Posts Tagged ‘M.I.T.’

Pi Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 14th (3/14) — since 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in the decimal form — around the world.  The first official celebration of Pi Day was organized by physicist, Larry Shaw, in 1988with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, then consuming fruit pies. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.

What is Pi?


Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.  It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century, though it is also sometimes written as pi.  The calculation of π was revolutionized by the development of infinite series techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Infinite series allowed mathematicians to compute π with much greater precision than Archimedes and others who used geometrical techniques.   Although infinite series were exploited for π most notably by European mathematicians such as James Gregory and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the approach was first discovered in India sometime between 1400 and 1500 AD.  

How is Pi Day Celebrated?

My office celebrated Pi Day today by holding a pie contest.  Over 25 employees and contractors each brought in a pie and all staff was called down to the cafeteria to have a slice.

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day.  Starting in 2012, MIT has announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time”, to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.
  • The town of Princeton, New Jersey (and home to Princeton University,) hosts numerous events in a combined celebration of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, which is also March 14.  Einstein lived in Princeton for more than twenty years while working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to pie eating and recitation contests, there is an annual Einstein look-alike contest.
  • Google had it’s own Pi Day doodle posted on the site in 2010.
  • National Public Radio created a Pi Day rap video in 2010.

In case you missed the celebration, mark you calendar now for Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (or 22/7 in day/month date format), since the fraction 227 is a common approximation of π.  Maybe you can share a fraction of a pie with a friend.

— Carole Gunst

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Eric M. Howlett, demonstrating the LEEPvr System in Las Vegas, 1980. Courtesy, leepvr.com

This past December 11th saw the passing, at age 84, of an innovator of so-called “Virtual Reality,” Eric Mayorga Howlett. Mr. Howlett was a life-long inventor and entrepreneur in the area of optical and electronic engineering. His creation of the Large Expanse Extra Perspective or “LEEP” system was a dramatic development in optics, becoming popularly known as Virtual Reality – though in engineering circles, it was more commonly referred to as “Virtual Environment” – as it was essentially a computer-simulated environment. The term is attributed to polymath Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research – the first company to sell Virtual Reality goggles and gloves and a pioneer in 3-D computer graphics.

Jaron Lanier, co-founder of VPL Research - a competitor, and ultimately a client of Howlett's LEEP, Ltd. Courtesy, The Guardian (U.K.)

Howlett, who grew up in Miami, was a prodigy in mathematics and science. In 1944, during his senior year in high school, he was selected in the Westinghouse (Now Intel) Science Talent Search – one of only forty students in the country to be so chosen. As a recipient of this award, he had the opportunity to visit the White House, where he met the then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Grumman Aircraft offered him a full scholarship to the university of his choice, whereupon he selected M.I.T. After a short time in the Navy, he achieved his physics degree. During the 1950s, he worked at M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory and General Electric, where he specialized in early warning radar and other electrical systems for military application.

Development of the LEEP System

In the intervening years and contemporary with the launching of the LEEP device, Howlett had been working in high-quality photography equipment. He developed a wide-angle stereoscopic photography system consisting of a viewer and a matching camera to make pictures to view. A patent for it was issued in 1983. They had seventy early orders for it, but only completed twenty as manufacturing the cameras was too complex for Howlett’s bare-bones staff. Howlett knew that he couldn’t raise the $100 million corporations such as Kodak and Polaroid would spend, and he tried to interest each of them in his technology. Both rather unceremoniously declined.

After the ill-fated Polaroid presentation, Howlett began to compare himself to Chester Carlson, who at the time was likewise trying to get companies (and investors) excited about his new invention, xerography:

“After Polaroid I was comparing myself to Chester Carlson as he trekked around the country trying to interest people in some cockamamie thing called “xerography” that his company, “Haloid” or “Haloid Xerox” was developing.”

The NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display), which used the LEEP system viewers. Courtesy, http://www.leepvr.com

However, NASA expressed an interest in the viewers that accompanied the cameras. One of their engineers came by Howlett’s  offices in Waltham, Mass. (at the old Waltham Watch factory) and was impressed with the quality of the images and immediately placed an order, after which NASA became one of Howlett’s best customers. These units were to become the NASA VIVED (Virtual Visual Environment Display). Howlett was also able to sell similar units to Disney – though they were never widely produced. The prices for the the devices based on their features ranged between $840 and $3,500. The engineer also told Howlett that they should supply their competitor, Lanier’s VPL Research (who NASA also had a contract with), with the viewers, because VPL had a contract to build devices for NASA’s VIEWS (Virtual Interface Environment Work Station) project. When Howlett found out that NASA was having these units built at their competitor, he called NASA and was told that they would pay $10,000 at least per unit of a head-mounted virtual reality system. This precipitated the development of Howlett’s “Cyberface” system.

Cyberface (1989)

The original Cyberface system. Courtesy, leepvr.com

The Cyberface system went through a series of updates, which variously improved the quality of the pictures, and the ease of its use and portability. With the advent of LEEP Cyberface, Eric Howlett became the first to offer a commercial head-mounted display. As it was developed through the Cyberface2 and Cyberface3 models, resolution of images continued to improve, and the entire system was made for the wearer to move more efficiently, and, ultimately, to make the experience more and more realistic.

Cyberface4 and Virtual Orbiter

Created in 1996, the fourth incarnation of the Cyberface system, the Virtual Orbiter, convincingly delivered the effect of floating through space as an untethered spacewalker.  Cyberface4 forms the nucleus of this device, which offered still higher resolution than its predecessor, the Cyberface3.

The Virtual Orbiter was conceived as a standalone, Virtual Reality experience. Its display was supported on one’s arm, permitting the user to look freely in every direction in their virtual environment. The Virtual Orbiter initially revealed the Earth as it appeared from 20,000 miles above, moving to within 200 miles, then back, allowing the “space walker” to acquire a virtually unique perspective – a vantage point previously available only to space travelers.

As a bittersweet coda to this tale, Eric Howlett, though seeing the significant benefits of his innovations, never fully realized the rewards of his work. He had lost his home in an effort to finance his dreams; but remained undaunted to the last that what he was doing was both important and ahead of its time. With his passing, his son Alex (likewise a talented electronics engineer)  is trying to now market LEEP to the gaming community – fertile ground for such advanced, realistic technology. Though it remains to be seen if he will ultimately be successful, there is no question that his father’s research advanced both the argument for, and the technology of Virtual Reality, to the betterment and enjoyment of society.

As J.M. Lawrence succinctly noted in Howlett’s January 15, 2012 obituary in the Boston Globe,

“Toiling in the basement of his Newton home in the 1980s, virtual reality pioneer Eric M. Howlett solved a key problem in the quest to experience far-flung and potentially dangerous places without ever leaving a comfortable chair.”

-Chris Hartman

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“On April 17, 1974, a group of influential biologists met in the office of David Baltimore, a young faculty member who had recently moved into MIT’s new Center for Cancer Research … At MIT, the growth of the life sciences and technology eventually changed the Institute in ways that few of those who gathered that day in Baltimore’s office could possibly have foreseen.”  – from Becoming MIT  Moments of Decision.

The possibilities for the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) were virtually limitless in the treatment of human diseases. However, everyone present in Baltimore’s office on that day in 1974 knew that many of the experiments they sought to carry out should not be undertaken until all relevant safety issues were considered.

From left: MIT biologist and Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria, Dr. Nancy Hopkins and Dr. David Baltimore at MIT's Center for Cancer Research, January, 1974. Courtesy, MIT Museum

As a result of an open letter co-authored by Baltimore, Stanford biologist Paul Berg and Harvard Medical School’s Richard Roblin, and published in three scientific journals, there was a broad-based moratorium on such experiments until the scientists could make recommendations to the National Institute of Health (NIH). The following February, a meeting took place at Pacific Grove, California’s Asilomar Conference Center to evaluate the situation before the submitting recommendations to NIH.

“Refrain from using the alphabet”

On Wed., June 23, 1976, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare announced the final NIH guidelines for conduct of rDNA experiments. And that evening, the local Cambridge, MA City Hall, with Mayor Alfred Vellucci presiding, convened its own special hearing into rDNA research and its safety implications for Harvard and MIT’s host city.  

Vellucci was concerned that through experiments at this “moderate risk” facility at Harvard, the scientists might concoct “… a disease that cannot be cured – even a monster.” The Major opened the hearing with words that were a bit less apocalyptic, but no less direct:

Then, for the person who is speaking, kindly give your name, your address, your title, and the organization that you represent. Refrain from using the alphabet. Most of us in this room, including myself, are lay people. We don’t understand your alphabet, so you will spell it out for us so we know exactly what you are talking about, because we are here to listen.”

The scientists who spoke on behalf of the facility must have had their jaws drop a few minutes later when a resolution was read out that would propose a two-year ban on all rDNA experimentation in Cambridge. The resolution did not pass, the scientists were thrown back on their heels to propose measures that were considered safe. NIH’s oversight was invoked, and after this first meeting ended inconclusively, others were planned for later in the summer that resulted in the creation of the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board, or CERB. Though Mayor Vellucci publicly declared victory over the “big scientists” at Harvard, David Baltimore and MIT were well-positioned to make significant strides in biomedical research.

The making of “Gene Town” 

In 1975, David Baltimore shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists, and in 1977, with the passage of the Cambridge ordinance, MIT found itself ideally placed to make rapid progress with the new rDNA research.

Biomedical entrepreneur and philanthropist Jack Whitehead

In 1979, Baltimore started the negotiations what would eventually result in the Whitehead Institute at MIT. Jack Whitehead was a biomedical entrepreneur and philanthropist, and most of the negotiations involved where the new Institute should be built and faculty concerns over its model – it was to be independent but also affiliated with MIT.

The Whitehead Institute was built in 1982 and quickly proved to be a big success. It was at the very forefront of MIT’s efforts in genomics, and with the advent of the 1990s, the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Human Genomics served a pivotal role in the Human Genome Project. In 2004, this union became the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Putting gender on the table

“MIT Women Win a Fight against Bias. In a Rare Move, School Admits Discrimination.”Boston Globe front page headline, March 21, 1999.

MIT’s “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” the so-called “MIT Report,” initiated by MIT Professor Nancy Hopkins, was being prepared by the Institute in advance of the Boston Globe story. It was emailed to faculty prior to the story, after which, on the following Tuesday, the New York Times came out with their own headline: “MIT Admits Discrimination against Female Professors.”

This report demonstrated that even highly successful women scientists, members of the National Academies and widely known for their research, were subject to subtle, unintentional discrimination – not blatant harassment – which according to the report, “consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even to the light of obvious good will.”

Dr. Nancy Hopkins of MIT

Needless to say, the issuance of the report caused a sensation. Response was worldwide, but much of it was positive: women and institutions were anxious to hear more, and asking for help to conduct similar studies. Additionally, there were words of thanks for MIT’s acknowledging a problem that many knew existed, but were not able to express easily. On April 7, 1999, Professor Hopkins and then dean Robert Birgeneau were invited to the White House, where President Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton congratulated MIT for identifying an important problem. Hopkins accepted sixteen invitations to speak that year, and in December of 1999, when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in detail of how the report came about, the invitations grew exponentially. The Ford Foundation, among others, then offered MIT funding if they would assemble a syndicate of institutions to spread the word.

Though there were detractors, like a professor at the University of Alaska, who released his own report titled “MIT Tarnishes Its Reputation with Gender Junk Science.” This was picked up by the Independent Women’s Forum, a politically conservative research organization. And a Wall Street Journal editorial on December 29, 1999 called MIT’s actions “politicized exercises in ‘social science’”. Their argument was largely that the dearth of women faculty in the sciences was that they were less interested in entering science and may have different aptitudes that lead more easily into other fields more congruent with their values. This of course had no bearing to the treatment of the women faculty at MIT, who were highly committed and accomplished scientists.

Spearheaded by MIT Provost Robert Brown, deans in the other MIT schools were each asked to assemble committees to follow a similar procedure to that done by the School of Science. And in 2000, the MIT President, Charles Vest, and Provost Brown created the Council on Faculty Diversity. And in 2001, President Vest invited his peers at eight other institutions (Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Stanford and Yale) to meet at MIT for a conference, “Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering.”

The long-term effect of the initiatives undertaken by Professor Hopkins and President Vest and his colleagues – both within and without MIT – has been to gradually, but steadily increase the number of female faculty at MIT and its sister institutions. But it is quite possible, if not probable, that if Professor Hopkins had not resolutely undertaken this initiative and enlisted the wholehearted support of her fellow female faculty, these reforms would not have taken place. When presented with the letter Professor Hopkins had drafted and which had been signed by sixteen of the seventeen women faculty, dean Robert Birgeneau recalled the impact it had on him:

Listening to the personal stories of all 15, one at a time, was simply overwhelming. At that moment I realized that there really was a systemic problem and that it needed to be addressed immediately not just for the health and welfare of these women faculty, but also for the health of MIT as a whole.”

Conclusions: MIT at 150 and beyond

Current MIT President Susan Hockfield, in the book’s “Epilogue,” describes two main lessons learned from the Institute’s 150 year history. First, that MIT’s founding ideals from the time of founder William Barton Rogers have served the Institute well. Rogers favored fundamental scientific principles and direct experimentation over “the minute details and manipulations of the arts.” Adherence to these principles, Hockfield writes, saved MIT from reducing itself to an industrial school. Rogers also believed in a mission of service to society, which greatly inspired MIT’s contributions to World War II efforts.

Secondly, MIT’s model, which in the 1940s put into form the concept of the federally-funded research university, created historic advances in America’s security, health, innovation and prosperity. But with us now in the second decade of the new millennium, MIT has challenges as well. New frontiers must be pursued, and as an example, in 2006, MIT devoted resources and talent to approach the vast global problem of sustainable energy. The MIT Energy Initiative was the outgrowth of this effort and embraces all the principles established founder Rogers and continued by the MIT community to this day, and presumably, far beyond.

Current MIT President Susan Hockfield

Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision was published through the MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the companion publication to MIT’s yearlong sesquicentennial anniversary celebration, MIT150.

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The always mesmerizing Lady Gaga, in Boston for a couple of concerts on her “Monster Ball” tour, stopped by the M.I.T. Museum on Wednesday, June 30 to visit the Polaroid camera archive the museum recently received. In January, Lady Gaga became the re-made company’s Creative Director. At Wednesday’s event, Polaroid’s President, Scott Hardy, said “The products developed with Lady Gaga are very much focused on instant imaging and video technology … they’re going to remain very true to the heritage of Polaroid, but with a digital twist.” A new line of Polaroid and “Gaga co-branded” products will be introduced in stores in November.

Lady Gaga, who did not speak with reporters, posed for her own Polaroid photo, which will become part of the 73-year old archive, comprising over 10,000 items and containing such noteworthy rarities as Polarized glasses from the 1939 World’s Fair, original newsprint sketches by Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land, an historic bellows camera the size of a filing cabinet, as well as examples of Land-designed camera prototypes. It is scheduled to go on exhibition in 2013.

As Yahoo Finance noted in a June 30 story, “Lady Gaga’s recent appointment as Polaroid’s Creative Director is the first of many corporate objectives toward developing new and exciting products – introducing Polaroid to a new generation. Earlier today, Lady Gaga presided over a product design and development session for future Polaroid products. Today’s session is a milestone in the road to developing Lady Gaga’s co-branded Polaroid products that blend fashion, technology and photography.”

The defunct company was acquired by Minnetonka, Minnesota based PLR IP Holdings following Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2001 –  and joins a long line of  brands that have made Phoenix-like revivals on the wings of “retro-chic.”

With all the force of a public relations tsunami, Lady Gaga’s own iconic brand will likely bring in a more youthful and style-conscious following for Polaroid’s return. And it is not inconceivable that November’s Polaroid products rollout could rival the hysteria of recent Apple product launches. I think even the late Edwin Land himself might have managed a smile had he been at this event.

-Chris Hartman

Lady Gaga and Polaroid at M.I.T. - courtesy, Polaroid

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