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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Alternative Careers in Science: A Speed Networking Event

The Cambridge-Boston area teems with science students, graduates and post-graduates, all brimming with the potential to push science forward. However, not all science graduates will stay in academia and pursue the career of a research professor. Increasingly, graduates are exploring alternative career options in science to put their numerous sought-after skills to use in the workplace.
As part of the Cambridge Science Festival 2013, a networking event about alternative careers in science was held in conjunction with the Massachusetts Association for Women in Science (MASS AWIS). MASS AWIS is a national non-profit organization, the mission of which is to promote the interests and career development of women in all STEM disciplines.
The event took place at MIT and over 75 early career scientists attended to hear from some of the 25 speakers that were on hand to share insights from their chosen career paths. A wide variety of career paths were covered, including medical writing, business development, research and development in the pharmaceutical sector, consulting, technology transfer and teaching. Speakers were from a mix of early and mid-career phases, to give participants an overall sense of how a career in their field of interest can evolve.
After registration, some light refreshments and introduction of the speakers, the bell rang and speed networking commenced. Participants spent 15 minutes with each of six speakers, learning about their typical day-to-day activities, the qualifications and experience that are important in their role, as well as about the future prospects for this career. After some time for questions, the bell signaled time to move to the next speaker. The atmosphere was electric with speakers and participants enthusiastically learning from each other and many connections were forged. The evening ended with some general networking, more refreshments and a chance to recap and reflect on all that was learned and to meet some new friends.
The feedback from participants afterwards was very positive and many learned about career paths that they had never previously considered.
I am still a graduate student, and I don't know much about what types of jobs are even available in academia. This event was priceless in that it introduced a lot of careers that I didn't know existed, and gave some insights into what other kinds might be out there that weren't represented at the event.
I thought this was a great way of meeting other professionals without the pressure of feeling like you need to impress the person to get the job right away. 
The diversity of the panelists was better than alternative career events that I've been to. I really liked that there were both established individuals as well as panelists who were new to their positions.
Following the success of the 2013 event, MASS AWIS continues to partner with Cambridge Science Festival and, in conjunction with the Office of Professional Development and Postdoctoral Affairs at the Boston University School of Medicine, will host another Alternative Careers in Science – A Speed Networking Event on April 22, 2014. You can read all about it here Register today and learn about the exciting career paths open to science graduates of all levels.

Contributed by Máire Quigley, Ph.D. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Adult Friendly Events

Well, we've seen some family-friendly events.  Here are some of the CSF's adults events distilled into a list for your choosing pleasure.

Friday, April 18
Big Ideas for Busy People - 7:30pm (10 speakers get 5 minutes each to share their Big Idea) $10

Saturday, April 19
Science Carnival & Robot Zoo - 12pm (yes, Robot Zoo.) FREE
Beyond Pocket Protectors and Flux Capacitors - 6pm (Science in the Movies) FREE

Sunday, April 20
Free admission to Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology and the Harvard Museum of Natural History - 9am (Free with a Cambridge Science Festival booklet!)

Monday, April 21
Cambridge-Boston Bridge Tours - 10am (Walking tour of Cambridge-Boston bridges with civil engineers) FREE
Science of the Modern Cocktail - 5pm (21+, free, registration required)

Tuesday, April 22
Vijay Iyer: Embodied Cognition in Music - 4pm (part of Berklee's Jazz Composition Symposium) FREE
Drink Locally - Think Globally! - 5:45pm (beer & climate change) $10
Story Collider - 8pm (live storytelling at Davis Square Theatre) $12

Wednesday, April 23
Across MIT - 9:30am (Nuclear Research, AeroAstro, Trivia, Oh my!) FREE

Thursday, April 24
Carbonic Maceration Demo + Tasting - 5pm (science of wine!) FREE
High-speed Photography - From Edgerton to Oefner - 6pm FREE
Young Innovators Happy Hour - 6pm, 21+ Free entry, Cash bar
Friday, April 25
The Science of Jello - 11am, 1pm, or 3pm FREE
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in One Act with Clover Food Lab, Mystic Brewery, and Backyard Farms - 6pm FREE (talks followed by reception at Clover Kendall)
DeScience - Research on the Runway - 6pm (fashion design and science) FREE

Saturday, April 26
SciFest Block Party - 12pm (followed by after party at Aeronaut Brewery)
Space Day: MIT at the Final Frontier - 1pm (space suits, ion thrusters, exoplanets) FREE

Sunday, April 27
Central Elements Open House - 12pm (artists, scientists, chemical elements & molecules) FREE
Autonomous Fighting Robots: Final Competition - 1pm (Come see robots destroy each other within a bullet-proof arena) FREE

See 100+ more events in the CSF Event Index.
The Cambridge Science Festival runs April 18-27, 2014. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Family Friendly Events

Have you checked out our print programs or Guidebook app?

Scan the QR code to get the CSF schedule
& details on your phone (or tablet)!

But let's be honest - it's a lot of time to sift through 150+ different programs and activities for all sorts of different audiences.  So here's a handy list for some of the great family events for this festival...

Science Carnival & Robot Zoo
Saturday, April 19 noon-4pm at the Cambridge Public Library, 449 Broadway
Cost: Free, no registration necessary

The Science of Baseball
Sunday, April 20 at Fenway Park  7-9:30pm
Cost: Included in cost of game ticket, purchase at:

Serve & Grow with the Food Project
Tuesday, April 22 9:30am-12:30pm at 40 West Cottage Street, Dorchester
$10 suggested donation, please register at

Science from Scientists' Science Theater
Tuesday, April 22 3-4pm at the Whitehead Institute, 9 Cambridge Center
Cost: Free

Across MIT
Wednesday, April 23 on MIT Campus, Cambridge
Cost: Free, registration required for some parts see for details

Science of Archery
Wednesday, April 23 1-4pm at the Cambridge Community Center
Cost: Free, best for teens

Science Meets Art 
Wednesday, April 23 5:30-7pm at Harvard Allston Education Portal, 175 North Harvard St.
Cost: Free

The Wonderful World of Stem Cells!
Thursday, April 24 10-11am or 1-2pm at Tufts University Boston Campus, 136 Harrison Ave, Boston
Cost: Free, register at

The Science of Jello
Friday, April 25 11am-12pm, 1-2pm, or 3-4pm at MassBio, 300 Technology Sq, 8th Floor, Cambridge
Cost: Free, register at

Rocket Day
Saturday, April 26 10am-4pm at Danehy Park, Cambridge
Cost: Free, bring an empty 2L bottle and a tennis ball to participate!

SciFest Block Party
Saturday, April 26 12pm-4pm at Tyler Street, Somerville
Cost: Free (half price day passes available at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville for those who wish to climb!)

ImprovBoston's Family Show: Science of Laughter
Saturday, April 26 6-7:30pm at ImprovBoston, 40 Prospect St., Cambridge
Cost: $14, $8 for Children 12 and under. Purchase at:

Central Elements Open House
Sunday, April 27 12pm-4pm in Central Square Cambridge
Cost: Free

Autonomous Fighting Robot Final Competition
Sunday, April 27 1-5pm at the Middle East Downstairs, 480 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge
Cost: Free to spectators

Flower Watch: Become a Citizen Scientist with AMC
You can choose from 3 different sessions & locations!  See details here.

A Walk Through Geologic Time
Experience millions of years in each step along the Charles River.

Free Admission to Harvard Museum of Natural History & Peabody Museum of Archeology & Ethnology
Sunday, April 20 & 27 9am-12pm; Wednesday, April 23 3-5pm
Cost: Free with 2014 CSF booklet or MA resident ID

Free Admission to the MIT Museum
Sunday, April 27 10am-5pm
Science You Can Eat!  1-4pm

For the really little ones:
Science en Español with Pine Village Preschool
Bright Horizons Early Education

Are you on the Cape?
Cape Cod Mini Maker Faire
Birds, Bees, and Butterflies

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pre-register for Cambridge Science Festival Events!

Not sure where to start on our 2014 Schedule of Events?

Look through these events that require pre-registration and reserve your spot today!

Events that suggest or require pre-registration, or are selling advance tickets:

For Families

  • Science en Español with Pine Village Preschool  | RSVP
  • Introduction to Robotics with LEGO (Week-long Class) | Register (Discount code CSF2014)
  • Introduction to CAD for 3D Printing (Week-long Class) | Register (Discount code CSF2014) 
  • Flower Watch: Become a Citizen Scientist with the Appalachian Mountain Club (Groton) | RSVP
  • Frank & Me: Architecture for Ages 3-5 | Pre-register
  • The Wonderful World of Stem Cells | Pre-register
  • Flower Watch: Become a Citizen Scientist with the Appalachian Mountain Club (Belmont) | RSVP
  • Flower Watch: Become a Citizen Scientist with the Appalachian Mountain Club (Sudbury) | RSVP
  • Wish Upon a Stellated Dodecahedron | Pre-register 
  • The Science of Baseball | Buy tickets


For Teens

  • Serve & Grow with the Food Project | Register
  • Microsoft Store Workshops 1-3pm | Register
    • Digital Movie Madness | Digital Art Smarts | Game Masters | MineCraft
  • Intro to Web Development for Girls & Moms (or Aunts, Grandmas, Big Sisters, etc.) | Pre-register
  • The Science of Jello | Pre-register
  • Girls STEM Summit-East | Buy tickets
  • Across MIT, Wednesday 4/23
    • Walking Tour of MIT's Nuclear Research Reactor | RSVP
    • Discover International Development and Design with D-Lab | RSVP
    • Tour of Electrical Engineering& Computer Science Department's Educational Labs | Pre-register
    • Bio Flash Mob 3: Immune Cells Fight Cancer | Pre-register
    • Science Trivia Challenge | Register a team
    • Nano-Observatory | Pre-register


For Adults

  • SILA | Buy tickets 
  • Design Challenge: Autonomous Fighting Robots | Register
  • Big Ideas for Busy People | Buy tickets
  • High Voltage Analog Photography| Pre-register
  • Science of the Modern Cocktail | Pre-register
  • Berklee's Jazz Composition Symposium | Register
    • Vijay Iyer: Embodied Cognition in Music
    • Planet MicroJam Ensemble 
    • Microtonal Research with Dave Fiuczynski 
  • The Balance of Nature: Ecology's Enduring Myth | Pre-register
  • Alternative Careers in Science: A Speed Networking Event | Buy tickets
  • High-speed photography - From Edgerton to Oefner | Pre-register
  • Draper Prize Lecture | Pre-register
  • The Race for Spring: How Climate Change Alters Plant Communities | Pre-register
  • Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in One Act with Clover Food Lab, Mystic Brewery, and Backyard Farms | Pre-register
  • Sustainability unConference | Pre-register 


For Educators

Pre-register for these events at the MIT Museum through their website (opens March 24):
  • Robotics Engineering: Programming LEGO Mindstorms
  • Attack of the RoboMonkeys!
  • Gaming the Virtual World Presented by the Education Arcade
  • Visualizing Science
  • Everything You Wanted to Know About Slide Rules
  • Nautical Engineering: Fish 'n' Ships
  • Hello Holography!
Need to know more about the event?  Find these and all festival events and their details through the Event Index.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

43 days until the 2014 Cambridge Science Festival!

We're just over a month away from the 8th iteration of the Cambridge Science Festival.  Have you marked your calendars for April 18-27, 2014?  We'll see another Robot Zoo, print in 3D, develop video games, understand the science of archery or modern cocktails, eat science, discover technology in jazz and runway fashion!  Check out our Schedule of Events for more.

In other news, allow me to introduce the newest member of our Teen Advisory Board.

Kathi Marcos Allphin is a homeschooled student who lives on the North Shore. Her interests are far too numerous to list, but they include genetics, science communication, music, linguistics, and science fiction (particularly anything by Isaac Asimov). She writes a public science blog called Endoplasma at

Here's her latest entry about the science festival!

Filling the chasm
by: Kathi Marcos Allphin

Far too often, the humanities and the arts are segregated from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects.

This unfortunate separation manifests itself in classrooms, bookstores, academia, and other workplaces, but also in other parts of our everyday lives. However, this separation is not beneficial for those stranded on either side of the divide.

The initiative needing to be taken is that of integration. It is crucial that people abandon their perception of the humanities and STEM as separate entities, and allow the fields to exchange ideas with one another for mutual benefit. I wholeheartedly believe that there is a staggering amount that can be reaped from an interdisciplinary approach. An interdisciplinary curriculum, an interdisciplinary life, an interdisciplinary world.

Imagine a world in which subjects such as the following were taught in schools: The effect of technology on family connectedness, Exploring the relationship between ebooks and the reader experience, Meet Billy the Bacteriophage: Telling Science with Stories.

Likewise, imagine a world in which these professions were prominent. Science Singer, Science Storyteller, Robopsychologist, and Technofamilial Researcher.

I recently became a member of Cambridge Science Festival’s Teen Advisory Board. The Cambridge Science Festival, which is held in Cambridge, MA during the public school’s April vacation, is an incredible, fun-filled experience.

Here are three events that capture the diversity of the offerings, Science en Español for preschoolers, an educator workshop on incorporating synthetic biology into the classroom, and a lecture on embodied cognition in music by a MacArthur (“Genius Grant”) Fellow, (not to mention the robot zoo.)

All of the events are awesome, and the vast majority are absolutely free of charge.

The mission of the Cambridge Science Festival, according to the website, is to promote and provide education about STEAM – related subjects. STEAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. I applaud the Festival’s initiative to incorporate arts amidst the classic STEM. This speaks to a future in which STEM and humanities/arts can exchange pieces of wisdom with one another.

It is heartening to know that the youth of this generation will be exposed to more open-minded thinking on this subject. It is this train of thought (and action) that will transport today’s curious youth and help them to become the pioneers in science storytelling and robopsychology.