betacup logoIf you’re like the majority of North Americans (65%), you drink coffee. And if you buy it from a coffee shop, you probably don’t hand the barista a travel mug before ordering—even though you’ve likely been given a few nice ones over the years as gifts or giveaways. Am I right?

Problem is, most of the to-go cups used to carry those tasty lattes, including those from Starbucks, are not recyclable. In fact, 58 billion paper cups are thrown away every year, and 20 million trees are cut down in the process of manufacturing said cups, which also uses some 12 billion gallons of water.

So what can be done? Two MIT alumni are part of a team that hopes you can figure that out—or at least provide some feedback for others with ideas. Marcel Botha SM ’06 and Shaun Abrahamson SM ’98 helped form the open innovation challenge known as the betacup, which offers $20,000 in prize money for a reusable or recyclable coffee cup people will actually use en masse.

Ideas submitted to the contest are viewable by the public for comment and ratings. So even if you don’t have an idea (yet), you can offer constructive comments and engage in discussions with community members and contest jurors. The contest is sponsored in part by Starbucks, which aims to serve all its beverages in sustainable cups by 2015. Learn more in the video below.

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Two months ago, David Ziegelheim ’75 started a discussion on LinkedIn about health care reform: “What is your solution for health care services?” he asked. His question generated nearly 800 replies.

Comments have continued since Obama’s landmark legislaton passed earlier this week. Read Ziegelheim’s opening statement and some recent remarks after the jump.

Want to join the conversation? Go to and make sure you’re a member of the MIT Alumni Association group. (All alumni are encouraged to join!) Once you’re a member, you can participate in the open discussions.


Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

When our CSAIL laboratory moved into the Stata Center, I discovered my assigned office had a wall tilted back at 7½°. That tilt presented a problem; the bookcase I brought along from our old digs in Tech Square looked really ugly and small.

My engineering gene started to manifest itself. Engineers build stuff to solve problems, so I built a slanted bookcase, 14′ 5¾” along the hypotenuse.

I made it from ¾” cherry veneer plywood, with solid cherry facings, and finished it with several applications of Watco Danish oil. The shelves are set on adjustable ¼” steel pins. I secured it with two bolts in the floor, because I think the only possible failure mode would be slipping out from the wall at the bottom.

Everyone wonders how I get the books from the top. The answer is that I use the local stepladder, but alas, the top two shelves are beyond its reach. So, there it is: another problem. One of these days I’ll solve it by building a custom library ladder.

Even when I write or give a talk, I think of myself as solving a problem by building something.  First, I decide what the problem is, then I draw up a a specification for what I want to write or say, next I develop a plan and bring the raw materials together, and finally I assemble, all the while attending to esthetics as well as function.  Writing and speaking became a lot easier when I started thinking that way.

Of course, building stuff is the bedrock of MIT, our raison d’être. MIT faculty, staff, students, and graduates build everything from biological cells to cities.

Dinner will be served.

Dinner will be served.

One more Star Trek Next Generation commonplace, the replicator, is emerging in the 21st century. For Earthlings, it’s a Fluid Interfaces Group project, housed in the Media Lab, called Cornucopia: Digital Gastronomy. Call it a personal food factory or a 3-D printer for food, it works the same way:

Cornucopia’s cooking process starts with an array of food canisters, which refrigerate and store a user’s favorite ingredients. These are piped into a mixer and extruder head that can accurately deposit elaborate combinations of food…. This fabrication process not only allows for the creation of flavors and textures that would be completely unimaginable through other cooking techniques, but it also allows the user to have ultimate control over the origin, quality, nutritional value and taste of every meal.

Yummy? We can’t tell yet because it’s still in prototype stage, but it’s buzzing in media like Gizmodo and Trendhunter and blogs like Make.

the BiDi Screen created by Media Lab researchers

The BiDi Screen created by Media Lab researchers.

The latest issue of Quick Take, in case you haven’t read it yet, celebrates MIT advancements that could transform the future of communications, gadgets, transportation, construction, and computing.

In the computing category, for example, the BiDi Screen created by Media Lab researchers turns LCD displays into giant lensless cameras that can both capture images and display them and allow users to control on-screen objects with hand gestures.

Since Quick Take’s publication, gestural interfaces have been attracting a lot of media buzz. Alumnus John Underkoffler ’88, SM ’91, PhD ’99 demonstrated the g-speak Spatial Operating Environment (SOE) at last week’s TED conference in California (see video of it in action below). The idea behind the technology can be seen in the 2002 film Minority Report, for which Underkoffler served as a science advisor. He based the movie’s technology on his earlier work in the Media Lab. Several MIT alumni, who all work for Oblong Industries, were instrumental in creating the SOE.

Of course, other noteworthy MIT innovations have cropped up as well recently. One is in the new field of network coding. MIT researchers discovered that communications networks could be made more efficient—that is, Internet file sharing faster, streaming video more reliable, and cell-phone reception better—by randomly combining data at routers. Read the two-part article about MIT’s contributions to making the most of a network’s bandwidth.

What other inventions and innovations are on the horizon? Here’s a peek: shotgun-riding robots, radiation-resistant steel alloys, redesigned silicon transistors, and computational photography. Read Quick Take: Future to find out more.

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Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Dramashop just performed R.U.R, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which helps us understand what it will be like when the robots take over, and pretty much wipe out us humans, which I suppose serves us right, inasmuch as we have proved so proficient at wiping out other species and each other.

One night, I was asked to comment on the play afterward, because AI is my field. It took quite a while to think up three minutes of content, because it had to build to a reasonably good joke at the end.

Rossum’s robots are smart and look like people, which is convenient, because they are played by human actors.

The play invites speculation on whether we humans could ever build smart robots that look like people. My answer is yes, because arguments to the contrary mostly boil down to the unthinkability fallacy: “I cannot think how that could be done; therefore, it can’t be done.” Also, the biologists are doing pretty well on their side of the table, what with artificial organs and the like, and we computationally oriented types are making progress, too.

Of course, when we get close to really building such creatures, we better do a lot of simulation, because, as the play teaches, the unintended consequences of a mistake could be horrible beyond description.

In a fit of neosolipsism, it occurred to me that I and my environment might be just a simulation experiment, run by some cautious computer scientist in the sky, with a particularly twisted mind, trying out a few ideas before going physical. I don’t know how I could ever tell. That Pascal idea—I think, therefore I am—doesn’t seem to help.

If I am a simulation, let the record show that I resent it. And judging by the stuff I read in the papers, the experiment doesn’t seem to be going too well.

Such is the wild speculation encouraged by an MIT-filled audience, a late night, and a superbly done play.

Contestants work a physics problem at the 2008 challenge

Contestants work a physics problem at the 2008 challenge.

Are there just not enough cocktail parties in the world for all the trivia floating around in your head? Don’t let it stagnate, waiting for Jeopardy auditions to circle back to your town or squander it on pub quiz nights. Offer up some of your best science-related gems to the Science Trivia Challenge, an annual competition organized by the MIT Club of Boston for the Cambridge Science Festival. The event will be held April 28, 2010, on campus. Trivia suppliers, however, cannot participate in the event as contestants.

Trivia facts should be geared toward a general audience (no PhDs required) in one of two divisions: Youth (for middle- and high-school students) and Open (for those with introductory college-level science knowledge). Any scientific discipline and topic is fair game, including (but not limited to) biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy, computer science, earth sciences, inventions, technology, medicine, history of science, and local contributions to science. Questions can be multiple choice, short answer, or matching.

View sample questions from past events then learn more about the requirements and submit your trivia.


Credit: Howard Schatz via

Hugh Herr SM ’93, associate professor and director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, contributed to a fascinating article in Fast Company about the appeal of prosthetics from not just a functional standpoint, but also a social and even sexual one.

Herr, who lost both his legs below the knee in a rock climbing accident at age 17, has robotic ankles that can propel him across the room in 400-watt bursts. “When the technology works,” he told Fast Company, “when it can make you stronger or faster than you were, it overnight becomes sexy and powerful and threatening. Overnight.”

Read more about Herr and recent advancements in prostheses.

This year’s climate talks in Copenhagen are exciting for a number of reasons; chief among them is the fact that, after years of turning a blind eye, the United States is now actively participating! Another point of interest is MIT’s engagement in the talks.

Alumni engagement:

Tom Fiddaman PhD ’97, Travis Franck SM ’05, PhD ’09, Andrew Jones SM ’97 and Beth Sawin PhD ’96 are providing a “climate scoreboard” that uses the C-ROADS  simulation to calculate the long-term climate impacts of proposals under consideration. Watch the video below for background and explanation of its features.

Student engagement:

Aaron Thom and Katherine Potter, leaders of student group Sustainability@MIT, have been live-blogging from the conference daily. Read some of their posts:

60-100,000 March Through Copenhagen in Support of Action Against Climate Change

Access Denied: UN begins restricting entrance to COP15, Delays among negotiations

Bright Green Conference: Steven Chu and Rajendra Pachauri

Closing the Climategate

Faculty engagement:

Ian Waitz, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor and head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and James Hileman, a principal research engineer in the department, spoke about the “Greening of U.S. Aviation” on December 8th. View the presentation notes (PDF).

Carlo Ratti, associate professor of the practice and head of the MIT SENSEable City lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, presented the “Copenhagen Wheel,” a project that aims to transform bicycle use in Denmark’s largest city by promoting urban sustainability and building new connections between the city’s cyclists. View a short video about the project:

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

The end-of-term crunch has begun, with finals just a week away. The students are tired and fall asleep easily. I, like other faculty, am wondering how I will ever get a final exam prepared.

It was in this season, when my daughter was an MIT freshman, that I asked her how things were going. “Ok,” she grunted.

She graduated from Concord Academy, a private high school on the difficult end of the spectrum—so difficult that when she was there, graduated students coming back to visit would always tell the current students not to worry about college. It will be no big deal, they would say, no harder and probably easier than Concord Academy.

So, trying to provoke my daugher into supplying some details about how things were going, I asked her if what those Concord Academy graduates predicted was really true—transitioning to MIT was no big deal. “No, Daddy” she said, “that’s only true for ordinary schools—like Harvard and Yale.”

Vive la différence!

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