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.

Guest blogger: John Cohn ’81, IBM Fellow at IBM Systems and Technology Group

John Cohn

On the show, John Cohn ’81 (above) built numerous devices to aid the colonists' survival, including water purifiers, a wood-powered electric generator, and flame throwers. The opportunity to spend all day inventing on the fly was, despite the conditions and some reality-TV drama, one of the most fun and relaxing things he's ever done. Photo: Discovery Channel.

Ever wanted to be on TV? Here’s your chance! Last year I was a cast member on The Colony, a new science/survival/reality show on Discovery Channel. The show simulates a post-apocalyptic world in which a small group of people is isolated in a constrained setting and has to innovate in order to survive. Think Survivor meets MacGyver. Watch video from the show to get a feel for the setup.

Last year, 10 of us were isolated in an abandoned steel mill in East LA for 58 days. We had to develop ways to purify water, find and prepare food, generate electricity, communicate, and even defend ourselves from simulated attackers using just the materials we could find. The experience was not for the feint of heart—we worked long hours; ate, drank, and slept very little; and were perpetually dirty. But even so, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life on both a technical and personal level.

Reaction to the series was very positive. Discovery called it a “surprise hit” and are now casting for season two. They’ve asked me to help find the perfect mad scientist type. Do you have mad talents like circuit hacking, welding, woodworking, and fire skills? Do you have crazy survival tactics? Leadership ability? What do you think you’d bring to a post-apocalyptic world? We’re looking for Mad Max with a brass rat. Is that you? If so, please contact me johncohn@alum.mit.edu and visit Metal Flowers Media and get your application in right away. Also, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

I’d love to see another person from the ’Tute show the world what it takes to survive the big one!

Here’s the casting notice:


The Discovery Channel invites you to participate in an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience: in the second season of this critically acclaimed docu-reality series deemed a social experiment, a group of eleven strangers must co-exist in a simulated, post-apocalyptic world. The world as you know it is gone there is no water, no food, no communication, no power. Its now up to you and eleven strangers to fend for yourselves as you rebuild society and re-engineer the world as you once knew it.

If you understand the science of survival, if you have a skill that would help you and others survive after a catastrophe, if you are ambitious, motivated, resourceful under pressure and willing to un-tap your personal ingenuity, we are looking for you. Join us in this true test of the human spirit.

Must have TANGIBLE survival skills and big personalities.

Editor’s note:

In honor of the upcoming national Engineers’ Week, February 14–20, Cohn put together and stars in this humorous rap parody to remind folks that engineering is wicked cool. Also check out Cohn’s blog, which he began as a way to help cope with the death of his 14-year-old son, Sam, killed in a 2006 traffic accident.

caption to come

EECS Optical Micrograph

Research in MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department is, arguably, the future.

EECS researchers are designing revolutionary new ways to make chips and using living cells’ electronic properties to develop clinical applications. They are designing a new scheme for quantum money (and doing away with cash altogether) and gaining understanding of human languages through statistical language learning. They are producing transformative knowledge that will affect daily lives this year—and in the future.

So reading the recent EECS newsletter might be a smart way to start 2010. Here are a few places to begin:

Visionary Engineer, Harold Edgerton, an MIT Museum exhibit showcasing MIT’s new digital collection of works by Harold “Doc” Edgerton, is the literal tip of the iceberg. Edgerton, the renowned MIT professor, inventor and engineer, may be best known for transforming the stroboscope into a tool that could stop action and show the world in photos and films how a milk drop splashes, how a hummingbird flies, and how bombs explode. At the museum, you can see films, original artifacts, plus plus a new ‘piddler’ machine built for this exhibition.

Drop of milk captured by Doc Edgerton.

Drop of milk captured by Doc Edgerton.

The rest of the iceberg is the vast digital repository of his work now available online. The Edgerton Digital Collections (EDC) project makes 22,000 still images, 150 films and video, and thousands of pages of hand written notes available online. Check the galleries for iconic images, learn about his techniques, and review his notebooks.

On TechTV, you can see what formations milk takes on when it is dropped in a slow motion film by Edgerton, who died, still teaching as a professor emeritus at age 87, in 1990. This 78-video collection also includes slow-motion explosions of two-ton BlockBuster bombs and sand dollars burying themselves in the ocean floor.

Edgeron’s biography shows a man in motion. In 1927, Edgerton earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering, and in 1931, he earned his PhD. His doctoral dissertation included a high-speed motion picture of a motor in motion, made with a mercury-arc stroboscope. Edgerton soon developed and improved strobes and used them to freeze objects in motion in both still photographs and ultra-high-speed movies. He worked with photojournalists, entertainers, and, at the request of the military, he developed a nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system that was used in WWII. He published many articles in National Geographic magazine including, “Hummingbirds in Action,” in 1947. The article contained high-speed photographs that illustrated for the first time the wing movement and flight patterns of these tiny birds. He worked with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, building underwater flashes and cameras and then acoustic devices that measured distances underwater, which were used  to locate an H-bomb off the coast of Spain. And he did much, much more.

U.S. News & World Report wanted to understand what could help aspiring engineers succeed, an important question since a recent survey indicated that one-third of college freshman plan to major in science and engineering. The good ones will solve big problems.

So, what can help students become the really good engineers? So they asked Edward Crawley ’76, SM ’78, ScD ’81, professor of engineering and director of MIT’s Bernard M. Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, to share the advice he gives to his MIT students.

Ed Crawely presents leadership ideas.

Ed Crawley presents leadership ideas.

Here are a few of Crawley’s tips:

  • Identify the people who inspire you, and find out what makes them tick. If you love Apple products, Steve Jobs may be your idol, or perhaps you love the Segway and its creator, Dean Kamen. You can easily find out a lot of information about Jobs and Kamen—or just about any other prominent person in technology—so use it to look into what’s helped these people and their companies become so successful. Then emulate their good traits in your personal, scholastic, and professional life.
  • Find your flaws—and fix them. As with any skill, leadership needs constant improvement. When you are part of a team, try to create a way to get feedback from team members, group leaders, and professors. When you have concrete feedback on how people view you, you can work to improve your skills, including communication and leadership. Plus, you’ll learn how to accept—and give—constructive criticism. That’s absolutely necessary for your future career.

Read all of Crawley’s 10 Tips for Success for Engineering Students.

Tish Scolnik '10 working in Tanzania.

Tish Scolnik '10 working in Tanzania.

Glamour Magazine named Tish Scolnik as one of their Top 10 College Women (video), recognizing her work on mobility issues for the disabled, in the October issue. As a Public Service Center Fellow, Tish has traveled to Africa three times working with wheelchair workshops. Tish designed a three-wheel folding “small-business wheelchair” and five have since been built. Tish is also a member of the Leveraged Freedom Chair team, which designed a long-distance, lever-powered wheelchair that can traverse rugged terrain. Tish is also working with one of her community partners in Tanzania to build a new wheelchair workshop and skills training center.

Tish has helped four disabled entrepreneurs to start small businesses in Tanzania. These pilot entrepreneurs, emplower with their new wheelchairs, began by selling batik and bead jewelry, fixing small electrical goods, and repairing shoes. The shoe repair man has used some of his business profits to help two other disabled entrepreneurs to set-up shoe-shining businesses close to his stall.

coolstandingsYour team is six games back in August…What are their realistic chances of winning the division, winning the wildcard, or just making the playoffs? A couple of MIT alumni can help you there.

Theta Chi buddies Greg Agami ’93 and Sean Walsh’93  started coolstandings.com in 2005 when these Red Sox fans thought it would be fun to know exactly what chances the Sox had of making the postseason. Within a few months, coolstandings.com was online, simulating the remainder of the MLB season one million times each day to determine the playoff probabilities for every team.

“The model uses a modified version of the Bill James Pythagorean Theorem to determine the chance each team has of beating other teams on its schedule,” Agami says. “Home/away statistics and recent team performance are used as variables for the Monte Carlo simulation, and we even implemented the various tie-breaking rules as needed to determine divisional and wild card winners. We’ve used historical data going back to 1903 to evaluate and optimize the model.”

These days, you can follow football and basketball as well as baseball in the real season and a fantasy pre-season. And this is not even their day jobs—Agami is an engineer at Motorola, while Walsh is CTO at DestinationWeddings.com.

Sometimes seemingly simple inventions can make the most impact. A team of MIT undergrads proved this with their 6dot Braille Labeler, a label maker for the blind that replaces current error-prone, clunky systems with an intuitive and reliable design. The instrument is a lifesaver for individuals who rely on Braille to differentiate among pill bottles, for example, or CDs or paperwork. The device won the nation’s People’s Choice Award from a public vote in the James Dyson Award competition.

The contest encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers from 21 countries with a simple challenge: design something that solves a problem. Watch the labeler in action below and learn more about the product.

The team, supported by Course 6 Senior Lecturer Christopher Terman SM ’78, EE ’78, PhD ’83, advanced to the first round of shortlisted inventions, but did not make it to the next round of 20 finalists. However, they do have two prototypes, developed a business plan, filed a provisional patent, and have met with potential manufacturers. The overall winner of £10,000 each for the designer and his or her school will be announced next month.

accordionMy friend David loves to play music and, as a result, he’s amassed a sizable collection of instruments over the years (read: three keyboards, two saxophones, two trumpets, two guitars, a bass guitar, and a flugelhorn, all spread between his parents’ house and his own Cambridge apartment). Yes, it’s an expensive hobby, and now guess what: David wants an accordion.

Fortunately, I have good news. Thanks to Jay Silver at the MIT Media Lab, it’s now possible to play an accordion without ever borrowing, renting, or buying one (average purchase price = $5000). In fact, with a pencil and a cheap circuit board, you can assemble a tool that allows you to draw musical instruments on paper and then play them with your finger. It’s called the Drawdio, and as Silver’s Web site explains, “The Drawdio circuit-craft lets you MacGuyver your everyday objects into musical instruments: paintbrushes, macaroni, trees, grandpa, even the kitchen sink…”

True, discerning listeners may notice that the penciled “instruments” all sound remarkably similar to a theremin, but it’s still pretty cool:

Want one of your own? You can build it yourself or assemble it from a kit.

Photo: cistockphoto.com/MCCAIG

Photo: ©istockphoto.com/MCCAIG

Ever get stuck in a traffic jam (stupid Mass Turnpike) only to finally break free and realize there was no construction or accident or obstruction of any kind causing the delay? Why does traffic bottleneck on freeways for no apparent reason? Now, you can know, thanks to the Ask an Engineer feature on the School of Engineering’s Web site.

MIT experts tackle many of life’s vexing questions, such as

  • Why does our hair turn gray—as opposed to green or some other color—as we age?
  • Why hasn’t commercial air travel gotten any faster since the 1960s?
  • What are the chances that a large asteroid will collide with Earth—and will we see it coming?
  • How do medicines know where in the body to start working?


  • Can we build a time machine?

See what you think of the answers or submit your own and try to stump the engineers.