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.


From 1-4 pm today at the MIT Museum of Science in Cambridge, young visitors will have a chance to write and illustrate original science books with help from MIT student science advisors. The event, part of the week-long Cambridge Science Festival, will utilize Tikatok StorySparks prompts, which are interactive story templates.

Tikatok describes itself as “a free creative community for kids under 13 where they can write, illustrate, and share their original stories, and have them printed out into real hardcover and paperback books.” Two MIT alums are involved in the venture: Orit Zuckerman SM ′06, Co-Founder and CTO; and Neal Grigsby SM ′07, Director of Online Community.

If you’re interested in the event but unable to attend, you can participate remotely by checking into the Tikatok blog. Video of the MIT students, story ideas, and freshly published books will be uploaded regularly. You can also send questions and comments to the Tikatok Twitter account.

Screenshot from a Tikatok book about ladybugs:


William Barton Rogers crossword puzzleThink you know a lot about MIT? Find out by trying this crossword puzzle about William Barton Rogers and the founding of MIT created by the folks over at Institute Archives & Special Collections.

Sure, you know the four-letter, frequently used nickname for MIT. But do you know the fourteen-letter, two word name of MIT’s original building as named in 1883? How about the number of courses offered in MIT’s first annual catalog?

Go to the puzzle.

Daniel Stein

Daniel Stein

It’s completely understandable if high end classical music and YouTube never seemed like natural companions to you, but if that’s the case you probably haven’t heard about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Back in February, its organizers sent out a call to performers on YouTube and encouraged them to submit audition videos. Thousands of submissions came in, were reviewed and winnowed until 96 musicians were selected. With funding from Google, the musicians flew to New York for a few days to meet, rehearse, and perform.

Wondering how MIT fits into the picture? No, an alum (at least as far as we know) did not engineer the performance or fix technical glitches on YouTube. In fact, an alum—Daniel Stein ′05—was selected to perform at the April 15th debut at Carnegie Hall. According to news reports, Stein has played the flute since he was 8 years old. While at the Institute, he played in the MIT symphony and studied flute privately in Boston.

You can watch Stein’s audition video and a section of the final YouTube Symphony Orchestra performance below.

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