Monday, April 13, 2015

Sound practice for songwriting

by Eric Bender

We might picture songwriters at work sitting at a piano or holding a guitar, but more and more artists who work with musical technology are inspired by sounds, says Michael Bierlyo, Chair of Electronic Production and Design at Berklee College of Music. “You can think of someone like Björk, who is fascinated by sounds and uses that as a gateway to create songs,” he says.

You also might think of Nona Hendryx, an internationally famous singer whose career began with the Bluebelles, who had a hit with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” in 1962. Hendryx’s extraordinary career as songwriter and performer is still going strong, and she is still experimenting with the latest music technologies. “Nona is totally hooked up with technology, with writing music with computers,” says Bierylo. “She is the technology diva.”

Hendryx coaches and collaborates with Berklee students, and she will join them with Bierylo and other faculty onstage in “Songs from Sounds” on Saturday April 25. This concert of sound-inspired songs will be performed for free at the MIT Media Lab at 20 Ames Street, starting at 8 pm (rather than the 7 pm listed in the Festival's printed program).

Bierylo, who is also a longtime member of the band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, notes that the concert will be held in the Cube, the Media Lab's legendary core meeting/working space, with quadraphonic sound and two large screens for video. “It will showcase the type of things we can do, really focused on the idea of using science to explore sound that will inspire songs,” he says. For a preview, see this 2013 performance at Berklee, also shown in these pictures by Claire Steger.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Welcome to the Robot Zoo!

by Eric  Bender

Harvard Microrobotics Lab’s Robobees, MIT Personal Robot Group’s Dragonbot and Olin Robotic Team’s Damn Yankee
The Science Carnival that kicks off at noon on Saturday April 18 at Cambridge High School's field house is sort of like the Big Apple Circus of Science, except that it's way bigger and free.

Okay, there are no trained horses and probably no clowns, but you can walk inside an inflatable gray whale and a 300,000-times-scale model of a human white blood cell at the Carnival. You can also check out demonstrations of everything from deriving your own DNA to 3D-printing your own trinket and from superconducting magnetic levitation to walking a glider.

But be sure to save time for the Robot Zoo, which will draw a diverse population of robots and their builders.

You can elbow your way through the crowds in the Zoo to find the pioneering firm iRobot and a few of what it describes as its “cool, practical” robots. You can watch videos of robots at work, as in the exhilarating demo reel from Above Summit, a “drone-focused multimedia production studio”. Or you can cheer on robots themselves at play, and chat with their builders at educational groups such as US First Robotics and Play-Well TEKnologies.

Moreover, you can talk to researchers who are building strange and wonderful new robots.

Among them, some of the most ambitious projects are underway at MIT's Personal Robots Group, which will bring kid-friendly research robots. Dragonbots are intriguing little animals stuffed with clever electromechanical parts and an Android phone that acts as a brain and presents a face to the world. “Tega is a new robot platform designed to support long-term, in-home interactions with children, with applications in early-literacy education from vocabulary to storytelling,” says the group. Tega incorporates a camera, the ability to run on batteries for up to six hours, and even higher levels of cutely anthropomorphic behavior than its predecessors.

You'll find a different set of tough robot design challenges under the tall blue sails of the Damn Yankee, a two-meter-long model for the Olin Robotic Sailing Team’s quest to build an autonomous sailboat that eventually can voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. “You can tell this guy where to go and it will go there—give it a GPS coordinate and it determines everything else,” says co-team-leader Amanda Sutherland. Olin College's student-run team is now modifying a small daysailer with technologies tested on the Damn Yankee, and aiming to send the boat across Massachusetts Bay from Gloucester to Provincetown this fall. “The point is to prove that sailing is a robust enough platform to be used for sustainable research on the water,” says Sutherland.

“We also hope that our program will get more people in elementary schools and middle schools excited about working in teams,” she adds. “You can pull together everybody’s skills so you end up with something awesome.”

Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory “makes robots in ways that other people don’t necessarily think of making robots,” including printable robots and robots made of soft materials, says graduate student Michelle Rosen. “That raises the question, what is a robot? I like to ask that question to visitors at our booth, which is interesting to them and to me.”

Maybe most engagingly at the Zoo, the lab will show its insect-inspired, insect-size robots, which eventually may swarm in with sensors that aid in search and rescue or other tasks in challenging environments. Look for the flapping-wing Robobee, the beetle-like Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot and a centipede-imitating millirobot. Look closely, because they are tiny. “It's exciting for kids to actually touch and get close to these robots,” says Rosen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Einstein’s Theory of General Relevancy

by Eric Bender

Your cell phone knows about the theory of general relativity that Albert Einstein proposed a century ago. Its built-in GPS navigation system wouldn’t work without the realization that the clocks in the GPS satellites 13,000 miles above us run slightly faster than clocks on the surface of the earth, due to gravitational effects that general relativity predicts.

That’s just one example of why Einstein’s astonishing relativity theories remain crucial today, both embedded in objects in our daily lives and acting as a platform for our rapidly evolving understanding of the universe. And both aspects will be in view in the Celebrating Einstein series, which officially launches one month from today.

“The 100-year anniversary is a great occasion in itself, but we wanted to find the best ways to demonstrate not just that Einstein was a genius but what makes him relevant to the world today,” says Joe Diaz, a science educator who is organizing the series. For most of the Celebrating Einstein events, “you should have zero concern about understanding the physics that will be discussed,” he emphasizes.

Celebrating Einstein, which Diaz introduces here, kicks off with a panel of famous physicists Speaking of Einstein. “These speakers use relativity at a world-class level every day and also are very good at re-explaining and using creative metaphors to get across the gist of why Einstein is still so exciting,” says David Kaiser, an MIT physicist and science historian who will moderate the session.

“We are building on a series of events that colleagues of ours at Montana State University designed about two years ago,” says Kaiser, who spearheaded the move to bring Celebrating Einstein to Cambridge. “The folks in Montana were extremely thoughtful in designing these materials and extremely generous in sharing them with us.”

Another striking event is Black (W)hole, an interactive video art display. “A lot of the ideas in relativity are very visual; Einstein was a very visual thinker,” Kaiser notes. “Here’s a chance for a visual artist to work with physicists to try to get their basic sense as to how gravity warps space and time, and what might it be like to wander around in a space in which gravity is so extreme that things behave differently than what we’re used to.”

Among many other intriguing Celebrating Einstein happenings, check out A Shout Across Time, evening performances combining original choreography, an informal interview with a prominent physicist, and an original short film with original music played by a 30-piece orchestra. “This is all a way to get creative people to think about gravity and space and time in this way,” Kaiser says.

“Even people who have heard nothing about physics or don’t think they care will recognize the name Albert Einstein,” he points out. “He is probably the most well-known scientist celebrity in modern history, and we can use that to our advantage.”

“We all rely on the insights that are results of relativity in our everyday gadgetry,” Kaiser adds. “And the same set of equations, the same ideas that Einstein and others have labored over during the past century, also guide some of our most wild-sounding or speculative ideas about the entire universe. Do you like thinking about weird ideas about the universe? Well, we’ve got some stuff for you. Or, how did you get to the event today? You probably got here using your cell phone’s GPS. That’s an amazing range.”

Importantly, Celebrating Einstein also is fanning out into public schools around metropolitan Boston. Local physics students, postdocs and professors are delivering two interactive lessons, focused on spacetime concepts and the speed of light, in about 30 eighth-grade science classes.

“We can say to these students that all kinds of people can think about what it’s like for space to be curved, or for light to travel really quickly but not infinitely quickly,” Kaiser says. “We can agree that Einstein was pretty smart, but you don’t have to be Einstein to think about this stuff and enjoy the concepts.”

Saturday, March 14, 2015

PiEinstein Day

Einstein in 1904 / Lucien Chavan

Good morning, and a glorious Super Pi Day to you! In case you’re unaware, today is the occasion when the month and day coincide with the first three digits of π - 3.14. Today is even more spectacular in that the year, hour, minute, and second also extend to further match the irrational sequence of numbers at precisely 9:26:53 am, giving 3.141592653. So, why is Albert Einstein’s visage pictured above?

Galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 / NASA/ESA
Believe it or not, today is also Einstein’s birthday! Born in 1879, he would have been blowing out 136 candles on this particular orbit around the sun. Furthermore, his theory of general relativity also celebrates its centenary this year. Published in 1915, this work takes the force of gravity and explains how it is a fundamental property of both space and time itself. While Einstein’s theory was not readily accepted at first, 100 years of vast testing and large-scale experiments have failed to disprove it. More importantly, general relativity has helped and continues to push physicists to new frontiers of science regarding black holes, gravitational waves, and cosmic emoticons (gravitational lensing). This "smiley" image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a galaxy cluster demonstrates how gravitational lensing warps our perspective of objects in the observable universe. Appropriately enough, this is known as an "Einstein Ring."

Here, at the Cambridge Science Festival, we believe this theory is worth celebrating. So, we will! Celebrating Einstein is a series of events and activities taking place before and during the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival to mark the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, his greatest scientific legacy. Designed to celebrate and teach us about science and the revolution in physics that Einstein launched, we will have panel discussions, interviews, an interactive video-art installation, and interpretations of some aspects of general relativity expressed in dance, music, and film! Take a look at the list below to learn more, and be aware that some events require tickets to be purchased in advance. We hope to see you there!

Cosmic Loops: Music Beneath the Stars
Celebrate Einstein in this immersive visual and auditory experience.

Science By The Pint @ Aeronaut: Gravitational Waves
Does gravity ripple? Come learn about gravitational waves and how they are detected.

Discuss the science of simulating a universe in a computer.

Marcia Bartusiak talks about her new book, Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved.

Listen to a panel of world-renowned scientists discuss Einstein's reigning influence.

An evening of true, personal stories about science from the popular podcast series.

Be immersed in the depths of a black hole and be entranced by the beauty of our universe.

Experience a danced lecture and a film, featuring music inspired by gravitational wave sounds.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cambridge Science Festival 2015!

You may have noticed our programs for the Cambridge Science Festival schedule are online here.  The festival team is excited for the 160+ programs scheduled for April (and very excited for warmth in general). 

Take a look at the list below for all the festival programs that require pre-registration or tickets.
Don't miss the School Vacation Programs category as well!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Curiosity Challenge 2014

We have had another wonderful year for Curiosity Challenge questions and winners!

Some of these wonderful questions were answered by a group from eMIT, a blog written by MIT graduate students to explore how science and technology affect our daily lives.

Why Do Some People Have Allergies? (Aine Büchau, Age 12)

Our bodies have immune systems that search for harmful germs and destroy them. We need our immune systems to protect us. As people grow up, their immune systems get to know what is friendly (like food) and what isn’t (like the flu virus). What would happen if your body decided that your
food was an enemy? That is precisely what happens in people who have allergies: the immune system tries to fight off normally harmless things like pollen, cat fur, or peanuts. Allergies can be hereditary, meaning that they can be passed down to children from their parents. This explains why relatives sometimes have the same allergies. Now, scientists have found another cause of allergies in a theory they call the “hygiene hypothesis.” They found that children growing up in environments that are too sterile are more likely to develop allergies.

Would We Be Able to Live on the Moon, and if so, what would we need to bring with us? (Maya Ashour, Age 9)

We could definitely live on the Moon, but our lives there would be very different from our lives on Earth. We humans require oxygen, liquid water, and food, none of which the Moon currently offers (though we think there is ice in craters near the north and south poles of the Moon). Astronauts would either have to bring all of those things from Earth, or else would need to find a way to produce them on the Moon. For example, we could use a machine to melt ice, or bring materials to grow a garden for food. On Earth, plants recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen that we can breathe, so a large garden on the moon could provide breathable air as well. Because the Moon does not have an atmosphere, humans would have to live inside of a pressurized habitat or wear a pressurized space suit, which is like wearing a blown-up balloon. The Moon’s gravity is much weaker than Earth’s gravity – about one sixth as strong. This actually makes it harder to move around quickly, especially while wearing a balloon-like space suit. In order to explore the Moon and get between locations quickly, we would need to bring rovers to drive around in.

Why Are Fireworks So Loud? (Brave Arimah Sherab, Age 6)

Objects make sounds by causing vibrations in the air. These vibrations travel like waves. You can make your own waves in a jump-rope by waving one end while a friend holds the other end. The bigger the waves, the louder the sound. Before a firework is lit, it’s a solid object—a cardboard tube with some powder inside. When that powder is set on fire, it turns from a solid into a gas, and the gas expands very quickly. That fast expansion is what we call an explosion, and it causes a massive shockwave in the air. When that wave smacks into your eardrums, your eardrums get shaken very hard, and you hear a loud bang. You might also feel the vibration as wind. Rockets and thunder are very loud for the same reason.

Why Are Yawns Contagious? (Hope Bell, Age 13)

We don’t really know why yawns are contagious. In fact, scientists still haven’t agreed on the reason we yawn at all. One idea is that it causes us to breathe in more deeply, sending oxygen deep into our lungs. This can make our brains more active, keeping us alert when we are tired or bored. Another theory is that yawning helps cool our brains, either by changes in oxygen or by changes in brain pressure. Some scientists believe that yawns are related to emotions, since parts of the brain that control emotions also control yawns. The contagious nature of yawns may be a result of this, since empathy and emotional closeness with a “yawner” can predict whether someone will “catch” a yawn. For instance, you might yawn when your friend does, but not when a stranger yawns. Did reading this
paragraph make you yawn?

What is a Shooting Star? (Anda Gravlin, Age 12)

There is stuff floating around in space. Sometimes, it gets too close to Earth and falls down to the ground. A shooting star starts out with a “meteoroid”, a piece of rock or metal from space. It can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a house. When a meteoroid falls down through the air, it is moving very fast - many miles every second - and it becomes very hot. Some of the heat is caused by friction as air rushes past, but most of the heat actually comes from squeezing the air in front of it, because it’s moving too fast for the air just to get pushed aside. It gets so hot that it glows like a lightbulb (the old kind with a wire, not the newer fluorescent or LED lights). A small meteoroid will completely burn away in the atmosphere, but the pieces of a larger one may survive the journey. That’s what happened with a gigantic meteoroid that hit Russia last year – it was 60 feet wide, and it
weighed more than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The pieces that make it to the ground are called “meteorites” and often look like a mix of metal and rock.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Flash Mobbing Cancer Treatment


Here’s the basic idea behind adoptive T cell therapy: Patients whose cancers don’t respond to conventional treatments can have some of their own immune cells known as T cells plucked, genetically re-engineered to better target their cancer cells, and reinserted. In recent years these treatments have achieved dramatic early clinical successes, and there’s a lot of excitement about them.

This excitement made adoptive T cell therapy a prime candidate for the third annual Biology Flash Mob at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, which drew about 180 volunteers on Friday morning. 

We volunteers were a diverse group—by a show of hands, one third of us worked at Koch and one third had never heard of the institute—and several of us were only two years old.

Our Koch hosts divided us into groups of healthy cells (green shirts), cancer cells (red shirts), T cells (blue shirts) and scientists (purple shirts and white lab coats). After a quick rehearsal, the healthy cells marched out and arranged themselves in the center of the quad behind the Koch. They cheered as the T cells filed through them and kept them in line. When one healthy cell popped a red umbrella to show that it had turned cancerous, the T cells took their pom-poms and pummeled it into submission.

But then several healthy cells not only turned bad but hid themselves from the T cells (as real cancer cells do all too often), the T cells wandered around in helpless zombie fashion and dozens of other cancer cells poured in.

Virtue triumphed, however, after the T cells hurried out to be genetically re-engineered (fortified for battle with big foam hands). They charged back into the mass of cancer cells, and swiftly demolished all the bad guys.

The flash mob ended with loud cheers, even from the cancer cells. And we hoped that the cheers will keep echoing in the real world of cancer medicine.

A video of the flash mob will be posted in coming weeks. Meanwhile, you can view the 2012 Koch flash mob, which acted out a targeted cancer therapy technique based on nanoparticles, here.

Eric Bender is a science writer based in Newton.

 T cells

Cancer cells

Healthy cells breaking bad

Genetically modified T cells to the rescue!

Photos courtesy Koch Institute for Integrative Research on Cancer at MIT.

  The flash mob crew
Photo courtesy Andrei Ivanov.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Big Research Ideas in Five Minutes

The Cambridge Science Festival’s kickoff event, Big Ideas for Busy People, presented quick snapshots of recent work by 10 researchers “who are established stars or stars on the rise,” noted John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and the festival.

Topics ranged from disaster preparedness to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and from dancing with bionics to how today’s slot machines are designed to addict their patrons. Each researcher raced to summarize their ideas and results as a five-minute clock ticked down, and then answered thoughtful questions from an audience of hundreds in First Parish Church on Friday evening.  

Some notes and quotes:

“Why do we so often make decisions that we later regret?” asked Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. “We have a fundamental misperception of time; we will change much more than we predict. It’s an illusion we all have—that we’ve just become the people we will be for the rest of our lives.”

Lawrence Candell of MIT Lincoln Labs showed a visual surveillance system under development that integrates 48 cell-phone-like video cameras to provide powerful 360-degree images and can automatically follow items such as moving cars. As such systems become commercialized, they could find many uses beyond surveillance, for instance at sport arenas such as the Boston Garden. “You could film and watch your own Boston Celtics game,” with the ability to narrow in on the actions and players that interest you most, Candell remarked.

“The bad news is yes, there are more disasters and the impact of disasters is increasing,” said Paul Biddinger of Massachusetts General Hospital. Working to minimize the effects of disasters, “we’ve learned what works and doesn’t work, and what does work is practice, practice, practice.”

Elliott Rouse of the MIT Media Lab described the creation of a bionic ankle for Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost part of her lower leg in last year’s Boston Marathon attack, and showed a video of Haslet-Davis dancing again. “We can put people back in places they thought they’d never have again,” Rouse said. “It’s only a matter of time until bionic limbs are better than the ones we have.”

“Slot machines are the most potent and addicting form of gambling there is,” said MIT’s Natasha Schull. “They are solitary, continuous and rapid, and gamblers enter what they describe as a machine zone. It’s not about winning; they’re not dupes in that sense. They even describe winning as irritating. What they want is time on the device.” Schull outlined the many tricks gambling companies now use to enhance this addiction, with sophisticated slot video games. One trick is the “false win,” she noted, in which the machine provides “all the same feedback of winning, but it’s a net loss.”

Harvard’s Tadashi Tokieda demonstrated a “chain fountain”—pull a thin chain out of a plastic cup and let go of the chain and it will flow up from the cup before turning back down again—and explained a likely mechanism with a stick. “I like to explore surprises that are amusing and interesting to non-scientists and scientists,” he added. Asked where he finds such surprises, Tokieda said they are everywhere around: “There’s an enormous amount of universe.”

“I don’t know why we long so for permanence, given the fleeting nature of things,” remarked MIT’s Alan Lightman. “Our consciousness makes us feel we are immortal beings,” he added. “Yet Nature is screaming at us as the top of her lungs that everything is passing fast.”

MIT’s Tanja Bosak skimmed through the mysterious multi-billion-year timeline in which  Earth’s oxygen levels rose from almost nothing, noting that jellyfish-like fossils gave one indication of increased oxygen as of 560 million years ago. “If you ask me why we have 20% oxygen in today’s atmosphere, I have no idea,” she acknowledged.

Many Boston-area plants now blossom 10 days or more earlier than they did in the 1850s, according to records kept by Henry David Thoreau and others, said Boston University’s Richard Primack. Bees and butterlies also often emerge much earlier in the spring, but migrating birds often arrive only a few days earlier than they did back then. These changes in schedule raise worries that “birds could miss this great pulse of insects in the spring,” he pointed out.

Amanda Randles of Lawrence Livermore Labs presented work that models the fluid dynamics of blood plasma with the movement of red blood cells to help study cardiovascular disease for individual patients using their MRI and CT scans. Such an analysis currently takes hours on one of the world’s largest supercomputers, but she hopes that within a few years, “it becomes something physicians can do on a real-time basis in the office.”

Videos of past years' Big Ideas are available at  2014's videos will be up on the Cambridge Science Festival channel after the April festival.

Eric Bender is a science writer based in