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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

Learning years of science research in five minutes

I spent Friday contemplating nuclear waste, parallel universes, and psychopaths. Usually I don’t jump around thinking about those topics, but during Big Ideas for Busy People, an event preceding the Cambridge Science festival, along with nearly five hundred other attendees I learned about these topics and more all within the course of two hours. In brief and condensed presentations, ten scientists spoke about whatever they liked in their field of expertise. For example, George Church provided a set of reasons why synthetic life is important; Angela Belcher described how genetic information can be used to make structures without DNA; and Marc Hauser presented us with a philosophical question, asking us whether people who do bad things are actually evil by birth or evil by actions. What I especially appreciated was that each speaker brought their own style to the talks, not recycling presentations from other events but tailoring what they… Read More

Lunch With a Laureate: Dr. Richard Schrock

Environmental issues are very popular these days, and with good reason. I’ve heard many ideas suggesting how we can improve our environment or at least minimize the damage we do to it, ranging from driving more fuel efficient cars to using solar and wind powered energy. An equally important, though less publicized frontier for improving the environment, is in the production of chemicals. The chemical processes that produce fuel, drugs, and plastics also produce toxic waste. One way to improve the environment is to substitute a different chemical reaction which would produce the same end substance, but without the dangerous byproducts. Unfortunately, such “green” alternate reactions do not exist for many current manufacturing process, but scientists are hard at work to change that reality. In 2005, MIT’s Richard Schrock won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing one such new reaction. Schrock co-developed a reaction in organic chemistry called olefin… Read More

Hotter Than Your Hottest Date

Ok, maybe it’s not the kind of hot date you’re thinking of, but this hot date will be pretty hot. It is a date with your one and only sun! It’s always there, but have you taken the time to explore it? Do you even remember it’s there? Do you even give it the time of day? Many cultures have religions that worship the sun. However, many of us live day-to-day taking our sun for granted. Maybe we don’t think about because it is 93 miles away from us on earth. Maybe we don’t think about it because our planet earth seems so amazing that we think it’s probably the most amazing thing in existence. We may think earth is cool, but the sun might just be cooler. First off, compared to earth, the sun is massive! The sun is more than 300,000 times heavier than the earth. It would… Read More

Holograms: More than just pretty pictures?

At this point, you may be wondering, “Why does MIT, a university known for driving innovation, care about and collect pretty 3D pictures?” Well, it turns out that holography has some pretty important real-world applications, such as data storage. As you probably know because you’re reading this blog, we live in an age of information. Of course, this explosion of information wouldn’t be possible without ways to quickly store and transfer large quantities of data. So far, we’ve been relying on conventional optical storage technologies (e.g. CD’s, DVD’s, Blu-Ray) to handle this need. While current storage needs are being met, storage technologies must continue to improve in order to keep pace with the rapidly increasing demand. This is where holography comes in. Although optical storage technologies have improved by leaps and bounds since the advent of CD’s (DVD’s can hold 15 times more information than CD’s and Blu-Ray discs can… Read More

A Berry Efficient Solar Cell

A short walk through the Cambridge Science Festival will reveal an important fact: the festival is not just for science. It’s for technology, presentations of innovative ideas, and fun, hands-on activities. The CSF offers such a wide variety of activities that it has attracted cool, sometimes strange, modern technologies. Among the strangest is the blackberry solar cell – no, not a solar cell for the BlackBerry phone, we’re talking about the actual fruit – small seeded dark berries whose juice can be used to harvest energy from the sun. To see this technology in action and make a solar sell for yourself (for free!) head over to the Cambridge Public Library at 449 Broadway between 12:30pm – 1:30pm or 2:00pm – 3:00pm for “The Blackberry Solar Cell: A green Chemistry Activity.” This activity is definitely for all ages. If blackberries can be used to capture solar energy, what other unusual… Read More

Bottled Water vs. Tap Water — Who Wins?

…Is there a difference? Should you prefer one over the other? Well, let’s start with this fact: some of the bottled water you buy is actually tap water. That’s right, tap. While bottled water may come from more pristine-sounding places like natural springs and wells, other bottled water is simply dressed-up tap water. Sure, it might have undergone some extra treatments, such as dechlorination and some tweaking of mineral content, but it is still tap water placed in a fancy and portable plastic container. Let’s do some math first. Water from the tap is dirt cheap. Water from the bottle is much less so. Typically, buying a bottle of water at a vending machine or convenience store costs you at least $1 per half-liter bottle. That’s $2 for a liter of bottled water, and there are about 3.8 liters in a gallon. This puts us at $7.60 for a gallon… Read More

A Carnival With No Clowns?

When I think of attending a carnival on a Saturday afternoon, I think of clowns, cotton candy, farris wheels, and amusement booths. The Cambridge Science Festival is hosting a “Carnival” this Saturday as a kick-off event to their 10-day festival. But, there will not be clowns or cotton candy or any of the things that first come to mind when I think of carnival except for the booths. What can you expect from this so called “carnival”? When you walk up to the attraction booths, you will not be handed a handful of darts and asked to pop the water-balloons to receive a prize. Rather, you may be asked to spit in a cup to sequence your DNA or maybe asked to peek into a suitcase that contains fiber optics made out of Jell-O. According to the festivals website the “Carnival” will feature many interesting attractions and hands-on workshops that… Read More

Spit In A Cup And See Your Future

Yup, it’s really that simple. This weekend come spit in a cup and learn about your DNA, which ultimately can reveal to you your future. How? Well, everyone has DNA. It is our genetic code; many refer to it as the “blue print” of human life. It makes you, YOU and me, ME. The difference between our DNA is the sequence of the chemical bases. All DNA is made up of four chemical bases: Adenine (A), guanine (G), cystine (C), and thymine (T). We each have an estimated three billion of these bases in our genome. They are organized in an infinite amount of sequences throughout our bodies and in turn it makes every individual unique. The sequence is specifically referred to as the genome. Our genomes are unbelievably huge! Your entire genome fills 200 1,000-page New York City telephone directories. And, if you unwrap all the DNA you have… 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