Letter from the Dean
Discoveries in science are sometimes a matter of degrees. In this issue’s cover article of Science@MIT, roughly 1.1 degrees is the magic angle. That precise degree of twisting — no more or less — converts layered graphene either into a superconductor in which electrons can flow freely or an insulator that prevents electron flow, depending in the external applied electric field.
The creation of magic-angle graphene was named 2018’s breakthrough of the year by Physics World. Its discovery opens up a new realm of possibilities for other two-dimensional materials whose properties might be altered by a slight change in the degree of their stacking — a nascent field called “twistronics.” Read more about this research in the lab of Professor Pablo Jarillo-Herrero.
In our mathematics department, computational number theorists discovered a new property of the number 42. We now know that 42 is the sum of three cubes of integers. In other words, we have solved the equation 42 = x3 + y3 + z3 where x, y, and z are positive or negative integers. Before you try to find the solution yourself, note that the mathematicians used roughly a half million home computers working in parallel, testing nearly 1017 possibilities for x, y, and z to find the solution. The massive computing platform, Charity Engine, found the answer after searching for several weeks. Equations for which we seek integer solutions are called “Diophantine equations” and include the famous equation xn + yn = zn (in which “n” is not 1 or 2) in Fermat’s Last theorem, which was proved to have no solutions by Andrew Wiles. Our group also found new solutions to the Diophantine equation, 3 = x3 + y3 + z3. You can read about the collaborative research of principal research scientist Drew Sutherland.
Another large computing platform has allowed an increase in the computer-aided discovery of planets outside our solar system. Every two weeks, the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS) instrument orbiting the Earth beams back 350 gigabytes of raw data, called light curves, which may contain the record of a telltale dip in starlight from the passing of an orbiting planet. Without the increase in computing power, TESS scientists would be drowning in data. Learn more about the synergy between computing and astrophysics research.
In addition to TESS, we are also a part of a ground-based telescope commissioning project called SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars). The telescope, Artemis, will search for Earth-sized exoplanets by studying ultra-cool dwarf stars. The best candidates for exoplanets with potentially habitable atmospheres will then be studied using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is set to launch in 2021. Read an interview with EAPS Assistant Professor Julien de Wit about the SPECULOOS project.
With new instruments and techniques undertaken with projects such as TESS and SPECULOOS, exoplanet research has finally matured, as recognized by the awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize in physics. “When we discovered the first exoplanet, it was pretty obvious that this was something important, even though not everyone believed us at the time,” said Dider Queloz, a professor at the University of Cambridge, upon receiving the news of his shared Nobel win. “Back then, exoplanet research was a very small field. I think there were about fifty of us, and we were seen as weirdos. Now, there are probably over a thousand people working in the field.”
At a reception held at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, where he was recently a visiting scholar, Queloz said that the relationship with his mentor and co-Nobel recipient, Michel Mayor, allowed him the freedom to use a novel spectrometry technique to discover the first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi B. He reminded the audience of faculty, staff, and students that these relationships, and the degree of freedom to pursue these “weirdo” research ideas, could lead to amazing discoveries — and perhaps to a future Nobel Prize.
At the MIT School of Science, we are committed to providing our students with this degree of freedom through mentorship and scholarship. Throughout this issue, you can read about supporters of science, such as Michael Gould and his support of biology research programs for underrepresented minorities; Al and Barrie Zesiger and their continuing support of graduate research in Brain and Cognitive Sciences; and Jack N. Little and his ongoing support of Mathematics and other departments across MIT through his company, MathWorks.
As we head into 2020, I hope you will join me in support of the pursuit of scientific research here at MIT. In late April, as part of the MIT Better World program, I will discuss the latest findings from LIGO, TESS, and other research programs at the School of Science. If you are in the Toronto area, please join me by registering at betterworld.mit.edu.
This appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Science@MIT. A correction was made in January 2020 to reflect the correction equation for Fermat’s Last Theorem.