started pouring in. Every asset manager had to have a clean-tech fund, a clean energy fund, a climate fund.

Valuations went up by factors of four and five. It was irrational, it was ridiculous. And then it was hit hard by the crash.

After that came the “green stimulus” years, 2009–2011. The sector was on a sort of artificial life support, so the amount of investment globally continued to rise. But those years have come to an end, and we’ve arrived at a cold, hard reality. It’s a tough time. What’s sustaining the industry now is the fact that its economics are finally coming good. Contrast 2005 to now: The cost of solar photovoltaics is down by a factor of nearly five. We’re now in an environment where these technologies are within spitting distance of being competitive without subsidies.

Q. Does it seem paradoxical that as these technologies become increasingly competitive, and global investment in them has increased from $50 billion in 2004 to $280 billion in 2011, we are also seeing new energy firms struggling to secure capital and even going under?

A. All those asset managers who poured in during 2007–08, now they’re all pouring out, saying clean-tech and clean energy is over, selling everything they own. The capital markets don’t differentiate between technology providers, where there is overcapacity, and technology buyers, getting the advantage of cheap equipment. They are just punishing everyone indiscriminately. Investors are herd animals.

You hear nonsense statistics in political debates on the failure of clean energy companies receiving loan guarantees. Sure, some of the manufacturers supported by the stimulus funds have gone bust. But nobody on the asset build-out side has gone bust. These projects, once they’re built, perform well, they become good assets.

Ask Warren Buffet: He sold nearly $1 billion of bonds in his solar projects, and the offer was oversubscribed. We now see more smart investors buying up projects. In Europe, pension funds are buying entire offshore wind farms.

Q. So what kind of setback does the current market represent?

A. Go back to 1903. There were 500 car companies in the US. By the 1970s, there were essentially three. Some went out of business, some were poorly run, some were acquired and their shareholders did OK. But the car itself was never a stupid idea, and the industry grew. Investors who overreact now should realize that the energy industry is capital intensive, heavily regulated, and it is a difficult space to go from naught to 100 miles per hour quickly. It will go through cycles. This is a tough stage in the cycle.

A lot of things are ugly at the moment, but if we look at them one by one, most will resolve in the next few years, particularly production overcapacity. There will be some failed technologies. People will shut down uncompetitive lines. With the expiry of the production tax credit, there will be more bankruptcies. But the number of megawatts of wind and solar will increase. Clean energy is not a shrinking industry, it is a consolidating industry. It is not going away.

Q. How does politics affect the situation?

A. The European crisis has crushed the sector’s most important geographic market. How are you going to invest in European projects when there is a question mark over the survival of the Euro? The average commercial bank cannot fund a project in a high-risk country like Spain, Greece, or Portugal, the best countries in Europe for clean energy. But at some point this will resolve: There will be an end to the European pain.

In the US, pre-election uncertainty proved much more corrosive than any of the anti-clean energy statements heard during the presidential campaign. At the end of the day, if clean energy economics are attractive, whoever wins the election will support the industry in some way: perhaps more funding for research, perhaps more for deployment. Or just leave it alone and not create uncertainty.

Q. What’s next for new energy?

A. Technologies continue becoming cost-competitive, whether on- or offshore wind, solar, LEDs or batteries. The technologies needed to integrate clean energy into the grid also keep becoming cheaper. Engineers are really, really smart and have got the bit between their teeth. They will come up with solutions and drive costs down.

But in addition to R&D breakthroughs, you need to get technologies out into the market, scale and build a supply chain, and then familiarize financiers with them. You need smart government policies to help break down barriers to market integration—almost more than you need any other sort of support.

Q. What part will clean energy play in the economy?

A. We’re now in a world of perennially high resource and energy prices. Natural gas is currently very cheap in the US because the economy slowed just when shale gas came along. But don’t get too used to it—the price will soon be up to where it is no cheaper than onshore wind power. America must create a resource-efficient economy. Renewable energy, together with the smart grid, electric vehicles, and power storage, will be a big part of it, along with gas. If the US lags, it risks ending up buying these technologies from other countries, the way it has ended up dependent on imported oil. Imagine if the revenue from Amazon, Google, and Facebook flowed to Japan and China instead of to the US economy. That’s the worry, that US companies won’t own the next generation of energy technologies. The next Exxon could be Chinese or Korean.

Q. You privately serve in groups addressing climate change issues, and you executive-produced a short advocacy film, “First They Ignore You”. Is it difficult to balance your professional and personal interest in new energy?

A. At Bloomberg, we provide facts and data for utilities, governments, and corporations, giving them information on risks and options. Grown-up decision-makers need investment-grade information.

I don’t see the film I made as advocacy. Cold, hard analysis shows the cost of clean energy coming down and the cost of conventional energy going up. The inevitable conclusion is that at some point there will be a phase change, and clean energy will be the norm, not the exception. The film was me experimenting with saying the same thing in images, rather than with a PowerPoint presentation.

It is pretty clear as a society we have a choice: We can either invest our money, time, brains and our brightest students in maintaining the existing energy system, which gets more and more expensive, or we can make the decision to invest in other approaches. I don’t feel like an advocate for trying to point this out.
By Leda Zimmerman, correspondent | MIT Energy Initiative

James Utterback
James Utterback

James Utterback, the David J. McGrath Jr. (1959) Professor of Management and Innovation, professor of engineering systems, and one of the System Design and Management program’s most popular faculty members, was one of seven “exemplars of excellence” honored by KU Leuven last June at its bi-annual Leuven International Forum.

The international forum is primarily a networking event that brings together Belgian, European and international leaders from academia, industry and government for the advancement of knowledge and service to society. KU Leuven, located in Flanders, Belgium, has been a center of learning since its founding in 1425.

Utterback — lauded as one of the pioneers of research on innovation at and by spin-offs — spoke about the confluence of different fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. He described this fusion of disciplines as necessary, but cautioned that the benefits of interdisciplinary research must not be left to chance and innovators must purposefully steer the process.

Utterback mentioned the link between automation and unemployment among the problematic issues of innovation, pointing out that 90 percent of employees still work in established industries. “It is therefore important to invest in new fields in a well-considered and balanced manner.”

And what is the secret to the “spin-off sauce,” as Utterback himself described it? “Young entrepreneurs are attracted to MIT because they know we support their ideas.”
By Lois Slavin | System Design and Management