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Cambridge Carnival Day

Even in the midst of a thunderstorm, Saturday’s Science Carnival was spectacular. With rows of booths and activities as far as the eye could see, the space surrounding the Cambridge Public Library was busy with experiments and energy. There was music, swing dancing, balloons and several tiny children wandering around fully clad in the Pfizer booth’s lab coats, goggles and plastic gloves. The range of activity options included deconstructing cell phones to check out the metals inside, playing with water hydraulics, witnessing robotic engineering at work and requesting a song from the live “Science Juke Box” chorus. This is only a small sample of the awesome spread of booths lined up by members of the MIT and Harvard communities and Cambridge-area science organizations and businesses. The event was targeted toward young children, and they were out in droves. But even for those of us beyond elementary school age, the carnival… Read More

A Night of Nerdery

Cambridge got a little nerdier on Friday night.  At “Nerdnite Presents Nerdtacular!” a group of self-identified geeks gathered at the MIT Museum for some socializing and a trio of interesting lectures. Over cheap beer and cheese puffs, we alternately chatted and paid attention to the three guest speakers whose topics were perfectly suited to their largely awkward-intellectual grad student audience. “It’s not true that all nerds like origami, but if you like origami, you’re a nerd. There’s just no way of getting around it.” This is how architecture enthusiast Joel Lamere, who teaches architectural geometry and design courses at MIT, began the first talk of the evening. He admitted a “fetish for folding” and gave a lively presentation about folding paper in curves, like origami with a twist. Author Louis Hyman took the floor next. He recently wrote a book called “Debtor Nation” and gave his talk on economic history… Read More

Probing life and learning

On Friday evening, a large crowd gathered at The Laboratory at Harvard for an exercise in fast-paced, big-time brilliance. At Big Ideas for Busy People, ten scientists each had the floor for five minutes to discuss their work’s significance. Five more minutes for questions followed each presentation, while a prominent countdown clock marshaled the time. The ideas introduced by this group of Harvard and MIT researchers spanned topics as varied as multiverses and optigenetics. These engaging speakers dipped into the origins of life, the roadblocks of rote learning and the reason why we might be able to call our era the most peaceful of the human species’ existence. Two main themes seemed to crop up several times in the discussion: the search for life in the universe, and the importance of innovative learning. Alan Guth, a physics professor at MIT, introduced the idea of multiverses and suggested that our universe… Read More

Standing Up For Science

Last Tuesday, Sense about Science hosted a great discussion about the interactions between scientists and journalists.  Here are 10 tips for young scientists, based on the panel’s wisdom. SPEAKERS:Leonor Sierra, Sense About ScienceKaren Weintraub, freelance health and science journalistDr Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionMorgan Thompson, Science in the NewsB.D. Colen, Senior Communications Officer for University Science, Harvard University 1. Learn why the public should care about your research.  If you work in cosmology, you might be able to say something like we’re made of star stuff, and get away with it, as Carl Sagan did.  But usually non-scientists are more interested in the practical applications of your work than in the gee-whiz factor.  If your research contributes to knowledge about cancer, or climate change, or why we should all switch to a 30-hour work week, tell people that before you get into the nitty-gritty of your experiments.  They’ll be… Read More

Wonderful Webs

Charlotte made hers terrific, radiant and humble. With grace, she expended enormous amounts of energy to spin stunning webs. E.B. White introduced the wonders of spider webs to a general audience in his 1952 children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte was know for spinning elaborate patterns, presenting her piglet friend Wilbur’s admirable qualities in silky web words to convince farmers to spare this sensational pig from being slaughtered. Charlotte was some spider. But the tool she used to spread her message—silk—is one of spiders’ most basic and fundamental adaptations. Spinning a web allows them to trap prey, cocoon their young and float far away on its strands. On May 3 from 7:00 to 8:30pm, the Cambridge Public Library is hosting a session called “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating.” There, science writer Leslie Brunetta and evolutionary biologist Catherine L. Craig will delve deeper into… Read More

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

Climate Change and Martian Bones

In a virtual world called Arcadia, sifting through yards of Martian bones is all in a day’s work. Chasing through leaves, over rivers and between red mountains, the goal is to find bone specimens, analyze them and figure out what tragedy happened in fictional Arcadia to leave so many scattered remains and no signs of life. Launched in 2010, this game called Martian Boneyards is the brainchild of Cambridge-based Educational Gaming Environments group (EdGE). The gaming group is just one division at TERC, a larger non-profit organization that focuses on math and science education. So how do Martian bones relate to science and math education? The game designers believe that some of the skills you need to succeed in Martian Boneyards—collecting evidence, analyzing data and drawing conclusions—are the same tools someone uses to succeed in science. The game is part of a larger massively-multiplayer online environment (MMO) called Blue Mars,… Read More

Lunch with a Luminary: Linda Griffith

You should meet Linda Griffith. No, really, you should: it could be quite beneficial both to you and to her. Dr. Griffith works at MIT as a Professor of Biological Engineering, which is a department she helped create. She’s also Director of the Center for Gynepathology Research and a School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation. Dr. Griffith’s research in tissue engineering has often captured public attention. When she first came to MIT, she worked on a project that involved growing cartilage in the shape of a human ear on the back of a mouse. Stories about the mouse first hit the news in 1995, and still pop up occasionally, such as in this Nova Documentary that aired last January. Dr. Griffith agrees to come to events like “Lunch with a Luminary” because she feels that scientists have a real responsibility to explain their work to the public—after all, any… 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

Bots That Mimic Bugs!

  Usually, when we think of robots, we think of these guys: Or these guys: Not of these guys: And certainly not of these guys: But the scientists at Harvard’s Microrobotics Lab and Self Organizing Systems Research Group think about robots a little differently, and if you join them for Bots That Mimic Bugs, you might, too. “Robots in movies are usually evil,” Ben Finio, a scientist in the Microrobotics Lab, explains. Movies like Terminator have given people the wrong idea about what robots look like, how they work, and what they do. “Most robots are used for things that are dangerous or boring,” Finio says. On the boring end, there are products like Roomba, a commercially available robot that can vacuum your floor for you. On the dangerous end, robotics is cultivating more and more fans among people who work on bomb squads or search and rescue teams. After… Read More