Thomas Friedman examines impact of global “accelerations”

Rapid, sweeping changes in modern life are imposing new challenges upon society — and creating new opportunities as well, said noted columnist Thomas L. Friedman while delivering the fall 2018 Compton Lecture at MIT on Monday.  

“We’re in the middle of three giant accelerations,” Friedman said. Changes involving markets, the Earth’s climate, and technology are reshaping social and economic life in powerful ways and putting a premium on “learning faster, and governing and operating smarter,” across the globe, he said.

“Technology is now accelerating at a pace the average human cannot keep up with,” Friedman added, emphasizing a key theme of his talk.  

Friedman discussed the year 2007, in particular, as a moment full of innovations and new technologies being brought to market — a moment which “may be understood in time as one of the greatest technological inflection points” in recent history. However, the global recession that soon followed created even more stress, leading to civic repercussions we are confronting today.

“A lot of people got completely dislocated,” Friedman said.

A longtime reporter and columnist for The New York Times, Friedman gave his talk, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” before a large audience in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. And while Friedman’s remarks warned of the dangers facing society, he also stressed the opportunities open to people around the world.

After all, Friedman noted, changes in communications platforms mean that “anyone can participate in the global conversation” occurring online today.

Shaping the national conversation

The Karl Taylor Compton Lecture Series, which began in 1957, is among MIT’s most prominent lecture events. It honors the memory of Karl Taylor Compton, who served as MIT’s president from 1930 to 1948 and chair of the MIT Corporation from 1948 to 1954.

As MIT President L. Rafael Reif stated in his introductory remarks, Compton “guided MIT through the Great Depression and World War II. In the process, he helped the Institute transform itself from an outstanding technical school … to a great global university.”

Moreover, Reif added, Compton, who was himself a physicist, “brought a new focus on fundamental scientific research, and he made science an equal partner with engineering at MIT.”  

Recent Compton lectures have been delivered by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former U.S. Energy Secretary (and former head of the MIT Energy Initiative) Ernest Moniz, and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

In his remarks Reif also hailed Friedman, a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, saying, “Tom is a global citizen and advocate for creative solutions to complex problems.” Friedman’s writing, Reif noted, “has helped shape the national conversation on the most important issues of our time.”

“Later will be too late”

During much of his talk, Friedman discussed the nature of the transformations in markets, climate, and technology, stating that they were “actually melding together into one giant change” in certain ways.  

Changes in the nature of globalization, he said, from the expansion of global commerce to the development of global communication, are one reason why “we’re going from a world that is interconnected to interdependent.”

In his writings, Friedman has long warned of the dangers of climate change, and he underscored the seriousness of the issue in his lecture.

“Later will be too late,” said Friedman, regarding the need for serious climate action.

Meanwhile, Friedman observed, people have never had to adapt to so many significant technological innovations in any previous historical epoch.

“There was no bow and arrow 2.0 in the 13th century,” Friedman added, referring to the more languid pace of technological change in earlier times. 

At a time of flux, however, our new technologies may be creating circumstances in which determined individuals can make an impact on the world in ways that might not have been possible before. To do so, he emphasized, often requires creativity.

“Never think in the box,” Friedman said. “Never think outside the box. Think without a box.”

At the end of his talk, Friedman answered audience questions presented by Reif. Among other things, Friedman decried the current state of U.S. politics, saying the political culture has “moved from partisan to tribal,” and warning that the U.S. could be facing civil strife reminiscent of the turmoil he covered in Lebanon at the start of his career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

On the other hand, Friedman added, he is “still a huge believer in America,” based mostly on the efforts of everyday citizens to “meld together” in an inclusive society of opportunity.

“If you want to be an optimist today about America, stand on your head,” Friedman said. “It looks so much better from the bottom up.”

From security to systems: J-WAFS name change reflects its breadth and impact

The terms “food system” or “water system” refer to the broad array of activities, resources, and technologies — as well as policies and economics — involved in the production, processing, transport, and consumption or use of food and water.  These terms encompass issues such as food and water safety, access to fertilizer, water purification, climate change, and the sustainability of water supplies and food production systems. 

Water and food security, which is generally defined as providing all people access to sufficient clean water and safe and nutritious food, is an important aspect of our local, national, and global food and water systems.

That’s why the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab has announced it is changing its name to the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, reflecting the broader range of challenges embodied by the terms “food systems” and “water systems.”  It retains the acronym “J-WAFS,” by which has been known, but will adopt a new tag line: “Securing humankind’s vital resources.”

J-WAFS was founded in 2014 by MIT and Community Jameel, the social enterprise organization, to leverage the Institute’s strengths in order to find solutions to global-scale challenges that our water and food systems are facing, challenges that are exacerbated by climate change, urbanization, and population rise.

J-WAFS catalyzes MIT food and water research that is geared toward real world impact. By awarding seed research grants, supporting commercialization of breakthrough water and food technologies, funding and mentoring graduate students, and convening global experts to set international research and policy agendas, J-WAFS works to advance knowledge and innovation to build resilient systems that can deliver safe and adequate supplies of water and food for our changing world.  

While the name has changed, the same commitment remains, says J-WAFS’ director, Professor John Lienhard.

“Our goal in this name change is to even more accurately represent what we already do. We considered various terms that reflect the range of water and food sector issues that we focus on: supply, safety, solutions, sustainability,” Lienhard says. “Systems was a clear winner for conveying the comprehensive perspective and breadth of our work across the Institute.”

J-WAFS has funded principal investigators from all five schools at MIT. Well over 10 percent of all MIT faculty — from disciplines as diverse as mechanical engineering, chemistry, and anthropology — have submitted proposals for J-WAFS funding.  J-WAFS’ growing portfolio of funded research is driving improvements in:

  • water safety and supply;
  • food safety and supply;
  • agricultural technology (food genetics, fertilizers, irrigation, and packaging);
  • sustainability of food and water systems and the adaptation strategies needed to respond to climate change;
  • energy efficiency of our water and food systems; and
  • economic and policy strategies for resilient water and food supplies.

To date, two companies have spun out of MIT as the result of J-WAFS support, and millions of dollars of follow-on funding have been raised by the recipients of J-WAFS’ seed grants. J-WAFS is helping to build a solutions-oriented research community that will meet humankind’s water and food needs today and in the future even as the goal stays the same: securing water and food, humankind’s vital resources.   

MIT Press, Media Lab launch Knowledge Futures Group

The MIT Press has announced the launch of the Knowledge Futures Group (KFG), a first-of-its kind collaboration between a leading publisher and a world-class academic lab to transform how research information is created and shared.

The joint initiative of the MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab seeks to redefine research publishing from a closed, sequential process into an open, community-driven one. The goal is to develop and deploy technologies that form part of a new open knowledge ecosystem, one that fully exploits the capabilities of the web to accelerate discovery and the transmission of knowledge.

The effort has thus far received $1.5 million for its initial year of operation, through the generous support of Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a member of the MIT Media Lab’s Advisory Council, as well as smaller project-specific gifts from the Siegel Family Endowment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Protocol Labs, and several individual donors.

Hoffman says he is supporting the effort “because I believe our future depends on how effectively we can combat the spread of misinformation and democratize access to trustworthy, verifiable sources of information.”

“It is imperative that we must move quickly toward a more open system of knowledge creation and sharing,” he says.

Several months ago, Media Lab Director Joi Ito and MIT Press Director Amy Brand began exploring the creation of an incubator at MIT for tools and technologies that could enable a more open model of research.

“We’ve created this space for pure experimentation,” says Brand. “And we’ve already seen the benefits of sharing ideas between our core publishing groups and the KFG in innovative projects like FrankenbookJoDS, and our Works in Progress Open Access book community. We believe these examples are just the beginning of what will come from continued testing, development, and cross-collaboration.”

Ito, a member of the MIT Press Management Board, says publishing models “need to get better at aligning academic incentives with societally beneficial outcomes.

“We’d also like to serve as a model for others of what institutional ownership of this essential infrastructure looks like and how it can succeed at amplifying the impact of investment in basic research,” he says.

Terry Ehling, director of strategic initiatives at the MIT Press, says the need to promote the efficient and equitable dissemination of research information has never been more urgent.

“The press is in a unique position among mission-driven publishers to take a disciplined and transparent approach to open collaboration and experimentation,” says Ehling, who also serves as managing director of the Knowledge Futures Group.

One of the KFG’s first projects is PubPub, an open authoring and publishing platform that was developed by Travis Rich and Thariq Shihipar while they were graduate students at the Media Lab. The platform socializes the process of knowledge creation by integrating conversation, annotation, and versioning into a digital publication.

The KFG is also incubating the Underlay, an open, distributed knowledge store that was conceived by Danny Hillis and Sam Klein and is being developed with Joel Gustafson. The Underlay is architected to capture, connect, and archive publicly available knowledge and its provenance.

The initiative will be based in close proximity to both the Media Lab and MIT Press at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square.

Report outlines keys to election security

The most secure form of voting technology remains the familiar, durable innovation known as paper, according to a report authored by a group of election experts, including two prominent scholars from MIT.

The report, issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, is a response to the emerging threat of hackers targeting computerized voting systems, and it comes as concerns continue to be aired over the security of the U.S. midterm elections of 2018.

The U.S. has a decentralized voting system, with roughly 9,000 political jurisdictions bearing some responsibility for administering elections. However, for all that variation, and while many questions are swirling around election security, the report identifies some main themes on the topic.

“There are two really important avenues that are emerging,” says Charles Stewart, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science and founder of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. “One is just securing the election, and the other is building in resilience and fail-safe mechanisms.”

In this context, “securing the election” means keeping voting systems safe from hackers in the first place; fail-safe mechanisms include paper ballots that can be used for audits and recounts.

The other MIT co-author of the report is Ronald L. Rivest, a computer encryption pioneer and Institute Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Given the distinct challenges of combining anonymity at the ballot box with verification of voting, Rivest notes, a paper trail remains a necessary component of secure voting systems.

“I think that the three most important recommendations of the report, at least from a security perspective, are probably: (a) use paper ballots, (b) check the reported election outcomes by performing ‘risk-limiting audits’ of the cast paper ballots, and (c) don’t transmit cast votes over the internet,” Rivest says.

The report, “Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy,” was released this month by the National Academies. The co-chairs of the committee releasing the report are Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, and Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University.

Rivest and Stewart are two of the 12 co-authors of the high-level report, which examines a range of voting issues and contains a series of recommendations. In addition to having a paper trail, the recommendations include securing and updating voter registration databases, robust checks on the security of voting by mail, Congressional funding for security standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and robust auditing of elections to make sure systems are working.

Stewart and Rivest both acknowledge that they are often asked why internet voting is not a reality, given that we conduct other kinds of sensitive activities online, including banking.

“Probably the most common question that I get when I talk to the public about these issues,” Stewart says, “is, ‘Why can’t we vote on the internet?’”

Systems with the right combination of verification and anonymity are hard to develop, however, and as both scholars point out, other online activities such as banking are hardly foolproof. And while banks have systems to compensate customers should fraud occur, a one-time event like an election does not provide the same opportunities for remedies.

The good news, Stewart suggests, is that election officials themselves tend to have a keen awareness of the best practices in their field.

“From my experience I know that every state election official and just about every local election official that I’ve talked to is aware that cybersecurity is a top priority,” Stewart says. However, he adds, election officials do not necessarily control the purse strings and often cannot fund the security measures they value: “Often times, election officials don’t have control over their own destiny.”

Book explores milestones of astronomical discovery

Here’s quick rule of thumb about the universe: Everything old is new again.

Those materials being used when new stars or planets form are just recycled cosmic matter, after all. But also, even our latest scientific discoveries may not be as new as they seem.

That’s one insight from Marcia Bartusiak’s new book, “Dispatches from Planet 3,” published by Yale University Press, a tour of major discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics that digs into the history behind these breakthroughs.

“No discovery comes out of the blue,” says Bartusiak, professor of the practice in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. “Sometimes it takes decades of preparation for [discoveries] to be built, one brick at a time.”

The book, drawn from her columns in Natural History, underscores that point by highlighting unheralded scientists whose work influenced later discoveries.

Moreover, as Bartusiak observes in the book, recent scientific debates often echo older argument. Take the kerfuffle last decade about whether or not Pluto should be regarded as a proper planet in our solar system. As Bartusiak recounts in the book, the same thing happened multiple times in the 19th century, when objects called Ceres, Vesta, and Juno first gained and then lost membership in the club of planets. 

“Ceres in the 19th century was a certified planet, along with Vesta and Juno, the big asteroids, until they got demoted into the general asteroid belt,” Bartusiak says. “Then the same thing happened again, and everyone said, ‘Poor Pluto, it’s not a planet any more.’ Well, I’m sure in the 19th century there were people going ‘Poor Ceres, it’s not a planet.’ We’ll get over it.”

(Demoting Pluto, by the way, is a judgment Bartusiak is comfortable with: “They made the right decision. Pluto is a dwarf planet. It’s part of the Kuiper Belt. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of people mad with me, [but] it makes sense to have Pluto in that group, rather than … with the big terrestrial planets and the gas giants.”)

One astronomer who made a crucial Pluto-related discovery was Jane X. Luu, who helped locate asteroids orbiting the sun from even farther away. Luu is just one of many women in “Dispatches from Planet 3” — although, Bartusiak says, that was not by design, but simply a consequence of hunting for the origins of important advances. 

“I did not have an agenda for this book,” Bartusiak says. “I have always been the type of writer that wanted to follow my nose on what the most interesting findings, discoveries, and theories were, without worrying about who was doing them.”

But as it happens, many stories about the development of scientific knowledge involve accomplished female scientists who did not immediately become household names.

Consider the astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who in the 1920s, Bartusiak notes, “first knew that hydrogen is the major element of the universe. A major discovery! This is the fuel for stars. It was central to astronomical studies. And yet, the greatest astronomer of the time, Henry Norris Russell, made her take [the idea] out of her thesis before they would accept it at Harvard.”

Bartusiak’s book also recounts the career of Beatrice Tinsley, an astrophysicist who in the 1970s developed important work about the ways galaxies change over time, before she died in her early 40s.

“Who really started thinking about galaxy evolution?” Bartusiak asks. “Beatrice Tinsley, ignored when she first started doing this, [produced] one of the most accomplished PhD theses in astronomical history. She was the first to really take it seriously.”

The notion that galaxies evolve, Bartusiak’s book reminds us, is a relatively recent concept, running counter to ages of conventional wisdom. 

“People thought of the universe as being serene [and that] every galaxy was like the Milky Way,” Bartusiak says. “And that was based on what they could see.” Deep in the postwar era, our empirical knowledge expanded, and so did our conception of galactic-scale activity.

In fairness, the Milky Way is pretty placid at the moment.

“It will get active again when we collide with Andromeda, 4 billion years from now,” Bartusiak says. “We’re lucky we’re not in the galactic center or in a very active star cluster. You have stars blowing up, and it probably would be hard for life to start if you were in an area where X-rays were raining down on you, or if a supernova was going off nearby. We’re off in a little spur in a very quiet part of the Milky Way galaxy, which has enabled life on Earth here to evolve and flourish without a cosmic incident raining havoc down upon us.”

Bartusiak closes the book with chapters on black holes, the idea of the multiverse, and our problems in conceptualizing what it means to think that the universe had a beginning.

“We think that black holes and gravitational waves are strange, but there may stranger things to come,” Barytusiak says. “As I say in a chapter with [Harvard theoretical physicist] Lisa Randall, experimenters and theorists used to work in tandem … and now the theorists have moved so far from observations that it’s a little frightening. There’s a need for new instrumentation, the new James Webb telescopes, the new particle accelerators.”

Which ultimately brings Bartusiak to another part of science that definitely has precedent: the need for funding to support research.

“The bigger the instrument, the further out you can see, or the further down into spacetime you can see, so I want people to realize that if you want these stories to continue, you’re going to need a further investment,” Bartusiak says. “But that’s what makes us a civilization. That we can take at least some of our wealth and use it to expand our knowledge about where we live. And that includes the universe, not just the Earth.”

Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health at MIT aims to revolutionize disease prevention, detection, and treatment

Today, MIT and Community Jameel, the social enterprise organization founded and chaired by Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ’78, launched the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (J-Clinic). This is the fourth major collaborative effort between MIT and Community Jameel.

J-Clinic, a key part of the MIT Quest for Intelligence, will focus on developing machine learning technologies to revolutionize the prevention, detection, and treatment of disease. It will concentrate on creating and commercializing high-precision, affordable, and scalable machine learning technologies in areas of health care ranging from diagnostics to pharmaceuticals, with three main areas of focus:

  • preventative medicine methods and technologies with the potential to change the course of noninfectious disease by stopping it in its tracks;
  • cost-effective diagnostic tests that may be able to both detect and alleviate health problems; and
  • drug discovery and development to enable faster and cheaper discovery, development, and manufacture of new pharmaceuticals, particularly those targeted for individually customized therapies.

J-Clinic’s holistic approach will utilize MIT’s strong expertise in cellular and medical biology, computer science, engineering, and the social sciences, among other areas.

“The health care system has no shortage of data,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “But it has far too little access to the kinds of tools and experts who can translate population-level data into clinical insights that could make it possible to tune care precisely for individuals. Building on MIT’s deep expertise in fields from cancer to neuroscience, and our longstanding connections to Boston’s world-class medical community, J-Clinic offers an accelerated path to creating new technologies that could help make health care more effective everywhere — from villages in developing nations to major teaching hospitals.”

“We are grateful to Community Jameel for their humanitarian vision, boldness, generosity, and continued enthusiasm for collaborating with MIT on their efforts to help make a better world,” Reif adds.

J-Clinic will leverage MIT’s strong relationship with industry and Boston-area hospitals to test, integrate, and deploy new technologies. It will also seek to advance patentable research that could be commercialized and spun-out through licensing to startups and pharmaceutical companies putting these advances into real-life practice.

“The J-Clinic will positively impact the world by accelerating the creation of machine learning technologies and algorithms that will make preventing, detecting, and treating disease more precise, affordable, and personalized,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who will serve as J-Clinic’s chair. “It will be a truly multifaceted effort that amplifies synergies between the life sciences and the latest research in human and machine intelligence. J-Clinic will inspire innovation for the betterment of humanity.”

As part of its work, J-Clinic will support research projects, education, workshops, and other activities at the intersection of machine learning and biology.

“Channeling MIT’s machine learning expertise into health care will transform medical outcomes for people around the world,” says Fady Jameel, president of Community Jameel International. “Health care has been an important sphere of activity for Community Jameel since our earliest days, from founding the first nonprofit hospital for physical rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia, to partnering on the King Salman Center for Disability Research. J-Clinic continues our journey of supporting cutting-edge research and driving innovation in health care, in Saudi Arabia and around the whole world.”

This marriage of machine learning with clinical and biological insights aspires to spur a global transformation in the health care and medical fields with the aim to save the lives of millions of people, spawn new technologies, and improve the entire health care industry around the globe.

The Community Jameel gift to establish J-Clinic is part of MIT’s current $5 billion Campaign for a Better World and is consistent with Community Jameel’s focus on creating a better future. Earlier collaborations between MIT and Community Jameel include the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), established in 2003, which seeks answers to poverty in a changing world; the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), created in 2014, which addresses food and water scarcity and safety issues as the result of population rises and climate change; and the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), launched in 2017, which pursues innovative, scalable, and sustainable educational innovation.

Community Jameel and MIT have also collaborated in the Abdul Latif Jameel-Toyota Endowed Scholarship since 1994 and the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition and Saudi Startup Competition.

3Q: Sheila Widnall on sexual harassment in STEM

Sheila Widnall, MIT Institute Professor and former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, was co-chair of a report commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to explore the impact of sexual harassment of women in those fields. Along with co-chair Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College, Widnall and dozens of panel members and researchers spent two years collecting and analyzing data for the report, which was released over the summer. On Sept. 18, Widnall, Johnson, and Brandeis University Professor Anita Hill will offer their thoughts on the report’s findings and recommendations, in a discussion at MIT’s Huntington Hall, Room 10-250. Widnall spoke with MIT News about some of the report’s key takeaways.

Q: As a woman who has been working in academia for many years, did you find  anything in the results of this report that surprised you, anything that was unexpected?

A: Well, not unexpected, but the National Academy reports have to be based on data, and so our committee was composed of scientists, engineers, and social scientists, who have somewhat different ways of looking at problems. One of the challenges was to bring the committee together to agree on a common result. We couldn’t just make up things; we had to get data. So, we had some fundamental data from various universities that were taken by a recognized survey platform, and that was the foundation of our data.

We had data for thousands and thousands of faculty and students. We did not look at student-on-student behavior, which we felt was not really part of our charge. We were looking at the structure of academic institutions and the environment that’s created in the university. We also looked at the relationship between faculty, who hold considerable authority over the climate, and the futures of students, which can be influenced by faculty through activities such as thesis advising, and letter writing, and helping people find the next rung in their career.

At the end of the report, after we’d accumulated all this data and our conclusions about it, we said, “OK, what’s the solution?” And the solution is leadership. There is no other way to get started in some of these very difficult climate issues than leadership. Presidents, provosts, deans, department heads, faculty — these are the leaders at a university, and they are essential for dealing with these issues. We can’t make little recommendations to do this or do that. It really boils down to leadership.

Q: What are some of the specific recommendations or programs that the report committee would like to see adopted?

A: We found many productive actions taken by universities, including climate surveys, and our committee was particularly pleased with ombudsman programs — having a way that individuals can go to people and discuss issues and get help. I think MIT has been a leader in that; I’m not sure all universities have those. And another recommendation — I hate to use the word training, because faculty hate the word training — but MIT has put in place some things that faculty have to work through in terms of training, mainly to understand the definitions of what these various terms mean, in terms of the legal structure, the climate structure. The bottom line is you want to create a civil and welcoming climate where people feel free to express any concerns that they have.

One of the things we did, since we were data-driven, was that we tried to collect examples of processes and programs that have been put in place by other societies, and put them forward as examples.

We found various professional societies that are very aware of things that can happen offsite, so they have instituted special policies or even procedures for making sure that a meeting is a safe and welcoming environment for people who come across the country to go to a professional meeting. There are several examples of that in the report, of societies that have really stepped forward and put in place procedures and principles about “this is how you should behave at a meeting.” So I think that’s very welcome.

Q: One of the interesting findings of the report was that gender harassment — stereotyping what people can or can’t do based on their gender — was especially pervasive. What are some of the impacts of that kind of behavior?

A: A hostile work environment is caused by the uncivility of the climate. All the little microinsults, things like telling women they can’t solder or that women don’t belong in science or engineering. I think that’s really an important point in our report. Gender discrimination is most pervasive, and many people don’t think it’s wrong; they just don’t give it a second thought.

If you have a climate where people feel that they can get away with that kind of behavior, then it’s more likely to happen. If you have an environment where people are expected to be polite — is that an old-fashioned word? — or civil, people act respectfully.

It’s pretty clear that physical assault is unacceptable. So we didn’t deal a lot with that issue. It’s certainly a very serious kind of harassment. But we did try to focus on this less obvious form and the responsibilities of universities to create a safe and welcoming climate. I think MIT does a really good job of that.

I think the numbers have helped to improve the climate. You know, when I came to MIT women were 1 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now it’s 46 percent, so clearly, times have changed.

When I came here as a freshman, my freshman advisor said, “What are you doing here?” That wasn’t exactly welcoming. He looked at me as if I didn’t belong here. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore, not with such a high percentage of undergraduates being women. I think increasingly, people do feel that women are an inherent part of the field of engineering, in the field of science, in medicine.

Air pollution can put a dent in solar power

Ian Marius Peters, now an MIT research scientist, was working on solar energy research in Singapore in 2013 when he encountered an extraordinary cloud of pollution. The city was suddenly engulfed in a foul-smelling cloud of haze so thick that from one side of a street you couldn’t see the buildings on the other side, and the air had the acrid smell of burning. The event, triggered by forest fires in Indonesia and concentrated by unusual wind patterns, lasted two weeks, quickly causing stores to run out of face masks as citizens snapped them up to aid their breathing.

While others were addressing the public health issues of the thick air pollution, Peters’ co-worker Andre Nobre from Cleantech Energy Corp., whose field is also solar energy, wondered about what impact such hazes might have on the output of solar panels in the area. That led to a years-long project to try to quantify just how urban-based solar installations are affected by hazes, which tend to be concentrated in dense cities.

Now, the results of that research have just been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, and the findings show that these effects are indeed substantial. In some cases it can mean the difference between a successful solar power installation and one that ends up failing to meet expected production levels — and possibly operates at a loss.

After initially collecting data on both the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground, and the amount of particulate matter in the air as measured by other instruments, Peters worked with MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi and three others to find a way to calculate the amount of sunlight that was being absorbed or scattered by haze before reaching the solar panels. Finding the necessary data to determine that level of absorption proved to be surprisingly difficult.

Eventually, they were able to collect data in Delhi, India, providing measures of insolation and of pollution over a two-year period — and confirmed significant reductions in the solar-panel output. But unlike Singapore, what they found was that “in Delhi it’s constant. There’s never a day without pollution,” Peters says. There, they found the annual average level of attenuation of the solar panel output was about 12 percent.

While that might not sound like such a large amount, Peters points out that it is larger than the profit margins for some solar installations, and thus could literally be enough to make the difference between a successful project and one that fails — not only impacting that project, but also potentially causing a ripple effect by deterring others from investing in solar projects. If the size of an installation is based on expected levels of sunlight reaching the ground in that area, without considering the effects of haze, it will instead fall short of meeting its intended output and its expected revenues.

“When you’re doing project planning, if you haven’t considered air pollution, you’re going to undersize, and get a wrong estimate of your return on investment,” Peters says

After their detailed Delhi study, the team examined preliminary data from 16 other cities around the world, and found impacts ranging from 2 percent for Singapore to over 9 percent for Beijing, Dakha, Ulan Bator, and Kolkata. In addition, they looked at how the different types of solar cells — gallium arsenide, cadmium telluride, and perovskite — are affected by the hazes, because of their different spectral responses. All of them were affected even more strongly than the standard silicon panels they initially studied, with perovskite, a highly promising newer solar cell material, being affected the most (with over 17 percent attenuation in Delhi).

Many countries around the world have been moving toward greater installation of urban solar panels, with India aiming for 40 gigawatts (GW) of rooftop solar installations, while China already has 22 GW of them. Most of these are in urban areas. So the impact of these reductions in output could be quite severe, the researchers say.

In Delhi alone, the lost revenue from power generation could amount to as much as $20 million annually; for Kolkata about $16 million; and for Beijing and Shanghai it’s about $10 million annually each, the team estimates. Planned installations in Los Angeles could lose between $6 million and $9 million.

Overall, they project, the potential losses “could easily amount to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars annually.” And if systems are under-designed because of a failure to take hazes into account, that could also affect overall system reliability, they say.

Peters says that the major health benefits related to reducing levels of air pollution should be motivation enough for nations to take strong measures, but this study “hopefully is another small piece of showing that we really should improve air quality in cities, and showing that it really matters.”

The research team also included S. Karthik of Cleantech Energy Corp. in Singapore, and Haohui L. of the National University of Singapore. The work was supported by Singapore’s National Research Foundation through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

Climate Controlled Storage

For many Americans, collecting “stuff” is a national pastime. Between the sporting goods, instruments, furniture, clothing, keepsakes and other heirlooms we acquire in our lifetimes, our homes are bulging at the seams. Often, a solution is renting a storage space to house our extra belongings; sometimes long-term and sometimes just for a transitional period. So, any storage place should work, right? Many people don’t consider the option of a climate controlled storage facility, where belongings are safeguarded against the elements.


You may believe you won’t be leaving your items in storage for very long, so what is the point of going with a premium, climate controlled unit as opposed to just a regular storage space? There are several advantages to going with a climate controlled unit, as long as it is in a reputable storage facility. The most important reason to rent a climate controlled space is to protect your valuables from heat and humidity or blistering cold temperatures. Since weather is so unpredictable, having a climate controlled unit can give you an extra peace of mind that your property will not be ruined due to the fluctuation in temperatures. As anyone from Colorado can attest, the weather can start out beautiful and sunny and then drop 50 degrees the same day. Southerners know that humidity can cause havoc with mildew, while desert dwellers can account for searing, dry hot temperatures. The North and Northeast know that snow, sleet, wind and hail can certainly take their toll, even to items securely locked in a storage unit. All these factors are non-existent in a climate controlled environment, where the temperature stays at anywhere between 50 and 85 degrees, depending upon your items and your preference.


Another factor to consider: while an air conditioned unit might be more expensive, the cost of replacing your property would probably be much more expensive in the long run. Or, worse yet, items that are not easily replaced shouldn’t be left to chance in a too hot or too cold storage unit; heirlooms are not worth the risk! Oftentimes, too, bugs and other pests infiltrate regular storage units; this is less likely to happen in a climate controlled unit. These units are less likely to accumulate dirt and dust, as well, since they are usually enclosed inside a building.


While conventional storage units are usually individual units accessed through a gate, climate controlled storage units Edmond OK are housed in a larger building, providing additional security. Your air conditioned unit will also offer more privacy, and is harder to break into than standard, outdoor units. Plus, if there happens to be a flood, or an abundance of snow, the moisture will not wick into your unit inside the building but an outdoor unit may suffer damage, and in turn, so might your belongings.


If you are unsure which items to include in a climate controlled unit, you can consult with a storage solution expert. He or she can give you pointers on how to keep your valuables protected. Leaving grandma’s 1900th century wood furniture in a storage unit to combat the heat and the cold would be ill advised; the wood will only weaken, warp, rot or split due to expansion and contraction caused by extreme temperatures. The same is true for leather furniture; those beautiful leather couches you spent so much time and money acquiring can be ruined in a regular storage unit. The introduction of any moisture can cause leather furniture to discolor or even mildew, rendering it utterly worthless. When using a climate controlled unit, not only are you controlling the air temperature, but the humidity. Humidity can be a killer to appliances and electronics, as well. Hoses on appliances can freeze and crack or mildew can build up inside refrigerators, washers, freezers or dishwashers. Electronics like television sets and computer equipment definitely need to be kept from the elements of weather or their electrical circuits and internal components may freeze or fry.

Another item you will want to protect:  your wardrobe. You may have invested many years and many dollars into your clothing items, only to have them wrecked by leaving them in a storage unit. Moth holes, mildew, and stains can result from not protecting your clothes in a climate controlled unit, so it truly pays to protect your investments!

True collectors know how destructive excessive heat or cold can be on a collection, whether it’s precious artwork, vintage wine, or a stamp collection. Coveted musical instruments from pianos to guitars to trumpets and flutes can all be affected by inconsistent temperatures. Glues that hold instruments together can fail, strings can snap, moisture and mold can build up inside an instrument; all from not carefully protecting them from temperature changes. Humidity and heat can increase the growth of bacteria on the mouthpiece of an instrument and materials like rubber pieces can break down over time with temperature changes. Wooden instruments, just like wooden furniture, can crack from expanding and contracting due to weather changes.

While clothing, instruments and furniture are important, if you ask most people what their most prized possession might be, a good number will respond that photographs mean the most to them. Family photographs, while easily scanned and saved onto a computer, are commonplace, but actual photographs are still a treasured part of peoples’ memories. You can seal photos in an air tight box but to completely safeguard them from varying temperatures, keeping them in a climate controlled environment is best. Preserving your memories is paramount, and you don’t want to lose these keepsakes to a change in climate. Too much heat or humidity will make photos stick together, and the chemicals will blend together, destroying them.

Oftentimes, people will store their belongings when they move to a new town and want to get settled. Or, storage units are kept to house inherited items from other family members; regardless of the reason, no one wants to suffer the loss of their treasures to something that could be avoided. A simple climate controlled environment can ensure your property is not subjected to fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels.



Noelle Selin named director of the MIT Technology and Policy Program

Noelle Selin, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), has been appointed the next director for the Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at MIT.

TPP is a two-year, interdisciplinary master of science program that combines science and engineering with social sciences, to educate students whose research addresses important technological issues confronting society. Over more than 40 years, TPP’s more than 1,200 alumni have gone on to work in industry and government as well as academia.

Selin’s own research links science and policy, particularly on the topic of atmospheric pollutants. Her interdisciplinary research aims to inform decision-making on air pollution, climate change, and hazardous substances. A major focus is on mercury pollution, where she has engaged with policy-makers both domestically and internationally. In addition to her work modeling the transport and fate of pollutants, she has published articles and book chapters on the interactions between science and policy in international environmental negotiations, in particular focusing on global efforts to regulate hazardous substances.

“Noelle is an excellent educator and teacher, and has substantially contributed to the curriculum in IDSS and TPP,” said IDSS Director Munther Dahleh, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. While serving as associate director of TPP, Selin managed the admission process and led a curricular development effort that revised the set of course requirements for TPP students. In 2018, she shared the Joseph A. Martore ’75 Award for Exceptional Contributions to Education in IDSS for her contributions to the core TPP course Science, Technology, and Public Policy. She also received TPP’s Faculty Appreciation Award in 2013.

Selin first came to MIT in 2007 as a postdoc at the Center for Global Change Science. She joined the Engineering Systems Division as an assistant professor in 2010 with a joint appointment in EAPS. She joined IDSS as a core faculty member when it was launched in 2015. She was promoted to associate professor with tenure in July 2017.

In the area of policy, Selin had prior appointments as a research associate with the Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability at Harvard’s Kennedy School and as a visiting researcher at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark. She also previously worked on chemicals issues at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She holds a BA in environmental science and public policy and an MA and PhD in earth and planetary sciences, all from Harvard University.

Selin received the NSF CAREER Award and two best Environmental Policy paper awards from the journal Environmental Science and Technology (2015 and 2016). She is a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow, a member of the Global Young Academy (2014-2018), a fellow of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement (2016-2017), and a Leopold Leadership Fellow (2013).

“I am truly honored to be named as the next Director of TPP,” says Selin. “I see TPP as a hub for education, research, and practice in mobilizing technical expertise to inform policy, within MIT and beyond, and I am excited to help shape its future.”

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