April 2009

Zipcar founder Robin Chase SM '86 advocates clean transportation policies.

Zipcar founder Robin Chase SM '86 advocates clean transportation policies.

An alumna and a professor both made the 2009 Time 100, the magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people.

Zipcar founder Robin Chase SM ’86 was chosen for her work promoting sustainability in transportation and community service in business. Both Zipcar and her new venture, GoLoco, which helps match ride sharers with one another, demonstrate her ability to encourage people to use the Internet in cooperative, useful ways. Read a profile of Chase.

Daniel Nocera, MIT’s Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry, was selected for his discovery of a simple, inexpensive method to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be stored to power a fuel cell.

2009 Baker Piano Drop. Photo: William Yee—The Tech

2009 Baker Piano Drop. Photo: William Yee—The Tech

Ah, spring rituals. At MIT, the annual Baker House Piano Drop is a sure sign of buds in bloom and the semester winding down. This year, some 200 students gathered April 23 for the plunge of a 500-pound piano to commemorate course Drop Date on the academic calendar.

Maximum impact comes when the piano hits an object of choice below. Last year, alas, the piano missed its target-another derelict piano. This year the aim was true-the piano smashed a giant sculpture of a Coke bottle fashioned from plastic buckets. The Tech, which published photos, reported that it successfuly “exploded into shards.”

Piano lovers relax! This year’s victim piano, as past year’s, was unusable. The donor, a New Hamshire resident, offered a Huntington piano with a broken frame, missing keys, and other signs of demise. “We don’t use functional pianos,” says an event organizer, Alex R. Camacho ’10.

Dalai Lama visits MIT April 30.

Dalai Lama visits MIT.

Tune in for live tweets from the Dalai Lama’s talk at MIT, today–April 30, beginning at 2 p.m. EDT here: http://twitter.com/MIT_alumni.

He is visiting MIT to dedicate a new center aimed at promoting ethical behavior and leadership. The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values will be housed under MIT’s Office of Religious Life.

Sustainability contest winner.

Sustainability contest winner.

Postdoctoral associate Luiz Godoy has won the Sustainability at MIT Photo Contest for “AdMITting Green,” his image of compact fluorescent light bulbs flourishing in Killian Court. Clearly sustainability is of broad interest outside typical disciplines–he earned his PhD in microbiology and immunology.

In other MIT Energy Initiative news, director Ernest J. Moniz has been named to serve on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the White House is establishing two multimillion dollar federal Energy Frontier Research Centers at MIT


Yesterday I stopped by Simmons Hall where two monks have been working on a sand mandala of Arya Tara, the female Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism who, some believe, represents the Supreme Mother of Compassion.

A couple students entered the room with me and, like myself, they didn’t know much about the origins of mandala making or their significance. One student said she heard that  mandalas were created as microcosms of a perfect world or cosmos. A bit later, another woman came through and said she thought they were about impermanence. This seemed plausible since on Saturday, when the mandala will be freshly complete, a dissolution ceremony will take place where the millions of meticulously-placed sand grains will be washed into the Charles River.

Sitting in Simmons, I wondered aloud if it seemed funny to have a complicated time lapse photo/video system set up to capture a practice that, in many ways, did seem to be about impermanence. A guy next to me laughed. “You’re gonna go, those cameras are gonna break, and in a million years, the photos are going to go away too. You think it’s permanent,” he said, “but it’s not!”

Later I did some reading and found that a mandala:

  • can be a schematized representation of the cosmos (Random House unabridged dictionary)
  • may have derived from the circular stupa and the ritual of walking around the stupa in a circle (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)
  • can be an instrument of meditation (Encyclopedia Britannica)
  • can symbolize life’s impermanence (New York Times)

While the monks took a break, a protective glass layer was placed over the mandala.

Mandala and monk

The monks use a tool called a chak-pur to distribute the sand.

If you’d like to see the mandala before Saturday’s dissolution ceremony, check the schedule for viewing times.

Poster for J. Michael Straczynski's lectureBabylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski will deliver the second annual Julius Schwartz Lecture on campus May 22nd at 7:00 p.m. The event is open to the public so buy your tickets ($10) early either online or at Hub Comics in Somerville or Comicopia in Kenmore Square.

Straczynski wrote 92 out of the 110 Babylon 5 episodes, contributes to the established comic books The Amazing Spider-Man, Supreme Power, and Thor, and writes his own comic book series: Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, The Twelve, and The Book of Lost Souls. He was also one of the first television producers to actively engage his fan community online.

J. Michael Straczynski

You might also be happy to know that in addition to writing both original and adapted screenplays, he’s working on Last Words, a pilot for a new TV series for TNT and Dreamworks. It’s supposedly an hour-long drama with a paranormal thrust.

The event is sponsored by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program with Professor Henry Jenkins as host. He will engage in a Q&A with Straczynski following the lecture and then Straczynski will field questions from the audience.

MIT Visiting Professor Dan Ariely's Door Game demonstrates people's tendency to not let go of options.

MIT Visiting Professor Dan Ariely's Door Game demonstrates people's tendency to not let go of options.

The book Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins, 2008) by MIT Visiting Professor of Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely explores how people repeatedly and predictably make the wrong decisions in many aspects of their lives. For example, Ariely’s research shows that people have difficulty dropping options, even if they clearly waste time or money. Don’t believe it? Play the doors game and find out how you fare.

Ariely’s book answers questions such as why people excitedly buy things they don’t really need, why self promises to diet and exercise are so often in vain, and why a headache may vanish after taking a 50-cent but not a five-cent aspirin. His Web site offers numerous games, videos, and demonstrations that explore and expose everyday, irrational behaviors. Check them out and see how irrational you are.

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