The winter issue of MIT’s Spectrvm showcases MIT research on making cities more livable, efficient, and sustainable. Certainly, they are growing—by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. The work of many of MIT’s architects and urban planners, who are working on the problems and opportunities inherent in this rapid growth, is covered in this issue.

Fab Lab champion Neil Gershenfeld chats with students at Boston’s South End Technology Center. Photo: Len Rubenstein

Fab Lab champion Neil Gershenfeld chats with students at Boston’s South End Technology Center. Photos: Len Rubenstein

A trend toward sharing assets, rather than owning them, offers opportunities to live more conveniently and less expensively. Professor J. Meejin Yoon has proposed the Shareway, a transformation of the I-95 Boston-Washington route into a multi-layer transportation artery that would include a high-speed rail system along with cars, bikes, and pedestrians. Kent Larson, director of the City Science Initiative in the MIT Media Lab, says his group is designing 300-square feet apartments that can function at twice their size. A 10-year study launched by the new Center for Advanced Urbanism will examine how physical design can improve human health, even as urban density seems destined to increase. Read the full article, “The Future Is Cities,” for more. Other highlights:

Do-it-Yourself Manufacturing

Fab labs, workshops equipped with computer-controlled tools for making things, have spread across America and beyond, championed by MIT and offering city dwellers a place to build furniture or a startup prototype. This form of do-it-yourself manufacturing, pioneered by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, is helping cities evolve by sparking local, small manufacturing businesses and teaching young people to be self-sufficient.

Noelle Eckley Selin works to cut air pollution in urban areas.

Noelle Eckley Selin works to cut air pollution in urban areas.

Pollutants to Smart Policy

Noelle Eckley Selin’s research tracks air pollution and determines its economic impact. When she found that air pollution in China cost the country $112 billion in 2005, environmental policymakers worldwide took note. Recently the assistant professor has turned her computer models on the effects of potential climate policies on air pollutants and human health across the northeastern U.S.

Read Spectrvm online and check out Continuum, Spectrvm’s blog. In a recent post, learn about Alexandra Witze ’92, a correspondent for Nature, who parlayed her earth science studies into a career as a science writer.

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Virgin Galactic, the Mojave, California-based firm that aims to bring the world’s first commercial passengers to space, named Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 as its first president this week.

Isakowitz assumes the leadership role in a dubious time for non-commercial space travel. NASA, where Isakowitz recently served as deputy associate administrator, has seen its appropriations cut this year to nearly the lowest in a decade.

Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 poses with SpaceShipTwo. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

At the same time, Virgin Galactic’s proverbial star has risen. Founded by Richard Branson in 2004, the firm announced its 600th passenger booking for its commercial program last month. Its inaugural flight may take off as early as December.

Rumored to be among those 600 passengers, who each booked a $250,000 seat on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and pop singers Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.

“This is a transformational company and I am honored to take on this new role,” said Isakowitz. “As we chart an exciting course into the future of commercial space travel, I could not imagine a better team with which to do it.”

Isakowitz’s challenges as president will be formidable ones: leading the company through this critical first flight, negotiating rights to use the nation’s first spaceport, supporting NASA’s continuing mission, and growing its own researchers’ talents. Another challenge will be bringing that space-flight price tag down, one that certainly makes a summer vacation to Europe by contrast more appealing.

And of course, there’s safety.

“Our goal is to be the safest spaceflight vehicle in history,” Isakowitz said in a recent interview with Forbes, “but this does not equate to risk free because the safest ship is one that never leaves the harbour. We selected a vehicle that was safe by design and that has a very small number of critical systems, which supports safety through simplicity. Our system allows for a safe return for all involved even if there is an issue with the mission.”

Isakowitz joined Virgin Galactic in 2011 as its EVP and CFO. Before his work in space travel, Isakowitz served as CFO at the U.S. Department of Energy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and as a branch chief for the White House Office of Management and Budget. He began his career as an aerospace engineer and project manager at Lockheed Martin.


Claude von Roesgen ’79 needed a way to combine his love of Lake Winnipesaukee with his zeal for alternative energy and simple living. A lake cabin was too much work, and an RV lacked charm and guzzled gas.

Tiny house, solar boat before launch. Photo: Roger Amsden.

Readying for the launch. Photo: Roger Amsden.

This year, von Roesgen struck on the perfect solution: a tiny house. On a pontoon boat.

After constructing both house and boat this spring, von Roesgen held a christening and launch ceremony last week in Meadowbrook, NH.

The tiny house movement appealed to von Roesgen from the minute he learned of it. These “were structures that were built on trailers to avoid having to meet building codes that would otherwise force one to build a much larger house,” he says. “The fact they were on a trailer made them movable of course.”

To help him construct the house, von Roesgen recruited his neighbor, Bob Wallhagen SM ’66, who owns a construction company in Carlisle, MA. Once it was complete, Wallhagen maneuvered the house carefully onto the 28×14-ft. pontoon craft and anchored it into place using a giant forklift.

To power the house and the boat, the two alums installed solar panels capable of producing 2.4 kilowatts and storing it in a lithium-ion battery for up to five days. Von Roesgen will power a microwave oven, refrigerator, and a 4000-watt electric motor on the boat from the stored energy.

Though the motor might not produce waterski-capable speeds, Von Roesgen will use it for what he loves best: traversing New England waters. “I’ve always been interested in energy conservation as I grew up during the oil shocks of the seventies,” he says. “And compared to my pedal kayak, going 2-5 mph without effort will seem luxurious.”

From left, Claude von Roesgen '79, Carla Schwartz, and Bob Wallhagen SM '66 on board the houseboat. Photo: Roger Amsden.

From left, Claude von Roesgen ’79, Carla Schwartz, and Bob Wallhagen SM ’66 on board the houseboat. Photo: Roger Amsden.

Von Roesgen aims to live in the tiny-house-boat this summer and do the same on other northeastern lakes for many summers to come, moving it between waterways on a trailer. “I may try Moosehead Lake, Lake Champlain, Erie Canal, Lake George, Lake Saratoga,” he says.

Tiny houses have long been a favorite design challenge within the MIT community, from the MAS.863 course “How to Make (Almost) Anything” to the Center for Bits and Atoms’ Fab Lab house.


Most riders on the MBTA (the public train system known locally as “the T”) have one simple goal: the shortest trip possible. No delays, no missed trains, and no mysterious underground breakdowns. The quickest trip is always the most enjoyable.

MBTA_Tweet_2A group of graduate students in the MIT Transit Lab had a different motive: visit every stop on the T’s Red, Blue, Green, and Orange lines in a single day. Transit Lab student Raphael Dumas documented their experiment in real time, live-tweeting throughout the adventure using the hashtag #TDay.

The students accomplished their goal on June 22. Beginning at the Red Line’s Park Street station shortly after 9 a.m., the group traveled each of the T’s major lines—with a few bus transfers for variety—in slightly over 12 hours.

MBTA_Tweet_1Dumas told Boston Magazine that their purpose was two-fold: a fun adventure that directly ties in with the group’s coursework. The Transit Lab’s research focuses on transit policy, operations planning, and transportation modeling.

From Boston Magazine:

“None of us had ridden the whole network, so we decided to challenge ourselves to see if we could do it all in one day,” he said, adding that some schoolwork was involved. “I’m working on an algorithm in the MIT Lab to look at where people get in and out of the network.”

MBTA_Tweet_4A few observations from their journey, via the #TDay twitter stream.

  • The Red Line has the most parking lots, but also the most public bathrooms.
  • The Blue Line is the cleanest.
  • The Green Line’s D Branch is the most scenic.
  • The Redline’s Mattapan high speed rail line, which passes through a cemetery, is the prettiest.

Their travels also included a stop in Harvard Square, a stroll on the Blue Line’s Revere Beach, a detour to find Dumas St. off of the Red Line, and a brief period of self-doubt.

The final stop, the Green Line’s Boston College station, occurred shortly before 10 p.m. In addition to Dumas, the Transit Lab travelers included William Chow, Katie Pincus, and Michael Gordon.

MBTA_Tweet_3The MIT Transit Lab research team includes research associate John Attanucci SM ’74; Haris N. Koutsopolous SM ’83, PhD ’86; Frederic Salvucci ’61, SM ’62; and Nigel Wilson SM ’67, PhD ’70.

The team has participated in the development, design, and construction of San Juan’s Tren Urbano rail system, Chicago’s Circle Line and Airport Express projects, and Boston’s MBTA Silver Line.

Screenshots via @DumasRaphael.


Photo: Chelsea He SM '10

Photo: Chelsea He SM ’10

For many MIT students, the Bose Corporation is an audio equipment company whose speakers hang on their dorm room or apartment walls. In truth, the connection between Bose and MIT dates back more than 65 years.

In 1956, graduate student Amar Gopal Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56 purchased a stereo system. Disappointed with the stereo’s sound quality, Bose began researching acoustics and reverberant sound. He continued his research as an MIT professor and was awarded several patents on speaker technology. In 1964, he founded the Bose Corp.

As of April 2013, the company has eight operating plants and more than 150 stores worldwide.

“Most students don’t realize Bose is a company that began at MIT,” Lee Zamir ’95, SM ’97, Bose director of new business development, says. “We’re a startup in every way—innovation, making good devices even better, and producing new products.”

The Galactic Goats, most resilient team winners. Photo: Chelsea He SM '10

The Galactic Goats, most resilient team winners.
Photo: Chelsea He SM ’10

After Bose retired from MIT in 2001, the on-campus connection between Bose and the Institute diminished. Zamir wanted to change that.

In 2011, he connected with Associate Professor Olivier de Weck SM ’99, PhD ’01, whose fluid dynamics course features the annual Unified Engineering Flight Competition (UEFC), where student teams design miniature airplanes and control their movement around various obstacles.

Past UEFCs had never included a sound component. For the 2013 competition, under the guidance of Zamir and Bose engineers, the students  were required to fly their plane towards a beacon tower and chirp out M-I-T in Morse code. Another task involved jamming a target receiver with audio. Points were awarded for time and decibel level.


“The contest combined system design with flight precision,” Zamir says. “A plane’s speaker system needs to be lightweight and in the perfect spot. Otherwise it won’t fly.”

The competition was held in the Johnson Center and featured more than a dozen teams of four. The top three teams were recognized (“Supersonic ExitVelocity” took first place) as were the most resilient team and the most creative design.

Photo: Chelsea He SM '10

Photo: Chelsea He SM ’10

In addition to the UEFC, the students received a lecture on the elements of acoustic design. The competition also allowed Zamir and other Bose employees who are MIT alums the chance to return home.

“It’s great to get back on campus—especially to do innovation-based work,” he says. “We were looking to make the Bose and MIT connection even stronger and this was a perfect way to do it.”

While Amar Bose is best known as the company’s chairman, at MIT he was known as Dr. Bose, and a seat in his electrical engineering courses was highly coveted.

“When I was a student there in the early ’90s, there was always a fear that he could stop teaching at any time,” Zamir says, “We’d check the schedule, and when he saw his name, we’d register right away.”

In 2011, Bose donated a majority of the company’s non-voting shares to MIT (with a caveat that the shares never be sold) to help advance MIT’s research mission. Read the MIT News story.


Like any engineer who has sat in traffic, Gregor Hanuschak MBA ’08 has dreamt of ways to ease the car-commuter’s diurnal ordeal in major cities.

While earning his degree at Sloan, another master’s at Stanford, or in his work for Lockheed Martin and NASA in California and Washington, DC, Hanuschak has sat in plenty of traffic jams.

Even though studying traffic patterns and public transportation solutions are worthy pursuits, Hanuschak wants to relieve drivers’ stress with song—percussion, to be exact.

Smack Attack

The Smack Attack steering wheel drum set. Photo: Gregor Hanuschak.

Launched in April, Hanuschak’s Smack Attack project Reinventing the Wheel aims to do even more for drivers than just cure boredom. A “drum set for your steering wheel,” Smack Attack claims to be a remedy for zoned-out drivers.

The device is easy to use: wrap the flexible drum pad around your steering wheel, plug into your phone’s music library (or use a wireless FM transmitter) and start drumming along.

“Experiencing highway hypnosis firsthand while driving across the US inspired me to design something to fight it and keep drivers alert,” writes Hanuschak on his Kickstarter page. “Sleep researchers are finding the best way to fight highway hypnosis is through auditory or tactile stimulation… and this product provides both!”

The project has drawn the attention of the Discovery Channel, Wired, and dozens of other media outlets. Hanuschak has already raised more than $10,000 for the combination device/app concept.

Hanuschak will put his studies in music, computer engineering, and business to practice as he develops and markets the product this year. He has produced the code for the Smack Attack’s smartphone app, produced music and videos to promote the device, and created a community portal on his website for users to share drum sounds and songs.

“Right now I’m trying to bring my costs down,” Hanuschak said earlier this week, “so I’m now learning from the experts. I’m working with the MIT Venture Mentoring Service for advice on this and entrepreneurial advice in general.”


Update: View a video of this presentation.

Climate change policy can be complex, expensive to implement, and have unintended negative consequences on the environment. Focusing on the economics of transportation policy, Professor Christopher Knittel is working help create climate change policy that is more efficient and economically sustainable.

In the next Faculty Forum Online broadcast, Knittel will discuss his studies of consumer and company reactions to energy price fluctuations and the implications of this work for effective environmental policies.

Knittel, a William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics and co-director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, will introduce his research and take questions from the worldwide MIT community on Wednesday, April 10, from noon to 12:30 p.m. (EDT).

Register for this free eventClimate Change Policy that Makes Economic Sense—to receive the link for live viewing. After the event, return to Slice and continue the conversation in the comments.

Christopher Knittel

About Christopher Knittel

Before joining the MIT faculty in 2011, Knittel taught at Boston University from 1999-2002 and the University of California, Davis from 2003-2011. His research focuses on environmental economics, industrial organization, and applied econometrics.

He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and an associate editor The American Economic Journal—Economic Policy, The Journal of Industrial Economics and Journal of Energy Markets. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the California State University, Stanislaus in 1994, a master’s degree in economics from Davis in 1996, and a doctorate in economics from University of California, Berkeley in 1999.


Use Subsidies Elsewhere,” New York Times (editorial), October 7, 2010
The Economics of Energy,” MIT Spectrum, spring 2012
Christopher Knittel uncovers surprising facts about the cars we drive — and about the price of gas.” MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change
Faculty Profile: Christopher R. Knittel


Aero/astro Professor R. John Hansman Jr. SM '80, PhD '82 (far right) was one of the scientists involved in analyzing the plane crash.

Aero/astro Professor R. John Hansman Jr. SM ’80, PhD ’82 (far right) was one of the scientists involved in analyzing the plane crash.

What really happens during a plane crash? Could you survive? That’s what the Discovery Channel show Curiosity sought to find out recently. So they enlisted the help of an expendable Boeing 727 and several researchers—one of whom was Aero/astro Professor R. John Hansman Jr. SM ’80, PhD ’82. Hansman heads the Division of Humans and Automation and directs the International Center for Air Transportation.

The crash took place in a remote part of the Sonoran Desert of Baja California, Mexico. To “safely” crash the plane, the crew parachuted out then a former Navy test pilot in a nearby plane took over via remote control. The 727 hit the ground at 140 mph, close to regular landing speed, but after descending 1,500 feet per minute, much faster than the 10 to 20 feet per minute of a typical airliner landing. The crash mimicked two others (in 2008 and 2009) in which a plane lost speed and power just before landing hard and breaking into pieces. Read more in USA Today’s documentation of the crash.

The 727 broke apart when it crashed in the desert.Cameras capturing all angles (one was even in the ejecting pilot’s helmet), sensors, and crash-test dummies recorded the event. The results? The plane’s design is sound, Hansman told USA Today. And wearing seatbelts and properly bracing for a crash are very important. But there’s bad news if you fly first class. In this crash, at least, those passengers would have died. Seat 7A even catapulted 500 feet from the plane. People in the back of the plane could have walked away. Travelers in the middle of the cabin might have suffered concussions and broken bones. The pilots could have survived though the cockpit was extensively damaged.

“If you were to take a flight every day, in order for you statistically to be in a fatal aircraft accident, you’d have to live 35,000 years….There is no other means of transportation that is equivalent in terms of its success. It’s actually much safer than riding on an escalator.” –R. John Hansman in USA Today.

Scientists hope the data will help them improve aviation safety. The amount of dust that rushed into the cabin and obscured exits is one thing scientists will look to minimize in the future, for example.

The video here shows much of the crash, but view more videos of the experiment on the Curiosity website. The episode will be rebroadcast tonight, tomorrow, and on Oct. 14. And if you’re interested in Hansman’s research, he and colleagues in Spain recently created a new tool to analyze black-box data for flight anomalies that can help airlines improve aircraft safety and operations.

Discover Channel Taps Experts with MIT Ties

The Curiosity website features numerous experts—many of them alumni and/or professors—on a variety of topics. Here are just some:

Computers: Rosalind W. Picard SM ’86, ScD ’91 (MIT media arts and sciences professor); Leonard Kleinrock SM ’59, PhD ’63

Communications: Brewster Kahle ’82, Joi Ito (Media Lab head), Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88

Culture and History: Peter Diamandis ’83, SM ’88

Education: Mitchel Resnick SM ’88, PhD ’92 (head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group)

Physics: Robert Metcalfe ’68

Robotics and Artificial Intelligence: Colin Angle ’89, SM ’91

Science and Society: Alex Sandy Pentland PhD ’82 (MIT media arts and sciences professor), Daniel Hillis ’78, SM ’81, PhD ’88

Space Exploration: Michael Massimino SM ’88, ME ’90, ENG ’90, PhD ’92


Using a cell phone while operating an automobile has been linked to aggresssive driving, and most states have enacted laws—such as hands-free only and a ban on texting—that limit or prohibit it. But a new study from MIT’s New England University Transportation Center (UTC) argues that the relationship between cellphone usage and erratic driving is more complicated. Many drivers who frequently talk behind the wheel tend to drive hostile even when they’re not on the phone.

Bryan Reimer, UTC associate director, told The Boston Globe:

“The people who are more willing to frequently engage in cellphone use are higher-risk drivers, independent of the phone. It’s not just a subtle difference with those willing to pick up the phone. This is a big difference.”

The UTC group analyzed 108 Boston-area drivers in three age brackets (20s, 40s, and 60s). Before the test drive, each participant answered questions about cell phone use while driving, plus their driving habits and citation history, and were split in two categories: “frequent user” and “rare user.”

The 40-minute test drive was conducted in a souped-up Volvo SUV  that contained an eye tracker, heart and skin monitors, on-board sensors, and outward-facing video cameras on the front and back of the car. Phone calls were not allowed during the ride, which was held on a section of Interstate 93 just north of Boston.

According to the study, frequent users—even when not on their cellphone—drove almost three miles per hour faster, switched lanes twice as often, spent more time in the far-left lane, and were prone to brake-slamming.

The UTC research indicates that frequent users are naturally aggressive drivers, with or without a cellphone. The study also recommends that less focus be paid to laws that ban cellphone use, and more focus put on training that discourages cellphone use and other bad habits.

The study, “Self-Reported and Observed Risky Driving Behaviors among Frequent and Infrequent Cell Phone Users,” appears in an August 2012 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention.

Who’s to blame in erratic driving—man or machine? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.

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In 2009, MIT’s Robust Robotics Group won the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) aerial-robotics competition when its autonomous mini-helicopter navigated its way through a simulated nuclear meltdown without access to GPS data.

For an encore, the group set a tougher goal: develop an autonomous micro-airplane that can handle the close quarters of indoor flying using only its on board sensors. As a bonus, they built their plane from scratch.

Traditional autonomous micro air-vehicles are usually limited to slow, deliberate flights. The MIT group’s fixed-wing vehicle, which weighs a little more than four pounds, can fly and navigate obstacles at relatively high speeds.

In the MIT News video, the airplane is put through a series of tests in the parking garage below the Stata Center and successfully avoids obstacles like columns, cars, and a low-ceiling. The plane averaged 22 miles per hour and covered more than three miles.


In tight spaces, airplanes are more difficult to navigate than helicopters because they can achieve faster speeds but can’t make arbitrary motions like hovering or moving sideways. The team, which includes Professor Mark Drela and Associate Professor Nick Roy, created a slim plane with short, wide wings (about six and a half feet long) and the computational power of a netbook.

From PC World:

It needs all this processing power to run a state-estimation algorithm in conjunction with a set of lasers, accelerometers, and gyroscopes. With these combined technologies, the UAV is able to figure out its own orientation (i.e. pitch, roll, and yaw) and velocity, as well as 15 other in-flight factors without a GPS signal. At the same time, the UAV constantly runs an algorithm that it uses to avoid obstacles it comes across on the fly.

The MIT-designed airplane was uploaded with a digital map of its surroundings, something the helicopter did not have. Their next goal is to develop an algorithm that can map the plane’s environment on the fly.