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

April 19, 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

April 19, 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

For many companies, moving their web-application servers to the cloud is an attractive option, since cloud-computing services can offer economies of scale, extensive technical support and easy accommodation of demand fluctuations.

But for applications that depend heavily on database queries, cloud hosting can pose as many problems as it solves. Cloud services often partition their servers into “virtual machines,” each of which gets so many operations per second on a server’s central processing unit, so much space in memory, and the like. That makes cloud servers easier to manage, but for database-intensive applications, it can result in the allocation of about 20 times as much hardware as should be necessary. And the cost of that overprovisioning gets passed on to customers.

MIT researchers are developing a new system called DBSeer that should help solve this problem and others, such as the pricing of cloud services and the diagnosis of application slowdowns. At the recent Biennial Conference on Innovative Data Systems Research, the researchers laid out their vision for DBSeer. And in June, at the annual meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Management of Data (SIGMOD), they will unveil the algorithms at the heart of DBSeer, which use machine-learning techniques to build accurate models of performance and resource demands of database-driven applications.

DBSeer’s advantages aren’t restricted to cloud computing, either. Teradata, a major database company, has already assigned several of its engineers the task of importing the MIT researchers’ new algorithm — which has been released under an open-source license — into its own software.

Virtual limitations

Barzan Mozafari, a postdoc in the lab of professor of electrical engineering and computer science Samuel Madden and lead author on both new papers, explains that, with virtual machines, server resources must be allocated according to an application’s peak demand. “You’re not going to hit your peak load all the time,” Mozafari says. “So that means that these resources are going to be underutilized most of the time.”

Moreover, Mozafari says, the provisioning for peak demand is largely guesswork. “It’s very counterintuitive,” Mozafari says, “but you might take on certain types of extra load that might help your overall performance.” Increased demand means that a database server will store more of its frequently used data in its high-speed memory, which can help it process requests more quickly.

On the other hand, a slight increase in demand could cause the system to slow down precipitously — if, for instance, too many requests require modification of the same pieces of data, which need to be updated on multiple servers. “It’s extremely nonlinear,” Mozafari says.

Mozafari, Madden, postdoc Alekh Jindal, and Carlo Curino, a former member of Madden’s group who’s now at Microsoft, use two different techniques in the SIGMOD paper to predict how a database-driven application will respond to increased load. Mozafari describes the first as a “black box” approach: DBSeer simply monitors fluctuations in both the number and type of user requests and system performance and uses machine-learning techniques to correlate the two. This approach is good at predicting the consequences of fluctuations that don’t fall too far outside the range of the training data.

Gray areas

Often, however, database managers — or prospective cloud-computing customers — will be interested in the consequences of a fourfold, tenfold, or even hundredfold increase in demand. For those types of predictions, Mozafari explains, DBSeer uses a “gray box” model, which takes into account the idiosyncrasies of particular database systems.

For instance, Mozafari explains, updating data stored on a hard drive is time-consuming, so most database servers will try to postpone that operation as long as they can, instead storing data modifications in the much faster — but volatile — main memory. At some point, however, the server has to commit its pending modifications to disk, and the criteria for making that decision can vary from one database system to another.

The version of DBSeer presented at SIGMOD includes a gray-box model of MySQL, one of the most widely used database systems. The researchers are currently building a new model for another popular system, PostgreSQL. Although adapting the model isn’t a negligible undertaking, models tailored to just a handful of systems would cover the large majority of database-driven Web applications.

The researchers tested their prediction algorithm against both a set of benchmark data, called TPC-C, that’s commonly used in database research and against real-world data on modifications to the Wikipedia database. On average, the model was about 80 percent accurate in predicting CPU use and 99 percent accurate in predicting the bandwidth consumed by disk operations.

“We’re really fascinated and thrilled that someone is doing this work,” says Doug Brown, a database software architect at Teradata. “We’ve already taken the code and are prototyping right now.” Initially, Brown says, Teradata will use the MIT researchers’ prediction algorithm to determine customers’ resource requirements. “The really big question for our customers is, ‘How are we going to scale?’” Brown says.

Brown hopes, however, that the algorithm will ultimately help allocate server resources on the fly, as database requests come in. If servers can assess the demands imposed by individual requests and budget accordingly, they can ensure that transaction times stay within the bounds set by customers’ service agreements. For instance, “if you have two big, big resource consumers, you can calculate ahead of time that we’re only going to run two of these in parallel,” Brown says. “There’s all kinds of games you can play in workload management.”
By Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

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

“The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language,” Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man” (1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which “might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.”

Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.

“It’s this adventitious combination that triggered human language,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and co-author of a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The idea builds upon Miyagawa’s conclusion, detailed in his previous work, that there are two “layers” in all human languages: an “expression” layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a “lexical” layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. His conclusion is based on earlier work by linguists including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser.

Based on an analysis of animal communication, and using Miyagawa’s framework, the authors say that birdsong closely resembles the expression layer of human sentences — whereas the communicative waggles of bees, or the short, audible messages of primates, are more like the lexical layer. At some point, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans may have merged these two types of expression into a uniquely sophisticated form of language.

“There were these two pre-existing systems,” Miyagawa says, “like apples and oranges that just happened to be put together.”

These kinds of adaptations of existing structures are common in natural history, notes Robert Berwick, a co-author of the paper, who is a professor of computational linguistics in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“When something new evolves, it is often built out of old parts,” Berwick says. “We see this over and over again in evolution. Old structures can change just a little bit, and acquire radically new functions.”

A new chapter in the songbook

The new paper, “The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language,” was co-written by Miyagawa, Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya, a biopsychologist at the University of Tokyo who is an expert on animal communication.

To consider the difference between the expression layer and the lexical layer, take a simple sentence: “Todd saw a condor.” We can easily create variations of this, such as, “When did Todd see a condor?” This rearranging of elements takes place in the expression layer and allows us to add complexity and ask questions. But the lexical layer remains the same, since it involves the same core elements: the subject, “Todd,” the verb, “to see,” and the object, “condor.”

Birdsong lacks a lexical structure. Instead, birds sing learned melodies with what Berwick calls a “holistic” structure; the entire song has one meaning, whether about mating, territory or other things. The Bengalese finch, as the authors note, can loop back to parts of previous melodies, allowing for greater variation and communication of more things; a nightingale may be able to recite from 100 to 200 different melodies.

By contrast, other types of animals have bare-bones modes of expression without the same melodic capacity. Bees communicate visually, using precise waggles to indicate sources of foods to their peers; other primates can make a range of sounds, comprising warnings about predators and other messages.

Humans, according to Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya, fruitfully combined these systems. We can communicate essential information, like bees or primates — but like birds, we also have a melodic capacity and an ability to recombine parts of our uttered language. For this reason, our finite vocabularies can generate a seemingly infinite string of words. Indeed, the researchers suggest that humans first had the ability to sing, as Darwin conjectured, and then managed to integrate specific lexical elements into those songs.

“It’s not a very long step to say that what got joined together was the ability to construct these complex patterns, like a song, but with words,” Berwick says.

As they note in the paper, some of the “striking parallels” between language acquisition in birds and humans include the phase of life when each is best at picking up languages, and the part of the brain used for language. Another similarity, Berwick notes, relates to an insight of celebrated MIT professor emeritus of linguistics Morris Halle, who, as Berwick puts it, observed that “all human languages have a finite number of stress patterns, a certain number of beat patterns. Well, in birdsong, there is also this limited number of beat patterns.”

Birds and bees

Norbert Hornstein, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, says the paper has been “very well received” among linguists, and “perhaps will be the standard go-to paper for language-birdsong comparison for the next five years.”

Hornstein adds that he would like to see further comparison of birdsong and sound production in human language, as well as more neuroscientific research, pertaining to both birds and humans, to see how brains are structured for making sounds.

The researchers acknowledge that further empirical studies on the subject would be desirable.

“It’s just a hypothesis,” Berwick says. “But it’s a way to make explicit what Darwin was talking about very vaguely, because we know more about language now.”

Miyagawa, for his part, asserts it is a viable idea in part because it could be subject to more scrutiny, as the communication patterns of other species are examined in further detail. “If this is right, then human language has a precursor in nature, in evolution, that we can actually test today,” he says, adding that bees, birds and other primates could all be sources of further research insight.

MIT-based research in linguistics has largely been characterized by the search for universal aspects of all human languages. With this paper, Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya hope to spur others to think of the universality of language in evolutionary terms. It is not just a random cultural construct, they say, but based in part on capacities humans share with other species. At the same time, Miyagawa notes, human language is unique, in that two independent systems in nature merged, in our species, to allow us to generate unbounded linguistic possibilities, albeit within a constrained system.

“Human language is not just freeform, but it is rule-based,” Miyagawa says. “If we are right, human language has a very heavy constraint on what it can and cannot do, based on its antecedents in nature.”
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

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

Institute Professor Barbara Liskov, a principal investigator at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), has been named a 2012 Charter Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). Charter Fellows are selected for their work, “in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society,” according to the NAI.

Liskov is world-renowned for her pioneering work in programming languages and distributed systems. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Association for Computer Machinery. She received The Society of Women Engineers’ Achievement Award in 1996 and the IEEE von Neumann medal in 2004. At the ACM SIGPLAN Programming Languages Design and Implementation Conference in 2008, she was awarded the Programming Languages Achievement Award. In 2009, she received the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery.

At CSAIL, Liskov leads the Programming Methodology Group. Her current research interests include Byzantine-fault-tolerant storage systems, peer-to-peer computing, and support for automatic deployment of software upgrades in large-scale distributed systems.

Charter Fellows will be inducted during a ceremony at the second annual conference of the NAI on Feb. 22.


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