MIT model explains how the brain can learn novel tasks while still remembering what it has already learned.
MIT researchers' success in rewiring an animal's brain so that the part of the brain dedicated to hearing is able to respond to visual stimuli (MIT Tech Talk, April 26, 2000) has been written about in several publications, including the April 20 Boston Globe. "The reports are major papers that challenge the recent emphasis on the power of genes," wrote the Globe's Richard Saltus, referring to comments from Professor Jon Kass of Vanderbilt University, whom Mr. Saltus interviewed about the work.
On April 16, The Times of London also ran a story on the research, along with a cartoon of a scientist with a small telescope to his ear. "This is a profound discovery that addresses age-old questions about whether the brain is genetically programmed or shaped by the environment," lead researcher Mriganka Sur, professor and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, said in the Times piece by Jonathan Leake.
MIT work on efforts to safely contain nuclear waste was the focus of a May 15 BusinessWeek story. Professor Franz Ulm of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and colleagues have developed a lab test and computer model that can predict how concrete -- a potential long-term container for nuclear waste -- weathers over 300 years and longer (MIT Tech Talk, April 26, 2000). "This knowledge will help us intervene before a worst-case scenario arises," Professor Ulm told writer Ellen Licking. The work could also help "develop concrete mixes that are more durable," Ms. Licking wrote.
President Charles M. Vest was one of six people asked by the Washington Post (April 11) for their answer to the question, "What are the two most important courses for college students to take?" One of his answers was, not surprisingly, "a foundation in physical and biological science."
The other academic necessity for students, Dr. Vest added, is "a guided exploration of some realm of literature. Literature -- fact, fiction or poetry -- remains the most important medium by which the essence of our humanity is explored, explained and understood... Even in this electronic age, the printed page remains the most powerful channel for connecting one mind or spirit with another. The mastery of at least one dimension of literature and the development of a thirst for reading still go a long way toward defining an educated person." The full article can be accessed for a fee from http://www.washingtonpost.com.
A report co-authored by the Security Studies Program (SSP's) George Lewis (associate director) and Lisbeth Gronlund that criticized the federal government's missile defense plans has garnered widespread publicity. The report, a collaborative effort by the SSP and the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled "Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System," has been written about by Reuters and UPI (April 11), the Washington Post, New York Times (both April 12), the Sunday Times of London (April 16), Nature (April 20) and the Los Angeles Times (April 24), among others.
"It's confirmation of the prediction of our best theory of what caused the structure of the universe," said Alan Guth, the Victor Weisskopf Professor of Physics, in an April 27 Associated Press story about new images of the early universe. In 1979, Professor Guth conceived the theory he was referring to, which says that within the first fraction of a second of the universe's birth in the Big Bang, it expanded exponentially, or inflated, by a factor of 1025 or more.
A new comet has been named for an MIT system that tracks asteroids -- and occasionally discovers other objects in space (hence the honor).
Comet LINEAR (for Lincoln Laboratory Near Earth Asteroid Research) is predicted to be visible to the naked eye in July. In a May 2 story in the Casper (WY) Star-Tribune, however, Susan Peterson wrote: "As with all comets... when it comes to predicting their brightness, it is important to keep in mind that comets are very much like cats... they both have tails and they do whatever they want. We will simply have to wait and see if Comet LINEAR becomes a comet worth watching."
WEB SITE KUDOS
MIT led a story about major university web sites that ran in the April 27 issue of the Hickory (NC) News. The description of the Institute's site:
"Who says a brainiac school like MIT doesn't know how to hook prospective scholars? One link reads, 'Grains of Rice: A Celebration of Asian Cultures.' Click on the virtual map and tour such campus hotspots as the Infinite Corridor, 'MIT's spinal cord.' Don't miss the Capital Campaign."
A new theory on the origins of language has proven provocative, eliciting comments from two MIT professors in a story on the work in the April 21 Austin (TX) American-Statesman.
The theory says speaking is due to the shape of our mouths rather than our genes. But Institute Professor Noam Chomsky and Institute Professor Emeritus Morris Halle, who coauthored The Sound Pattern of English, both dismissed the work in comments to reporter Mary Ann Roser.
"Language isn't in the mouth. It's in the head," Professor Halle told Ms. Roser. "Dogs have mouths, cats have mouths and pigs have mouths, and they make all kinds of noises... Only human beings can speak, because they have words."
"The average person knows 50,000 words," wrote Ms. Roser. Continued Professor Halle: "There must be something in your head to make it possible that you can learn that many... The reason is genetics."
Handling rapid change in a company was the focus of an interview with Sloan School Senior Lecturer Peter Senge by Diana Kunde of the Dallas Morning News. The story was reprinted in the April 22 issue of the Edmonton (AB) Journal. Some excerpts:
Kunde: "What's wrong with change being driven from the top?"
Senge: "It reinforces helplessness and lack of responsibility from the rest of the organization. Everybody sits around and waits for someone else to tell them what to do."
Kunde: "If you could give one piece of advice about creating a climate for change and innovation, what would it be?"
Senge: "I would say look for the characteristics in your own leadership that are keeping this from happening. It's very hard to do that. So, practically speaking, what I think that often means is finding partners in the organization who can really tell you the truth."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2000.