Big research ideas in five minutes

The Cambridge Science Festival’s launch event, Big Ideas for Busy People, presented quick snapshots of recent work by 10 researchers “who are established stars or stars on the rise,” noted John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and the festival.

The topics ranged from disaster preparedness to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and from dancing with bionics to how today’s slot machines are designed to addict their patrons. Each researcher raced to summarize their ideas and results as a five-minute clock ticked down, and then answered thoughtful questions from an audience of hundreds in First Parish Church on Friday evening.

Some notes and quotes:

“Why do we so often make decisions that we later regret?” asked Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. “We have a fundamental misperception of time; we will change much more than we predict. It’s an illusion we all have—that we’ve just become the people we will be for the rest of our lives.”

“The bad news is yes, there are more disasters and the impact of disasters is increasing,” said Paul Biddinger of Massachusetts General Hospital. Working to minimize their effect, “we’ve learned what works and doesn’t work, and what does work is practice, practice, practice.”

Lawrence Candell of MIT Lincoln Labs showed a visual surveillance system under development that integrates 48 cell-phone-like video cameras to provide powerful 360-degree images and can automatically follow items such as moving cars. As such systems become commercialized, they could find many uses beyond surveillance, for instance at sport arenas such as the Boston Garden. “You could film and watch your own Boston Celtics game,” with the ability to narrow in on the actions and players that interest you most, Candell remarked.

Elliott Rouse of the MIT Media Lab described the development of a bionic ankle for Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost part of her lower leg in last year’s Boston Marathon attack, and showed a video of her dancing again. “We can put people back in places they thought they’d never have again,” Rouse said. “It’s only a matter of time until bionic limbs are better than the ones we have.”

Harvard’s Tadashi Tokieda demonstrated a “chain fountain”—pull a thin chain out of a plastic cup and let go of the chain and it will flow up before turning back down again—and explained a likely mechanism with a stick. “I like to explore surprises that are amusing and interesting to non-scientists and scientists,” he added. Asked where he finds such surprises, Tokieda said they are everywhere around: “There’s an enormous amount of universe.”

Many Boston-area plants now blossom 10 days or more earlier than they did in the 1850s, according to records kept by Henry David Thoreau and others, said Boston University’s Richard Primack. Bees and butterlies also often emerge much earlier in the spring, but migrating birds often arrive only a few days earlier than they did back then. These changes in schedule raise worries that “birds could miss this great pulse of insects in the spring,” he pointed out.

Amanda Randles of Lawrence Livermore Labs presented work that models the fluid dynamics of blood plasma with the movement of red blood cells to help study cardiovascular disease for individual patients using their MRI and CT scans. Such an analysis currently takes hours on one of the world’s largest supercomputers, but she hopes that within a few years, “it becomes something physicians can do on a real-time basis in the office.”

“I don’t know why we long so for permanence, given the fleeting nature of things,” remarked MIT’s Alan Lightman. “Our consciousness makes us feel we are immortal beings,” he added. “Yet Nature is screaming at us as the top of her lungs that everything is passing fast.”

And MIT’s Tanja Bosak skimmed through the mysterious multi-billion-year timeline in which Earth’s oxygen levels rose from almost nothing, noting that jellyfish-like fossils gave one indication of their rise as of 560 million years ago. “If you ask me why we have 20% oxygen in today’s atmosphere, I have no idea,” she acknowledged.

All the speakers seemed to enjoy their ten minutes of public science fame.

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