Modern Geekhood

The US Postal Service announced the issue of a stamp honoring 1965 Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman ’39 on August 14, 2004. The day of the announcement was the independence day of Tannu Tuva, and it wasn’t a coincidence. Feynman and his friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton had spent years trying to visit this small central Asian country near Mongolia.

It all started with a stamp.

Credit: US Postal Museum

Credit: US Postal Museum

Tuvan Stamp

1935 Tuvan Stamp; Credit: Wikimedia

In the 1920s and 30s, Tannu Tuva’s uniquely shaped diamond and triangle-shaped stamps were in high demand among stamp collectors. “Stamp designers were working away on these wonderful idyllic themes…which were firing the imaginations of kids around the world,” said Leighton.

Tuvan Stamp

1927 Tuvan stamp; Scanned by Stan Shebs

As one of those young stamp enthusiasts, Feynman became entranced by Tuvan stamps’ dramatic illustrations of camels racing trains, horse wranglers, and cattle mongers against otherworldly, mountainous scenes.

Fifty years later, Leighton and Feynman had a dinner conversation about geography, and Feynman mentioned his love of Tuvan stamps. The pair decided to travel to Tuva, which turned into an 11-year quest detailed in Leighton’s book Tuva or Bust! In a documentary about their plans, Feynman said of Tannu Tuva, “any country with a capital Kyzyl has just got to be interesting….we had discovered our Shangri-La.

Getting to the country was no small feat. At the time, Tuva was under the rule of the USSR and was rumored to be a testing ground for atomic bomb research. “I’m sure we were being watched,” recalls Leighton. “People couldn’t figure out why these guys would want to go to Tuva, especially someone who worked on the bomb.” (Feynman famously worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos)

Mock up of Feynman Tuva Stamp Credit: Ralph Leighton

Mock up of Feynman Tuva Stamp Credit: Ralph Leighton

The pair learned phrases of the Tuvan language, dreamed up crossing the border from Mongolia in shepherds’ disguises, acquired a rare recording of a Tuvan throat singer—Tuva is famous for this unique type of overtone music—and collaborated on a traveling exhibition of nomadic culture that turned out to be the largest ever from the Soviet Union. Feynman never made it to Tuva—he died in 1988—but Leighton and his wife were finally able to visit a few months later.

After Feynman died, Leighton launched another years-long campaign with his organization Friends of Tuva to petition the US Postal Service to honor his friend with a commemorative stamp. But not just any stamp—a diamond-shaped Tuvan stamp.

“We definitely wanted to make a connection between Feynman stamp collecting, Tuva, and a US postage stamp,” said Leighton. In one tongue-and-cheek mock-up stamp they dreamed up, Feynman is dressed as a shaman holding elements of his famous Feynman diagram with Tuvan throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar.

Thousands of letters and many signed petitions later, the Postal Service ultimately decided to feature Feynman in a stamp series on American scientists.

Learn more about Feynman’s lively lectures. Check out Ralph Leighton’s latest project, an illustrated children’s book Legends of the Groovin’ Tuvan.  

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Happy Super Pi Day! In honor of an event that happens only once a century, we bring you our take on this special day. Please note publication time of 3.14.15 at 9:26 a.m. ET. Please enjoy and share!

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Tomorrow is Pi day and MIT offers infinite ways to celebrate. This day, observed on March 14, 2015, is actually Super Pi Day because the numeral date format represents the first five digits of the mathematical constant—3.1415.

For students applying for the Class of 2019, it is a momentous day. Some 850 will be very happy indeed with their acceptance news. Tomorrow morning at 9:26 a.m.—to continue with the next few digits of Pi—they will be able to check the results of their applications online. They also will get the news earlier than previous classes.

In recent years, MIT posted admission decisions online at 6:28 p.m., which is called Tau Time, to equally honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau. Not quite sure about the debate between Pi and Tau? Here’s the answer in a short video, Tau vs Pi Smackdown. If you are a glutton for Pi, you can peruse Numberphile’s list of Pi day videos.

In anticipation of the acceptance decisions, the Admissions Office created a fabulous video that shows a swarm of drones taking off from the Great Dome and delivering MIT acceptance tubes worldwide. In reality, though, drones were not involved. At least not this year.

If you’re looking for ways to honor this special day, here are some on-campus options:

Pi Day celebration at Ashdown House last year

The Pi Day celebration at Ashdown House last year. Photo credit: Aarthy Kannan Adityan, Ashdown House.

Students can party at the seventh-annual Pi Day event put on by the Ashdown House. This year’s event, a collaboration with Sidney-Pacific, will be held from 6:00–8:00 p.m. in the Hulsizer room and will include pie-throwing contests and a Pi recital competition.

Also Saturday night, the MIT Alumni Arts Exchange is hosting a special arts and music event for Super Pi Day from 6:00–10:00 p.m. in the Media Lab. Students will enjoy savory and sweet pies, a delicious way to celebrate the mathematical constant. Click here to register for the event.

Further afield, you can celebrate Pi Day virtually:

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Pi Day e-cards

Click here to learn more about Pi Day in years past at  MIT.

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Design and Manufacturing 1—better known as 2.007, one of MIT’s iconic courses—requires students to create small robots to complete a specific task. Skills learned in 2.007 helped Logan Munro ’07, design and create Ringly, a ring that uses vibration and lights to alert wearers to their smartphone notifications. “My Course 2 expertise was invaluable early in designing. Machining from 2.670 and 2.007 helped make the product and 2.000 to critically think about how the product should work,” he says.

Ringly comes in multiple styles. Photo: Ringly

Munro, a co-founder of Ringly, explains that the is simple—a user’s ring will light up and vibrate to notify them of alerts such as phone calls and text messages. Bluetooth technology works to wirelessly send notifications from phone to ring, so Ringly wearers don’t have to keep their phone at arm’s reach. “The goal is for technology to be discreetly integrated into our lives,” Munro explains.

Though Munro didn’t imagine he would be creating and designing jewelry after MIT, he says Ringly matches his interest. “I have always been interested in consumer products, and jewelry is the ultimate consumer-driven market,” he says. “With Ringly, we are taking a product that is traditionally used to express our personality and style and adding functionality.”

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Ringly offers different notifications for different apps. Photo: Ringly

Ringly allows users to set different notification light colors and vibrations for several types of alerts. Users can also choose to receive alerts from apps like Uber, sending users a notification when their requested ride is outside. All this functionality comes in a ring with a gemstone measured at 14×19 mm. Munro explains this challenge of fitting technology into a small, stylish space motivates him.  “Applying an additional layer of functionality with some very difficult engineering is what drives me, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” he says.

Ringly currently offers multiple styles of the ring for pre-order with some styles already sold out.

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Instructables offers myriad valentine do-it-yourself projects.

Instructables offers do-it-yourself valentines.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day—have you made your token of love? Don’t despair–it’s not too late for your MIT mind-and-hand training to kick in. Here are some ideas brought to you by alumni working in the maker zone.

Check out the Valentine’s Gift Guide for makers, hackers, artists, and engineers at Adafruit Industries, founded by Limor Fried ’03, MEng ’05.

You could buy cool gifts—like the full color MiniPOV that would let you project your sweetheart’s name in light—or make your own gift using tutorials in the Adafruit Learning System. You can create a light-up heart display or a Ringly, a bluetooth notification device build into a metal and stone cocktail ring, with a few Adafruit components.

Make a lighted heart with Adafruit instructions.

Make a lighted heart with Adafruit instructions.

Popular Mechanics named Limor among the “25 Makers Who Are Reinventing the American Dream” along with Eric Wilhelm ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’04 and Christy Canida ’99, who launched the how-to company, Instructables.

Instructables has its own maker Valentine options. For a last-minute option, grab a dollar bill and watch the video to make a Dollar Bill Origami Heart. And with scissors, straws, and colored paper plus a few drink ingredients, you can still toast your love with Cheers to Valentine’s recipes and tokens.

To make a wooden cartouche, get out your woodworking tools and craft a chunk of hardwood into a polished heart. For a more electronically attuned Valentine, try making a Steampunked Heart-Beat-Box, which will provide a personal light show.

Another option is to visit the Makeymakey website, created by Media Lab colleagues Jay Silver SM ’08, PhD ’14, founder/CEO of JoyLabz/MakeyMakey, and Eric Rosenbaum SM ’09, a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Makeymakey invention kits can be transformed into interactive projects such as Sketch It, Play It, which connects a simple drawing to a jam station with lights and sounds, and Interactive ‘Zine, make a ‘zine that triggers soundscapes and animations programmed in Scratch.

And, as long as you are working in Scratch, a free programming language and community based in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, you could try the Valentine poem maker and the Valentine’s card maker.

More MIT-style Valentines:

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Kira Kopacz '15

Kira Kopacz ’15

The way Kira Kopacz ’15 sees it, there are no two groups more typecast than MIT students and pageant contestants. So why not dispel stereotypes about both—at the same time?

“There are definitely misconceptions about both groups,” Kopacz says. “Pageant contestants aren’t dumb blondes. And MIT students aren’t anti-social—they’re actually pretty outgoing.”

Kopacz is one of 14 contestants who will compete for the titles of Miss Boston and Miss Cambridge on Sunday, February 8. The winners receive a $1,500 academic scholarship, a $1,995 public speaking scholarship, and are eligible to compete in the Miss Massachusetts pageant this summer.

Kopacz, a Course 9 major, entered her first pageant in high school and has competed for Miss Cambridge since 2013. She finished as third runner-up and won a STEM-related scholarship in last year’s competition.

“I get backhanded compliments all the time,” she says. “People at MIT ask, ‘Aren’t there better things for you to do?’ But it’s helped me build confidence, break stereotypes, and take a break from the MIT academia.”

Kira Kopacz (right) won the Miss Middleboro crown in 2014.

Kira Kopacz (right) won the Miss Middleboro crown in 2014.

And much like MIT, pageants competition—Kopacz was named Miss Central Massachusetts in 2013 and Miss Middleboro in 2014—can be more practice and preparation than fun and games.

“Pageant season is basically January to June,” she says. “During that time, my schedule is schoolwork until 5 p.m., rehearsal until midnight, and then I just crash. But it doesn’t feel like work—I love it.”

The Miss Boston/Miss Cambridge pageant is divided into five phases, including a talent program. Kopacz will perform the song “I What I Am” from the 1973 French musical La Cage aux Folles.

“Luckily I live in Burton Connors,” she says. “So I can use the music room to practice instead of my dorm.”

The pageant’s other phases include interviews, on-stage questions, and the evening wear and swimsuit competitions.

“The swimsuit competition is about being comfortable in your own skin,” she says. “The judges are looking for self-confidence. It’s about being able to handle any situation you’re thrown into.”

Kopacz’s journey to Miss Massachusetts isn’t unprecedented. Erika Ebbel Angle ’04 was named Miss Massachusetts in 2004 (Joanne Chang ’03 was fourth runner-up) and Jacqueline “Chacha” Durazo ’14 competed in Miss Cambridge in 2013.

Kopacz will graduate from MIT in June and plans to attend medical school. She hopes to stay involved in pageant competitions and help her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, raise awareness for the Boston chapter of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a community program that advocates for abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities.

The Miss Boston and Miss Cambridge pageant takes place on Sunday, February 8, 5:00 p.m., at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. Tickets are still available.

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Taking part in a combined 22 missions, the six alumni astronauts interviewed by Slice of MIT are no strangers to space. Yet John Grunsfeld ’80, Dominic Antonelli ’89, Mike Fincke ’89, Franklin Chang-Diaz ScD ’77, Chris Cassidy SM ’00, and Mike Massimino SM ’88, ENG ’90, ME ’90, PhD ’92 are still in awe of the experience of looking back on Earth. “It’s so hard to put it in words,” shared Chris Cassidy.

In fact this group of MIT alumni astronauts hold a common memory—how moving it is to see your home planet in a new way. “The Earth…I think it might actually be paradise,” Massimino remembered. “It is very much the most beautiful thing you ever saw,” Chang-Diaz recalled in the video. The astronauts also discussed the thrill of takeoff, including last minute fears that they might not be headed to space after all. “All the way up to the final countdown, I thought they were going to open the hatch and say ‘Hey, we made a mistake, get out,’” Fincke recalled.

The six astronauts cover nearly 30 years of space missions. Chang-Diaz, who leads the group with seven missions, took his first space flight in 1986 as a member of STS 61-C (1986) aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. Cassidy bookends the group’s collection of missions with his 2013 trip to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 36.  Many of the astronauts said that whether it’s your first or seventh visit, the experience of space is spectacular each time.

Hear what each astronaut had to say about their missions and what it’s like to look back home from hundreds of miles away.

The video was produced by Alumni Association videographer Brielle Domings. 

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FitBark_Romero_01

Canine Advisory Board member Romero models the device. Photo: FitBark

When activity trackers and wearable devices like Fitbit first became popular, many people jumped at the chance to measure their steps, quality of sleep, and calories burned. Davide Rossi MBA ’10, however, wondered how these devices could help him care for his dog. “I thought if it can be helpful for me, of course, it can be even more helpful for somebody who doesn’t talk,” Rossi remembers.

This idea compelled him to create FitBark, a wearable activity tracker for dogs. Like human devices, FitBark tracks time moving, at rest, and general behavior patterns, but the dog data is used in different ways. “The activity data set can tell you a lot more than just counting steps. You can see what kind of day your dog is having,” Rossi explains.

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FitBark works in connection with your smartphone. Photo: FitBark

The FitBark device, which snaps onto a dog’s collar, tracks your dog around the clock and transmits data to a smartphone app when it is in range of the FitBark. The data each FitBark device collects is compared to a baseline for your dog and other dogs of similar breeds and ages. From this information, Rossi says, you can see if your dog needs more exercise, is feeling sick, or is acting differently. “It’s possible to identify how your dog is reacting to a new product or drug or even if your dog has a medical problem,” he says.

Outside of tracking the health of your dog, Rossi says that the social aspect of the FitBark excites him most. “Social means having an app where I, my sister, my wife, and my vet can all comment and collaborate on hard data around the health of my dog,” he says.

Rossi says he has seen interest in FitBark from individual dog owners, doggie daycares, and pet supply stores. For now FitBark is marketed for dogs, but that doesn’t mean other pet owners aren’t taking note, “I’ve received requests for cats, bunnies, horses, cows, falcons, chickens, and for penguins,” Rossi laughs. “The device is ideally for dogs, but other pet owners may see benefits,” he says.

FitBark will be an exhibitor at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week. Sadly, no dogs are allowed on the show floor.

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Cathleen Nalezyty ‘16 browses the MITSFS library.

Cathleen Nalezyty ‘16 browses the MITSFS library.

Brother Guy Consolmagno ’74, SM ’75, a Jesuit and an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, was a first-year student at Boston College when he first visited the MIT Science Fiction Society (MITSFS) library. He quickly transferred to MIT.

“Visiting that library for the first time was one of the greatest days of my life,” Consolmagno says. “Science fiction reminds you that science is fun—it’s the best adventure anyone could have. I asked myself, ‘How could I be anywhere else?’”

Located on the fourth floor of the Stratton Student Center, the MITSFS (pronounced mits-fiss) collection is one of the world’s largest public science fiction libraries—home to an estimated 90 percent of all English-language science fiction ever published. More than 45,000 books occupy less than 1,700 square feet of space; another 16,000 books sit in storage at an East Boston warehouse.

“Plus, we have complete runs of almost every science fiction magazine dating back to the 1920s,” says graduate student D. W. Rowlands, a MITSFS member. “Our library keeps growing. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s exhausting.”

The library’s collection includes mainstream titles like the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek novels, rare works like fanzines (fan-published magazines), and even a small collection of science fiction erotica magazines from the 1950s that are locked away from public view.

Early History

The society dates back to 1949, when Rudolf Preisendorfer ’52 and a group of like-minded students met to read his collection of Astounding Science Fiction magazines and later set out to collect back issues of other periodicals from the genre. A few years later, members began dragging a wooden crate filled with books between dorm rooms and the Spofford Room for meetings. (The crate is still on display at the MITSFS library.)

In the 1960s, the society grew and, under the leadership of a group that included Anthony Lewis ’61, L. Court Skinner ’62, SM ’64, PhD ’65, and Marilyn Wisowaty Niven ’62, eventually became a formal MIT club whose popularity spread beyond campus. Annual picnics were attended by well-known authors of popular science fiction.

“MITSFS was a big part of my undergraduate years—the picnics were huge events,” Skinner says. “Isaac Asimov was a great guy, but Hugo Gernsback was a bit of a curmudgeon.”

Skinner served as society president for three years. Today, the student leader of the MITSFS is known as the skinner, one of many distinctive titles that include lady high embezzler (treasurer) and onseck (honorable secretary).

“I certainly didn’t think that the title would last this long,” Skinner says. “But it’s an honor to have your name continue to be associated with MIT.”

Today’s MITSFS

MITSFS “skinner” D. W. Rowlands G holds the steel wrench that the society clanks to begin its weekly meetings.

MITSFS “skinner” D. W. Rowlands G holds the steel wrench that the society clanks to begin its weekly meetings.

The current-day MITSFS is open about 40 hours per week and holds weekly meetings, usually on Friday evenings, that members admit usually feature very little business. Each meeting begins with the clanking of a two-foot steel wrench onto a massive slab of titanium, and each member of the society, collectively known as Star Chamber, can vote up to four times (once per limb) on any issues brought to poll.

“There is definitely a social aspect, but we’re really just an awesome science fiction library,” says Alexandra Westbrook ’13. “Even if a book isn’t popular or well known, we have almost everything.”

In addition to a near-overflow of books, the library’s shelves are strewn with bizarre trinkets, including a collection of randomly placed toy bananas that no current member can explain.

“MITSFS has a lot of inside jokes that predate current students and, it seems, most alumni,” Rowlands says. “We definitely have an obsession with bananas, but no one seems to know why.”

Physical size remains MITSFS’s biggest issue—there are no plans expand the library. But the society continues to expand, thanks to active membership, a small endowment, and a boundless supply of both science fiction literature and readers at MIT.

Matching MIT’s Mission

“Science is the heart of science fiction, but the meat of it is engineering,” says Susan Shepherd ’11. “MITSFS keeps growing because of MIT’s central mission—explore science, push boundaries. Someone who wants to change the world—that’s the type of person who loves to read science fiction.”

MITSFS currently has about 300 dues-paying members, and Rowlands estimates that about 60 percent are current MIT students. Annual membership, which is open to the general public, starts at $15, but there are more expensive options, including a $260 lifetime membership and a $2,600 membership that transcends mortality.

“The real purpose of the $2,600 membership was a way for people to give to MITSFS and feel like they were getting something in return,” Rowlands says. “But if you die and come back undead or uploaded, you do have the option to maintain your membership.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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Like many graduate students, Gwen Sisto SM ’10 worked on a startup while at MIT. Unlike many MIT students, this startup wasn’t in biotech, software, or technology. Sisto’s startup makes weightlifting shoes.

“Whenever I told someone I had a startup they would get excited. When I told them it was shoes they would stop talking to me,” she remembers.

Sisto-Lift

Sisto competing. Photo: Gwen Sisto

Sisto—an aerospace engineer and Olympic-style weightlifter—and her husband weightlifting coach Ivan Rojas founded Risto Sports in 2008 to serve what they saw as an untapped market, Olympic-style weightlifters.

Sisto and Rojas came up with the idea for Risto Sports while training for the 2008 Olympic trials. “We were training and realized there was really only one brand of weightlifting shoes for the lifters to buy,” she says. “Our initial mission was to be a service to the weightlifting community and bring high-quality shoes.”

Sisto used her deep understanding of weightlifting and engineering to create the best shoes for weightlifters. “I can take my experience in both worlds and try to come up with something more high-tech and more sophisticated,” she says. “It’s an extremely technical sport, so you really need the right equipment.”

Risto Sports Classic weightlifting shoe. Photo: Risto Sports

This expertise made Risto Sports a favorite among lifters and helped create the shoes’ defining characteristic—a wood heel. Sisto explains that wood doesn’t mean low-tech, “We did a lot of materials testing to find the right wood and all these technical specifications. A lot of thought goes into the product using my engineering background.”

Sisto hopes her technical and personal approach to weightlifting shoes will help to change the industry. “There’s a lot of nepotism and snake oil salesmen in the weightlifting world in products and training. Somebody’s got to change that and who better than a rocket scientist?” she says.

Aside from working as an engineer and trying to change the weightlifting world, Sisto is also working on personal goals—she’s currently training for the 2016 Olympic trials.

 

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