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Big Research Ideas in Five Minutes

    The Cambridge Science Festival’s kickoff event, Big Ideas for Busy People, presented quick snapshots of recent work by 10 researchers “who are established stars or stars on the rise,” noted John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and the festival. Topics ranged from disaster preparedness to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and from dancing with bionics to how today’s slot machines are designed to addict their patrons. Each researcher raced to summarize their ideas and results as a five-minute clock ticked down, and then answered thoughtful questions from an audience of hundreds in First Parish Church on Friday evening.   Some notes and quotes: “Why do we so often make decisions that we later regret?” asked Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. “We have a fundamental misperception of time; we will change much more than we predict. It’s an illusion we all have—that we’ve just become the people we will be… Read More

Big Ideas for VERY Busy People

One of the great things about living in Cambridge is being surrounded by such brilliant minds.  What with numerous colleges and universities in the area, Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College to name a few, we’re bursting with new ideas! We got a glimpse into 9 novel ideas at the Big IDEAS for Busy People event Friday night, where speakers only have FIVE minutes to describe their big idea, followed by another 5 minutes to answer questions from the audience.  The talks were very diverse, ranging from biomedical and electrical engineering, atmospheric science, physics, psychology, even literature!  There was a huge turnout, and although I showed up half an hour early, I was barely able to find a seat.  Just goes to show how this city drinks in science and new ideas.  I’ve summarized only a few of the great talks below. In a wonderful intersection of art and science, Professor Erik Demaine described… Read More

Big Ideas for Busy People TONIGHT

Big Ideas for Busy People is happening tonight! More details about the event here. In the meantime, check out some “lightening lectures” in the video below created by YouTube user PhysicsWoman.

Big Ideas for Busy People: Sara Seager

(Photo by Fangfei Shen) Sara Seager studies planets. Faraway planets. Very faraway planets. The planets Seager studies are exoplanets, planets that encircle stars other than our sun. Seager, a Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at MIT, is one of the top experts in exoplanet science, a field that is currently brimming with excitement. “The reason why we’re excited,” says Seager, “is because we think that this is a really huge thing. Hundreds and thousands of years from now, people will look back and ask, what are the significant accomplishments of our society in the early twenty-first century? One of them will be that we were the first to discover other worlds and other worlds that might be like Earth. When you think back four hundred years, what do you remember? You think about Christopher Columbus and Lewis and Clark. It’s the exploration—finding things that were new to… Read More

Big Ideas for Busy People: Sanjoy Mahajan

Sanjoy Mahajan is a ninja. He is not a ninja in the conventional sense of the word. He does not wear black garb and a face mask, nor does he make stealthy forays into castles. Instead, he dons intuition and reasoning to tackle problems. Mahajan’s specialty? Street-fighting mathematics and science. Math is a battle for many people in the United States, in part because our math education is just not up to scratch. Mahajan, currently a visiting professor at Olin and the Associate Director of the MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory, has this to say about American math education: “It’s a scandal. It’s an education disaster, and I want to do something about it. I’ll give you an example of how terrible it is. National Assessment of Educational Progress surveyed 50,000 students to estimate the answer to 3.04 times 5.3. The students were given four choices: 1.6, 16, 160, 1600…. Read More

Human Organs, Microchip Style

Microchips—tiny integrated circuits made of electrical paths that store information—are small by definition. Some of the ideas surrounding their use, however, are big. Very big. Dr. Donald Ingber, Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, is on the forefront of investigating what microchips can do for human drug development. Ingber is one of the speakers at this year’s “Big Ideas for Busy People” event, which is the running start to the Festival on April 29th, Festival-eve. The evening will involve revolutionary ideas in current science, presented at a rapid pace: picture a condensed version of TED talks. Ingber will deliver a five-minute talk called “Human Organs-on-Chips: No More Animal Studies for Drug Development?” Virtually all the pharmaceutical companies in the world use animal models to test drugs intended for eventual use by humans, says Ingber. He and his colleagues have been busy reproducing the function of… Read More

Questions with No Answers

I live-tweeted while watching the webcast of “Big Ideas, Busy People” on Friday, April 23. “Big Ideas, Busy People” was a brand new event during the Cambridge Science Festival where ten lecturers presented 5-minute presentations with a 5-minute question and answer session afterwards. It was a perfect event to live-tweet, as that helped me remember the many points made that evening. It was definitely easy to get lost in a concept, and then lose track of the presentation. I wanted to blog a post-festival write-up of this event right away, but then I attended “Lunch with a Laureate” on Monday, April 30th. Robert Merton, the 1997 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was speaking. So many ideas were thrown out during both events that I feel I might end up condensing too much if I try to write a post-festival blog post from my notes. My tweets are still available from… Read More

Thinking about Thoughts

The human mind does an incredible number of even more incredible things. Take, for example, the age old act of bartering. Whether trading ears of corn for livestock, or complex corporate negotiations, a large part of human enterprise has relied on our ability to think about others’ specific desires and intentions. We want what is best for us and our family or community, but realize that we need to compromise because the other party wants the same. Additionally, the other party may hold a grudge, or be ignorant towards current market values, and so on. All of this amazingly complex analysis happens at lightning speeds within the mind, while we haggle prices or make offers. We use this complex ability every day, and it has drawn the attention of many scientists. According to MIT Professor Rebecca Saxe: “Thinking about other minds is the foundation for both personal relationships and societal… Read More

We are who we friend

Want to be happy? It might be as easy as surrounding yourself with happy people.   Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Medical Sociology and of Medicine at Harvard University, examined thousands of social connections and found that happy people tend to associate with happy people, while lonely people tend to associate with lonely people.   The effects our friends have on us extend further than that. Smokers and obese people are more likely to group together, affecting each other through their mutual decisions.   In colorful, branched diagrams, Christakis maps out social networks and uses them to examine how we group together. Below for instance is what could be called a web of happiness, showing happy people in yellow, intermediate people in green, and unhappy people in blue, with the other colors indicating different types of social relationships. The different types of people tend to cluster together, as can be seen… Read More

Famous Scientists in Five Minutes

In what ways do our friends influence us? How do our minds think about other people’s minds? Where is the universe from – did it just come from nothing? They’re big questions, certainly. They can’t exactly be figured out in an afternoon. But the Cambridge Science Festival is holding an event called “Big Ideas for Busy People” where these questions, and more, will start being answered. In Big Ideas for Busy People, top scientists will talk about these ideas in the context of their own research at an evening event preceding the start of the Festival. Ten leading researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will present their work in precisely five minutes each, with five minutes available for questions from the audience. Ever wanted to know what will power cars in the next ten years? To get an idea of the event, one of the speakers is… Read More