The new academic year is well underway and excitement is building on a number of fronts in the School of Science.
Our experimental physicists are eagerly anticipating data from the recently relaunched Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment to observe gravitational waves for the first time since Einstein predicted them in 1916. The apparatus was recently upgraded to even more sensitivity, and we are hopeful that first detection will take place within a year. That would be a landmark achievement.
Our neuroscientists are making significant progress with understanding the genetic basis for diseases of the brain such as autism. By creating genetically modified mice, we can now explore the pathways leading to disease. Our ageing brain researchers are working on a promising novel approach to preventing and treating neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
As I write this letter, the Breakthrough prizes have been announced and MIT School of Science faculty are featured prominently. Neuroscientist Ed Boyden ’99(VI-2, VIII) shared the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences, while MIT physicists, Joe Formaggio and Lindley Winslow contributed to a project that won the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Another MIT physicist, Liang Fu was one of three physicists awarded the new Horizon Prize while the New Horizons Mathematical Prize was awarded to MIT’s Larry Guth Ph.D. ’05 (XVIII D). Many of you remember that Larry’s father, Alan ’68 (VIII), Ph.D. ’72 (VIII), was one of the original physicists presented with the Breakthrough Prize when it was first conceived in 2012.
As you will read in this issue, Professor Rick Binzel has spent the past 35 years exploring space. Most recently, he was a co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft mission to Pluto. Getting the mission out of the Washington beltway and to the launch pad was itself a major challenge, in addition to the many scientific and engineering problems that were overcome. Six concept studies were proposed, approved, and then cancelled. You can read the fascinating story on page 3. In the end, it was all worth it—the pictures returned from the spacecraft are simply astonishing. Rick is a member of our Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Department, where faculty and students work in a wide range of disciplines, including geology, geochemistry, geophysics, geobiology, atmospheric science, oceanography, astronomy, and planetary science. The interdisciplinary nature of that research is a hallmark of the department—many faculty members work in more than one area. Thus EAPS faculty tackle complex issues from local environments to planetary scales. Graduates of the department have established a fellowship fund in honor of James Elliot (1943-2011), a Professor of planetary astronomy and physics at MIT who pioneered the stellar occultation technique that led to the discovery of the rings around Uranus’s and Pluto’s atmospheres. Please consider making a gift in support of this fellowship—the first specifically for planetary science. You will be supporting the next generation of talented planetary scientists on their way to leading future NASA missions.
In other news, the Mathematics Department will return to its former location in Building 2 this January, as the 2½-year building renovation nears completion. The result is shaping up beautifully. Many thanks to all of our alumni and friends whose support enabled this project. We are grateful as well to the many people at MIT and elsewhere who were involved with the planning and construction. The Chemistry Department welcomed its new Head, Tim Jamison this past summer, following Sylvia Ceyer who led the department for the preceding 5 years. Tim looks forward to extending Sylvia’s tremendous record of hiring a cadre of outstanding young chemists, as well as to updating the department’s experimental equipment facilities. In about 3 years, the undergraduate chemistry laboratories will relocate to the top floor of the new MIT Nano building, once that major building project is done.
In this issue you will also read about members of our faculty who have decided to make major gifts in support of their departments. Professor Stephen Buchwald and his wife Susan Haber established a fund to support students studying organic chemistry; and Professor Paolo Rizzoli and her husband Professor Emeritus Peter Stone endowed the Stone Professorship fund in EAPS—the first new EAPS professorship in many years. I am deeply appreciative of their support and yours. Thank you!
As we all know, basic scientific research can be arduous and expensive, and often it doesn’t pan out. But when it does, it can be spectacular. I am most fortunate to be Dean of this extraordinary enterprise.