Image: MIT

Science & Tech

MIT’s Rainer Weiss shares Nobel Prize in physics
Rainer Weiss (MIT ’55, PhD ’62), professor emeritus of physics at MIT, has won the Nobel Prize in physics for 2017. Weiss won half of the prize, with the other half of the award shared by Kip S. Thorne, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Caltech, and Barry C. Barish, professor emeritus of physics at Caltech. They were recognized “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” Learn more here.

“Superhero” robot wears different outfits for different tasks
From butterflies that sprout wings to hermit crabs that switch their shells, many animals must adapt their exterior features in order to survive. While humans don’t undergo that kind of metamorphosis, we often try to create functional objects that are similarly adaptive — including our robots. Despite what you might have seen in “Transformers” movies, though, today’s robots are still pretty inflexible. Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory are aiming to change that with a new shape-shifting robot that’s something of a superhero: It can transform itself with different “outfits” that allow it to perform different tasks. Learn more here.

Robot learns to follow orders like Alexa
Despite what you might see in movies, today’s robots are still very limited in what they can do. They can be great for many repetitive tasks, but their inability to understand the nuances of human language makes them mostly useless for more complicated requests. Recently researchers from MIT’s CSAIL have gotten closer to making this type of request easier: In a new paper, they present an Alexa-like system that allows robots to understand a wide range of commands that require contextual knowledge about objects and their environments, dubbed “ComText.” Learn more here.


Developing sensors to defend aircraft against lasers
Laser strikes, the aiming of high-power laser pointers at aircraft, are a growing safety concern for pilots and aircraft passengers, posing numerous dangers. Laser strikes have increased steadily in the last decade and can be criminally motivated, but they are more commonly pranks or unintentional incidents. Although illegal, less than 1% or perpetrators are ever caught, due to the difficulty in pinpointing the perpetrator’s location. Now, the Laser Technology and Applications Group at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory has developed a ground-based sensor system that can accurately identify the probable location of a perpetrator of a laser strike and immediately notify law enforcement. Learn more here.


Studies help explain link between autism, severe infection during pregnancy
Mothers who experience an infection severe enough to require hospitalization during pregnancy are at higher risk of having a child with autism. Two new studies from MIT and the University of Massachusetts Medical School shed more light on this phenomenon and identify possible approaches to preventing it. If further validated in human studies, the findings could offer a possible way to reduce the risk of autism, which would involve blocking the function of certain strains of bacteria found in the maternal gut, the researchers say. Learn more here.

Using machine learning to improve patient care
Doctors are often deluged by signals from charts, test results, and other metrics to keep track of. It can be difficult to integrate and monitor all of these data for multiple patients while making real-time treatment decisions, especially when data is documented inconsistently across hospitals. Researchers from MIT’s CSAIL explore ways that computers can employ many types of medical data, including electronic health records, to to help doctors and predict outcomes in hospitals. Learn more here.

One vaccine injection could carry many doses
MIT engineers have invented a new 3-D fabrication method that can generate a novel type of drug-carrying particle that could allow multiple doses of a drug or vaccine with just one injection. The new microparticles, filled with a drug or vaccine and sealed with a lid, are made of a biocompatible, FDA-approved polymer that can be designed to degrade at specific times and delivered over an extended time period. Learn more here.


Neighboring exoplanets may hold water, study finds
Seven Earth-sized exoplanets circle the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, just 40 light-years from our own blue planet. Now an international team of scientists at the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, MIT, and elsewhere, report that the outer planets in this system may still hold significant stores of water. Three of these potential water worlds are also considered within the habitable zone of the star, giving further support to the possibility that these neighboring planets may, in fact, be hospitable to life. Learn more here.