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Why Only Us? New book co-written by Noam Chomsky explores the evolution of language

Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist and co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, once said he was confused about language because humans didn’t need it. People, he said, could get by with a brain the size of an ape. So why do we have it? Linguist Noam Chomsky and computer scientist Robert Berwick explore this puzzle in their new book, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, published this month by the MIT Press. The book looks at what language is, how and where it arose, and what purpose it may have played — why is it a useful trait?

MIT Libraries launch gravitational wave resource guide

On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) measured gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes, kicking off a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy. This was the first direct measurement of gravitational waves — ripples in space-time that Albert Einstein predicted 100 years ago in his general theory of relativity. Linked below is an annotated collection of technical reports, peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, and theses freely available in the DSpace@MIT repository that describe work done at MIT in this field, from the earliest science to post-detection research.

Dean Ortiz to leave MIT, start new university

MIT’s dean for graduate education is leaving the Institute to start a new nonprofit university focused on projects over lectures and large, open labs over classrooms. Christine Ortiz, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering, told the Chronicle of Higher Education this week that she’s eager to reshape what a university can be by focusing on modern needs and using today’s technology."We’ll have a core that’s project-based learning, but where students can have a really deep, integrative longer-term project rather than shorter projects. And then all of the knowledge acquisition would be moved virtually," she said in the interview.

Innovators over 70

MIT Technology Review has long celebrated innovators under 35 in an annual issue. This year, in addition to the young honorees, the magazine features Seven over 70. “Older people are, of course, just as capable of new thinking as the young,” writes editor Jason Pontin. Two of the seven innovators are MIT Institute Professors emeriti: philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, and nuclear engineer Sidney Yip. Having authored hundreds of papers, Yip continues to publish. A recent article he co-wrote offers a new approach to making strong concrete that produces fewer carbon emissions than current methods.

Study shows new cheating method in online courses

Researchers at MIT and Harvard have discovered a new way to cheat in massive open online courses that “holds the potential to render the MOOC certificate valueless as an academic credential.” With colleagues, Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and physics and MIT’s senior associate dean of digital learning, analyzed data from nearly two million course participants in 115 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT. They found that certificate earners in 69 courses used a cheating strategy that involves making multiple profiles, allowing users to acquire course certification in less than an hour. The researchers describe so-called CAMEO cheating (copying answers using multiple existences online) and outline some prevention strategies in a working paper published on arXiv last week.

Comedian Ansari gets insights from MIT

While researching his book about romance in the digital era, the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari “applied rigor and seriousness” to the subject: With sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Ansari conducted focus groups, set up a discussion forum, and consulted academic studies. One of the experts he interviewed is MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, who in 2012 published a book on gambling in the digital era and the allure of slot machines. Writes Ansari, “Schull drew an analogy between slot machines and texting, since both generate the expectation of a quick reply. ‘When you’re texting with someone you’re attracted to, someone you don’t really know yet, it’s like playing a slot machine: There’s a lot of uncertainty, anticipation, and anxiety. Your whole system is primed to receive a message back.'”

Tackling diversity in philosophy

There has long been a push to increase diversity in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. And for good reason: women and minorities have been underrepresented in these areas for decades. But there are gaps in other disciplines. According to MIT philosophy professor Sally Haslanger, as recently as five years ago less than 30 percent of PhD graduates in philosophy were women. This was lower than the number of women doctorates in math, chemistry, and economics. And the percentage is worse for racial and ethnic minorities.

“The overall philosophical profession, just like society at large, is still very much dominated by straight, white, cisgendered [not transgender], able-bodied, middle-class men,” said Matthias Jenny, a philosophy graduate student at MIT.

Jenny, along with two other grad students, has partnered with the University of Massachusetts-Boston to run a weeklong program in August at MIT called Philosophy in an Inclusive Key (PIKSI-Boston). The goal is to encourage undergraduates from underrepresented groups to consider an academic career in philosophy. Haslanger has helped the students with funding and other support.

MIT places 6th in DARPA robot finals

Researchers from MIT placed sixth out of two dozen teams in the international DARPA Robotics Challenge finals last week. Humanoid challengers in the Defense Department’s “robot Olympics” had to complete eight tasks related to helping people in disaster zones, including walking on rubble, climbing stairs and ladders, driving alone, and using tools. The winners, a team from Daejeon, Korea, took home $2 million.

“This is, without a doubt, the most ambitious project that any of us have ever undertaken,” said Russ Tedrake, an associate professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab who led MIT’s team. “From perception to motion-planning to manipulation, the breadth and depth of challenges have forced us to think creatively, program nimbly — and sleep sporadically.”

DARPA launched the robotics challenge in response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

MIT students Hack to the Future

Emmett “Doc” Brown was certainly clever: he made the world’s first time machine out of a gull-winged sports car. But he was also fictional. Thirty years after Brown’s DeLorean traveled to the past in the film Back to the Future, MIT undergraduates showcased their very real engineering skills by battling each other in “Hack to the Future,” an homage to the movies and the theme for this year’s 2.007 Robot Competition. (It’s apt timing; in the movie’s first sequel, Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to 2015, where they find that skateboards hover in the air and sneakers tie themselves.)

Last week, hundreds of spectators cheered on finalists in the robot competition, the culmination of a semester-long class in which mechanical engineering students designed, built, and tested their creations. Robots had to complete tasks involving iconic Back to the Future items like the DeLorean, a clock tower, and a flux capacitor. The winning robot, by sophomore Allison Edwards, was “very steady and reliable,” said mechanical engineering associate professor Sangbae Kim, who instructs the class with colleague Amos Winter. Kim and Winter watched the competition dressed as the films’ protagonists, Marty McFly and Doc Brown.

A unique neuroanatomy lesson

Ever wonder which areas of your brain “turn on” when you see faces or think about other people’s thoughts? Using a scanning method called fMRI, researchers like MIT neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher can pinpoint where brain cells carry out these and other mental functions.

Such digital images are powerful, but Kanwisher, in a recent installment of her video series “Nancy’s Brain Talks,” offers more. “It’s kind of hard to tell [where these particular brain regions are] with all this damn hair in the way,” she says, and proceeds to shave herself bald. A “scalp neuro-artist” (graduate student Rosa Lafer-Sousa) then draws a pizza-sized cortex on her head, coloring in the regions that process language, bodies, and places.

With the help of fMRI, researchers like Kanwisher will soon learn whether there are special brain circuits for hearing the sounds of speech or appreciating a melody. “It’s a super exciting time to be investigating the human mind and brain,” she says in the video. “Even if you don’t shave your head.”

MIT launches Institute for Data, Systems, & Society

Last week, the deans of MIT’s five Schools announced a new Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), which will launch in July and be led by Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor Munther Dahleh. IDSS will bring together social science and data science researchers and students to explore issues in energy, transportation, social networks, health care, and financial systems.

“IDSS will allow the deep, original thinking about the physical universe that is done by our scientists and engineers to come together with the rigorous work of MIT’s great social scientists and economists,” said Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

IDSS initiatives include an undergraduate statistics minor and an MIT center on statistics.

Stonebraker wins computing "Nobel"

Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory researcher Michael Stonebraker was awarded the “Nobel Prize of computing” last month for his research in database management systems. Stonebraker won the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award for inventing “many of the concepts that are used in almost all modern database systems … and [founding] numerous companies successfully commercializing his pioneering database technology work.” The “database prodigy” has made many of his systems open source, including the popular PostgreSQL.

“Michael Stonebraker’s work is an integral part of how business gets done today,” said ACM President Alexander L. Wolf.

Preschoolers learn programming

MIT researchers are developing a system in which children as young as four can program a socially interactive robot so it reacts to stimuli. The Dragonbot, built by Media Lab professor Cynthia Breazeal and colleagues in MIT’s Personal Robots Group, is equipped with audio and visual sensors and a speech synthesizer, and can show different expressions on its video-screen face. Children use stickers with various icons on them in different shapes and colors to make rules for the robot to follow.

“Our early observations hold promise that young children are highly engaged with and can derive educational benefit from using the social robot toolkit,” the authors write in a paper presented earlier this month at the Association for Computing Machinery and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

MIT's influence on US economics

In his New York Times blog last week, economist and MIT alum Paul Krugman writes about the “triumph” of MIT’s economics department as described in the 2014 book MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, whose coauthors include MIT professor Peter Temin.

The book explores how economics in the United States became more math-focused after World War II, in part led by MIT economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson, but it stops around 1970. Krugman argues for the importance of the decade that followed, with graduates like Ben Bernanke, MIT professor Olivier Blanchard, and others, including himself. (Krugman won the Nobel Prize in 2008.) “[R]ight now a remarkable number of the professional economists who either play important roles in making policy or appear to have influence on the discussion got their Ph.Ds from MIT in the second half of the 1970s,” he writes.

How global warming can worsen snowfalls

In the last month, Boston has set a string of records: Most snowfall in the city in a 30-day period (90.2 inches); deepest snow in a day (37 inches); fastest six-foot snowfall (in 18 days, crushing the previous record of 45 days). The list is long. Civic pride in the achievements has run rather short.

What happened to the notion that climate change will mean more warmth and less snow?

"In some regions, fairly cold regions, you could have a decrease in the average snowfall in a year, but actually an intensification of the snowfall extremes,” atmospheric science professor Paul O’Gorman told the Boston Globe earlier this month, explaining research he published last summer.

O’Gorman cautions that it’s not easy to link global temperature changes to extreme snowfall. But, he told the Globe, Boston’s midwinter temperatures are already close to the "optimal range” for heavy snowfall, and changes in the position of storm tracks or an increase of water vapor in the atmosphere—both the result of global warming—could make the storms more frequent.

Does church attendance cause people to vote?

In a paper published last month, researchers including MIT economist Jonathan Gruber use the repeal of Sunday shopping (or "blue”) laws in various states to determine that church attendance "may have a significant causal effect” on voter turnout in elections. They find that the repeal of blue laws, which restrict Sunday retail activity, caused a 5 percent decrease in church attendance; this in turn led to a 1 percent fall in participation at the voting booth.

Previous work has shown that churchgoers are 10 to 15 percent more likely to vote, but these studies reveal associations rather than causal effects. Gruber and colleagues seek to press further. As they note in the paper, "One promising strategy for doing so is to find changes in the environment which impact religious participation but not other relevant behaviors, and then to trace through the effects on other aspects of life, such as political participation. The repeal of the blue laws provides an example of such a change.”

The work could have implications for further evaluating the effects of public policies on religious organizations.