Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz wrote on op ed in the Washington Post a few days ago on the proposed nuclear deal between the international community and Iran. While many don’t seem to know it, the DoE’s primary responsibility is oversight of various nuclear facilities, so it would be the agency most qualified to respond to the technical (rather than political) details of the deal. Moniz is also an emeritus professor physics at MIT. Moniz emphasizes that the deal, if it passes in the end, would achieve many of the goals that the US and other countries want, which is to prevent the development of nuclear weapons or at least make it hard enough to delay anything. It would also allow Iran to continue a civilian nuclear program, which is what it claims it wants anyway while making it difficult to evade limitations on fuel enrichment.
In sad news, Charles Townes died on Tuesday. Townes is one of the people credited for helping invent the laser, without which many important pieces of technology could not exist. He helped build the first maser (the microwave equivalent of the laser) at Columbia in the 50s and was awarded the Nobel Prize along with two others in 1964. He also spent some time serving as provost of MIT.
As many of you who may follow academia or physics may know, MIT terminated its relationship with prominent emeritus professor Walter Lewin back in December.** At the time, the official explanation was that MIT had received credible accusations that Lewin had been sexually harassing people using edX/MITx and MIT’s own online coursework. As part of the response, MIT removed Lewin’s famous online introductory physics lectures and other material from the OpenCourseWare site. This set off a firestorm across the internet with accusations that MIT must be overreacting and that the response was tantamount to Nazi book burning.
Over the past few days, a few articles have come out going into the accusations in more detail, which is what prompted me to write this. First, The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, reported on Lewin’s supposed unprofessional behavior on Twitter. Then, Inside Higher Ed was provided with much more detailed information the person who reportedly was the one who made the complaint to MIT.
You can read the articles yourself, but I think this new information (provided that it’s true) makes it much clearer why MIT responded in the way it did. The accusations are that Lewin deliberately sought out women who were in his online classes or were interested in his classes and repeatedly sent sexually harassing messages to a number of them. Even if some of them didn’t consider this harassment (and it’s clear that at least one did think it was harassment), this kind of behavior is highly unethical and unprofessional. As far as I am aware, none of the alleged behavior is actually illegal. Regardless, it is absolutely unacceptable for a professor to exploit his (or her) position to manipulate people seeking a student-teacher type of relationship in this way. Had this been an actual MIT class, it would almost certainly expose MIT to some sort of legal liability and termination even of a tenured professor would potentially be warranted. MIT’s response of stripping Lewin of his emeritus status and removing the material he was allegedly using to harass students is simply saying that professors will also be held responsible for their behavior even in the rather new and unregulated world of online education.
**A brief disclaimer: I do know some of the people who are at least indirectly involved in this, although I don’t know Lewin or anyone who has received the kinds of messages described here and in the source articles. I don’t have any inside info or confidential info or anything beyond what has been publicly revealed so far.
Well, MIT finally lost a football game yesterday in the second round of the D-III tournament. They end up at 9-0 in the regular season and 10-1 overall. This is still much better than probably anyone really expected them to do this year.
In stark contrast to Columbia’s historically awful last couple seasons, MIT football is undefeated in regular season play and now in the NCAA Division III tournament. Their first round game is going on right now. This is not a joke. MIT really does have a football team and really is undefeated.
MIT plays in the New England Football Conference and in NEWMAC for most other sports. Going undefeated is quite the feat for MIT. Division III, if you don’t know, does not allow for athletic scholarships unlike Divisions I and II. The Ivy League is Division I but operates under rules similar to Division III due to a special rule in the D-I membership guidelines, with no scholarships and major recruiting restrictions (as well as very limited academic support for athletes compared to the rest of D-I). Even Columbia would probably beat nearly any D-III school at football or basketball but wouldn’t be expected to be competitive with anyone in D-I outside the Ivy League and maybe the Patriot League.
MIT actually won their first round game to reach the round of 8.
PRL published a couple new papers from AMS today, including this one, which shows an updated plot of the positron fraction (e+/(e+ + e-)) as a function of energy. I don’t think these have been posted to the arXiv yet, which is unusual for our field. Unfortunately, PRL must be accessed either through a network with access or with an account, which requires money, so if you’re not at a university and aren’t an APS member you might have trouble looking at the paper. In conjunction with the papers being released, there was a seminar at CERN earlier today. I didn’t find out about the seminar until it was too late for me to try to call in remotely.
AMS is a large multipurpose detector based at the International Space Station that studies cosmic rays, which are high energy particles flying around in space. The search for dark matter is one of the main purposes of the experiment, but it can study many things about cosmic rays, such as their composition, energy spectra, directions, etc.
This paper shows the positron fraction up to 500 GeV, which is a bit higher than in previous measurements. This measurement is useful for looking for dark matter annihilation to electron-positron pairs. The expected signal is for the positron fraction to increase at some energy and then peak and drop fairly sharply at an energy of approximately the dark matter mass. Previous measurements from AMS, Fermi, PAMELA and ATIC have all seen an increase in the ratio and have even seen the spectrum seem to level off. This new measurement shows that the leveling off continues, and the spectrum may even be starting to fall in the highest energy bin. However, the measurement is limited by both statistics and systematics at the highest energies, so the apparent decrease in the highest bin is not going to be statistically significant at this point in time. That may change with more events in the future and hopefully a better understanding of the detector and of astrophysical models for the non-dark matter background.
I missed hearing about this before it happened, but Max Tegmark was answering questions on reddit yesterday. Max is a physics professor at MIT focusing primarily on cosmology. You can find the thread here, although it’s almost certainly too late to ask a question and expect to get an answer.
CNN is reporting that a former long-time MIT professor and associate dean of the Sloan School of Management, Gabriel Bitran, has pled guilty to scamming investors with a basically fake hedge fund. Bernie Madoff is even involved.
It seems like this kind of malfeasance occurs not infrequently among professors in prominent business schools. Professors stealing tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, particularly if they use their position as a professor to gain peoples’ trust, certainly looks bad for MIT. The fact that these are business professors, who should obviously know better, doesn’t exactly help improve the already dim reputation of business as an academic field.
MIT has finally released its report on the future of education at MIT. You can find it here.
The main part of the report is about 30 pages and includes various recommendations, mostly to do more investigating into various possibilities.
MITx/edX takes a prominent place in many of the recommendations. The report suggests that the Institute investigate incorporating MITx material into actual classes. It also discusses ways to expand the reach of MITx/edX outside MIT and suggests various ways to do this and to increase revenue from these programs.
One interesting thing that I hadn’t known is that the MIT faculty has not grown much in the past 30 years, while the number of graduate students and postdocs has increased significantly due to increased research funding. Unusually for similar schools, the undergraduate population has actually decreased, likely due to increasing restrictions on undergrads living off campus (mostly due to various scandals at frats and independent living groups).
Overall, the report recommends doing much of this to strengthen the traditional residential programs at MIT. Something like MITx could be very useful as a teaching tool, both inside and outside MIT, but we should remain skeptical to be sure that the development of nontraditional pedagogical methods does not threaten the quality of the education students get on campus. Some things that have already been tried, such as the TEAL program adding computer-based work and clicker questions in the classroom in introductory physics courses have been found to increase test scores, although they are widely disliked by a large fraction of the undergraduate student body.