Letter from the Dean
Science@MIT Spring 2018 Issue
This spring, we’re making great strides toward discovering new worlds of science.
On April 18, we launched TESS, a satellite that will literally search for new worlds in the heavens. In its high-Earth orbit, TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) will spend two years observing the sky for extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system.
TESS will catalog more than 200,000 nearby stars, monitor their brightness, and record the brief dips in light as planets transit in front of their stars. This data will be relayed back for analysis to let us know which of our stellar neighbors have planets — with a particular focus on planets that could harbor life. Follow-up studies of these objects with ground- and space-based observatories will provide information about these exoplanets’ composition.
This basic scientific endeavor, led by MIT scientists, is another important step on the journey to gain real, measurable data from exoplanets. TESS picks up where missions like Kepler have left off, now with wider-angle cameras and with a greater understanding of how to observe transits and what chemical signatures to look for.
Down here on Earth, we are launching a new effort to understand the world of intelligence. MIT is on a quest to build upon decades of brain and cognitive research to engineer an artificial intelligence that feels more human, and well as to accelerate the basic science of intelligence.
Pioneers such as Tomaso Poggio, the McDermott Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, developed the critical framework, theories, and algorithms not only to describe the neurology and biology of intelligence, but also to model the cognitive and behavioral aspects of learning.
Read our cover story in the spring issue of Science@MIT written by BCS Department Head James DiCarlo’s on reverse-engineering the mind. Learn more about the current research of BCS professors such as Joshua Tenenbaum, Rebecca Saxe, and Laura Schulz, who wonder if we could one day build machines that grow into intelligence the way people do — that start like babies and learn like children.
Our scientists are curious to pursue answers to fundamental questions like these: How does our brain give rise to the mind? Are we alone in the universe? Former Biology Department Head Chris Kaiser tells the story of Professor Har Gobkind Khorana who pursued questions about the structure and function of basic biological molecules. Why does transcription proceed in cells in the way that it does? Could we alter these basic biological building blocks to make something new? Could we create the blocks ourselves? Khorana and his team at MIT went after these questions doggedly and methodically but were always looking ahead to see if they could answer the next logical question in the series — even if the science wasn’t there yet. Khorana pushed the frontiers of discovery science forward and opened up new avenues for how we understand and treat human diseases, earning a Nobel Prize in the process.
I was privileged to attend the 50th anniversary of our Center for Theoretical Physics, one of the first centers of its kind in the United States. Here, too, was an opportunity to learn about the deep and lasting impact MIT scientists have had on our understanding of how the universe works.
Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek spoke about elementary particles such as the axion, which may be integral to understanding the nature of dark matter. His junior colleagues discussed the ways in which researchers in theoretical physics are aligning ever more closely with experimentalists as huge data sets, from studies such as TESS and LIGO, become available from particle physics and astrophysics observations.
Government agencies, such as the Department of Energy, took risks in supporting this basic research — and the payoffs have been immense. The National Science Foundation’s support of missions like Kepler and TESS, and the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines are great examples of how basic scientific endeavors must be nurtured and expanded if we’re to discover new worlds or better understand aspects of our own.
We must seek support from sources beyond these agencies in a climate that favors short-returns over benefits from viewing the long arc of scientific inquiry. That is why I am so thankful to donors like Bob and Renee Belfer who are supporting efforts such as our Aging Brain Initiative. I hope you will be inspired to join us as we turn curiosity into discovery to change what we know about the world.