Showing posts categorized as "Snippets"

The Unexplored Earth

by Aaron Dy
MIT graduate student in Biological Engineering
Posted on September 10th, 2014
No Comments

Humans have yet to explore a vast portion of our planet. Below our ocean’s surface exists a largely unknown wilderness populated by animals that have never been seen by humans and are hidden far from the reach of sunlight.

The surface of the moon has been walked on by more people than have been to the deepest point of the ocean, a small valley called Challenger Deep within the Mariana Trench. This point is nearly 7 miles below the ocean’s surface, which adds up to 28 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. This incredible depth makes it impossible for ordinary submarines to make the journey. In fact, only three people have dived to the Challenger Deep. Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard did it in 1960, and then no manned craft made it again until Hollywood director James Cameron did it in 2012 as part of his new movie “Deepsea Challenge 3D”.

More than 95% of the ocean in general has yet to be explored and more than 70% of Earth is covered by ocean. If you catch yourself thinking that explorers are only for the history books, think again. There’s a whole new world to be discovered deep beneath the water.

About the author
Aaron Dy
MIT graduate student in Biological Engineering

Origami Art and Science

by Herng Yi Cheng
MIT Class of 2018
Posted on September 10th, 2014
No Comments

One might think that origami, the art of paper-folding, is nothing more than a children’s pastime. However, research in origami has given us new technologies and new avenues for artistic expression. Satellite solar panel arrays are huge sheets that can’t fit in the rocket that sends the satellite to space, but in 1995 an origami engineer broke the sheet into panels hinged together so that they fold like origami into a compact shape for transport. In this way, origami can be useful when some piece of technology needs to be a large sheet when active but small and compact for storage or transport.

Click to watch it fold and unfold.  Source: "Miura-ori" by MetaNest, Wikimedia Commons.

Watch it fold and unfold. Source: “Miura-ori” by MetaNest, Wikimedia Commons.

Source: “The math and magic of origami” by Robert Lang

Source: “The math and magic of origami” by Robert Lang

In the same vein, a tiny origami tube has been designed to expand and contract by flexing. During a surgery, its contracted form is inserted into blood vessels, then expanded to support the blood vessel to prevent it from collapsing. The same principle again: small for transport, large for usage.

Source: “Fold Everything”, National Geographic Magazine

Source: “Fold Everything”, National Geographic Magazine

All these applications depend on mathematical folding patterns on surfaces. That math has advanced to the level that computer programs have been written to automatically design origami animals of astounding realism and complexity. Origami is a fascinating cross-fertilization between art, mathematics and science!

Stick figure representing the subject.  Source: “The math and magic of origami” by Robert Lang

Stick figure representing the subject. Source: “The math and magic of origami” by Robert Lang

Pattern of folding lines.

Pattern of folding lines.

Final folded product.

Final folded product.

For more on the mathematics of origami, check out Herng Yi Cheng’s blog: http://www.herngyi.com/origami-research-and-applications.html

About the author
Herng Yi Cheng
MIT Class of 2018

Counting wrong

by Y. William Yu
MIT Mathematics graduate student
Posted on September 7th, 2014
No Comments

Have you ever had to count an absolutely ginormous number of things and thought to yourself: eh, who cares if I’m off by a couple? If so, you’re not the only one. It turns out that because numbers can get really big, even computers, as accurate and precise as they are, have trouble too. This turns out to be an important problem in analyzing Big Data, the explosion of information on everything in the world from Internet traffic patterns to sequencing the human genome.

Luckily, although counting exactly right is hard, counting slightly wrong is much, much easier. By the use of clever algorithms, computers can approximately count large numbers of items, getting a pretty good answer that’s guaranteed to probably be off by only a little. Although it sounds a bit weird to describe something with the phrase “guaranteed to probably”, many of these algorithms make extensive use of random coin flips to work. Much like how if you flip a coin a million times, you’ll probably get around half heads, but not exactly, these algorithms get answers that are pretty close most of the time. By harnessing the power of randomness, we can accurately and precisely count things wrong.

About the author
Y. William Yu
MIT Mathematics graduate student

Wigglings and jigglings

by Yasmin Chau
MIT Biology graduate student
Posted on September 7th, 2014
No Comments

“…if we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and that everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms.”

–     Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics

Everything, including you, is constantly moving all the time. That can seem hard to believe. The table and floor definitely look quite still. But if you could look at the atoms—the basic building blocks of matter—of the table and floor, you would see that the atoms are constantly jiggling and wiggling.

The jiggle and wiggle of atoms explains phenomena such as heat and cold, but what I find most fascinating is the jiggle and wiggle of atoms of living things. If you could look at the atoms of a cell from your body, you would find that the different flavors of atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etc.) have stuck together in different ways to make larger structures (protein, lipids, sugars, DNA). You would also see that being inside a cell is like being tightly packed into a crowd at a large, popular concert where everyone is constantly moving around and bumping against everyone else. The atomic structures in a cell are jiggling and wiggling in an extremely crowded and chaotic space! Yet somehow, the right jiggles and wiggles happen. And it is actually thanks to this constant atomic motion that things in your cell happen at all. What if nothing moved in your cell? The appropriate proteins wouldn’t get to where they need to be to break down the molecules from the food you eat. The appropriate lipid wouldn’t interact with a protein to tell your cell to make more of another protein. The “jigglings and wigglings of atoms” are to thank for making your cell function as a tiny yet important piece of you.

About the author
Yasmin Chau
MIT Biology graduate student

Proteins

by Madeline Wong
MIT Chemistry graduate student
Posted on September 7th, 2014
No Comments

As your parents might have told you, protein is a key part of the food pyramid (included on nutritional labels and often equated with meat, beans, or nuts). But proteins are also molecular machines, signal processors, and structural supports for life. There are many examples: digestive enzymes in the stomach, adrenaline receptors in the brain, and collagen in bone.

Composed of a sequence of building blocks called amino acids, proteins can broadly be thought of as science’s version of words: they’re made from a different alphabet than the ones you might find in the dictionary, but they also can be sorted into different groups and each has a unique meaning or role. And just as a scrambled word loses much of its ability to function–“art” and “rat” have the same parts but very different meanings–proteins often require a specific structure in order to remain active.  Switch up the order of the letters or drastically change the shape, and a protein will probably behave quite differently.

Want to know more?   Ask a molecular biologist, biochemist, or biophysicist.  Many of us study proteins outside the dinner plate!

About the author
Madeline Wong
MIT Chemistry graduate student

Infinity

by Davie Rolnick
MIT Mathematics graduate student
Posted on September 7th, 2014
No Comments

What happens if you start counting and never stop? That’s how you get to infinity, a mathematical idea that has puzzled people for centuries, and even driven some mad. Take the following question, posed by the Greek philosopher Zeno: An arrow is shot, and first travels half the distance to the target. It then must travel half the distance that is left, then again half the remaining distance, and so on. How can it ever reach the target? The answer: An infinite number of events can happen in a finite amount of time. If you find yourself confused by this sort of thing, don’t worry – most mathematicians are too.

Despite its strangeness, infinity is very useful. It’s what makes calculus work, and therefore underpins many principles of modern engineering. The universe is not infinite – just really big. However, the theoretical concept of infinity is nonetheless important for understanding physics, including quantum mechanics and black holes.

About the author
Davie Rolnick
MIT Mathematics graduate student