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Asteroids’ close encounters with Mars

November 19, 2013 7:56 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

For nearly as long as astronomers have been able to observe asteroids, a question has gone unanswered: Why do the surfaces of most asteroids appear redder than meteorites—the remnants of asteroids that have crashed to Earth? Scientists have now found that Mars, not Earth, shakes up some near-Earth asteroids.

How do we balance needs of energy, water and climate?

November 15, 2013 7:26 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In deciding how best to meet the world’s growing needs for energy, the answers depend crucially on how the question is framed. Looking for the most cost-effective path provides one set of answers; including the need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions gives a different picture. Adding the need to address looming shortages of fresh water, it turns out, leads to a very different set of choices.

Biologists identify new cancer weakness

November 14, 2013 3:37 pm | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

About half of all cancer patients have a mutation in a gene called p53, which allows tumors to survive and continue growing even after chemotherapy severely damages their DNA. A new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologists has found that tumor cells with mutated p53 can be made much more vulnerable to chemotherapy by blocking another gene called MK2.

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Machine learning branches out

November 14, 2013 7:59 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Much artificial intelligence research is concerned with finding statistical correlations between variables. As the number of variables grows, calculating their aggregate statistics becomes dauntingly complex. But that calculation can be drastically simplified if you know something about the structure of the data.

Better batteries through biology?

November 13, 2013 7:30 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Lithium-air batteries have become a hot research area in recent years: They hold the promise of drastically increasing power per battery weight, which could lead, for example, to electric cars with a much greater driving range. But bringing that promise to reality has faced a number of challenges.

Cooling when there's too much heat

November 11, 2013 2:18 pm | by Nancy W. Stauffer, MIT Energy Initiative | News | Comments

When an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, crews sprayed cooling seawater on the reactors, but to no avail. One possible reason: Droplets can’t land on surfaces that hot and instantly begin to evaporate, forming a thin layer of vapor and then bouncing along it. Now, MIT researchers have come up with a way to cool hot surfaces more effectively by keeping droplets from bouncing.

Moon’s face doesn’t tell its whole story

November 8, 2013 12:00 pm | News | Comments

Researchers find that huge craters on the near side of the moon may overstate the intensity of asteroid impacts about 4.1 billion years ago.                                          

Hybrid nuclear plants could make a dent in carbon emissions

November 5, 2013 7:31 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Many efforts to smooth out the variability of renewable energy sources have focused on batteries, which could fill gaps lasting hours or days. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Charles Forsberg has come up with a much more ambitious idea: He proposes marrying a nuclear power plant with another energy system, which he argues could add up to much more than the sum of its parts.

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How to program unreliable chips

November 4, 2013 8:23 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

As transistors get smaller, they also become less reliable. So far, computer-chip designers have been able to work around that problem, but in the future, it could mean that computers stop improving at the rate we’ve come to expect. A third possibility, which some researchers have begun to float, is that we could simply let our computers make more mistakes.

Implantable sensor paves way to long-term monitoring

November 4, 2013 7:31 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Nitric oxide (NO) is one of the most important signaling molecules in living cells, carrying messages within the brain and coordinating immune system functions. In many cancerous cells, levels are perturbed, but very little is known about how NO behaves in both healthy and cancerous cells. Until now.

Resistance is futile

November 1, 2013 7:40 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Cisplatin is a chemotherapy drug given to more than half of all cancer patients. The drug kills cells very effectively by damaging nuclear DNA, but if tumors become resistant to cisplatin they often grow back. A new study offers a possible way to overcome that resistance. The researchers found that when cisplatin was delivered to cellular structures called mitochondria, DNA in this organelle was damaged, leading to cancer cell death.

So close, yet so far

October 31, 2013 7:42 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In August, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers identified an exoplanet with an extremely brief orbital period: The team found that Kepler 78b, a small, intensely hot planet 400 light-years from Earth, circles its star in just 8.5 hrs. Now this same team has found that Kepler 78b shares another characteristic with Earth: its mass.

Experiment could shed light on the mysteries of dark matter

October 28, 2013 7:41 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Dark matter, believed by physicists to outweigh all the normal matter in the universe by more than five to one, is by definition invisible. But certain features associated with dark matter might be detectable, according to some of the many competing theories describing this elusive matter. Now scientists have developed a tool that could test some of these predictions and thus prove, or disprove, one of the leading theories.

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Producing light to mix it up with matter

October 25, 2013 7:36 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have succeeded in producing and measuring a coupling of photons and electrons on the surface of an unusual type of material called a topological insulator. This type of coupling had been predicted by theorists, but never observed.

One-two punch knocks out aggressive tumors

October 22, 2013 7:58 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

An aggressive form of breast cancer known as “triple negative” is very difficult to treat: Chemotherapy can shrink such tumors for a while, but in many patients they grow back and gain resistance to the original drugs. To overcome that resistance, chemical engineers have designed nanoparticles that carry the cancer drug doxorubicin, as well as short strands of RNA that can shut off one of the genes that cancer cells use to escape the drug.

Automatic speaker tracking in audio recordings

October 21, 2013 8:23 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

A central topic in spoken-language-systems research is what’s called speaker diarization, or computationally determining how many speakers feature in a recording and which of them speaks when. Speaker diarization would be an essential function of any program that automatically annotated audio or video recordings.

Separating the good from the bad in bacteria

October 17, 2013 7:39 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a new microfluidic device that could speed the monitoring of bacterial infections associated with cystic fibrosis and other diseases. The new microfluidic chip is etched with tiny channels, each resembling an elongated hourglass with a pinched midsection. Researchers injected bacteria through one end of each channel, and observed how cells travel from one end to the other.

Finding blood clots before they wreak havoc

October 16, 2013 7:53 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Life-threatening blood clots can form in anyone who sits on a plane for a long time, is confined to bed while recovering from surgery, or takes certain medications. There is no fast and easy way to diagnose these clots, which often remain undetected until they break free and cause a stroke or heart attack. However, new technology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology may soon change that.

A new role for “hunger hormone”

October 15, 2013 9:06 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

About a dozen years ago, scientists discovered that a hormone called ghrelin enhances appetite. Dubbed the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin was quickly targeted by drug companies seeking treatments for obesity—none of which have yet panned out. Neuroscientists have now discovered that ghrelin’s role goes far beyond controlling hunger.

Creating a permanent bacteria barrier

October 11, 2013 9:35 am | by Rob Matheson, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Any medical device implanted in the body attracts bacteria to its surface, causing infections and thrombosis that lead to many deaths annually. Devices can be coated with antibiotics and blood thinners, but these eventually dissolve, limiting their longevity and effectiveness. Now, Semprus BioSciences is developing a novel biomaterial for implanted medical devices that barricades these troublesome microbes from the device’s surface.

Innovation in renewable-energy technologies is booming

October 11, 2013 8:16 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

The number of patents issued for renewable-energy technologies has risen sharply over the last decade, according to new research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Santa Fe Institute. The study shows that investments in research and development, as well as in the growth of markets for these products, have helped to spur this dramatic growth in innovation.

Study: Ethanol not a major factor in reducing gas prices

October 10, 2013 7:31 am | by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office | News | Comments

If you have stopped at a gas station recently, there is a good chance your auto has consumed fuel with ethanol blended into it. Yet the price of gasoline is not substantially affected by the volume of its ethanol content, according to a paper co-authored by an MIT economist. The study seeks to rebut the claim that widespread use of ethanol has reduced the wholesale cost of gasoline by $0.89 to $1.09 per gallon.

Cracked metal, heal thyself

October 9, 2013 8:00 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | Videos | Comments

It was a result so unexpected that Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers initially thought it must be a mistake: Under certain conditions, putting a cracked piece of metal under tension has the reverse effect, causing the crack to close and its edges to fuse together. The surprising finding could lead to self-healing materials that repair incipient damage before it has a chance to spread.

A clearer look at Martian clouds

October 8, 2013 8:30 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

At first glance, Mars’ clouds might be mistaken for those on Earth. Given what scientists know about the Red Planet’s atmosphere, these clouds likely consist of either carbon dioxide or water-based ice crystals. But it’s difficult to know the precise conditions that give rise to such clouds without sampling directly from a Martian cloud. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have now done the next-best thing.

Better robot vision

October 7, 2013 7:46 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Object recognition is one of the most widely studied problems in computer vision. But a robot that manipulates objects in the world needs to do more than just recognize them; it also needs to understand their orientation. Is that mug right-side up or upside-down? And which direction is its handle facing? To improve robots’ ability to gauge object orientation, a team is exploiting a statistical construct called the Bingham distribution.

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