Investigating Earth’s Earliest Life (MIT News)

Photo of a woman in lab holding up and looking into a small specimen jar.

MIT graduate student Kelsey Moore uses genetic and fossil evidence to study the first stages of evolution on our planet. (Photo: Ian MacLellan)

A brilliant hands-on activity by her second grade teacher got Kelsey Moore, now an MIT graduate student, wondering about the earliest life on Earth.  Students and teachers alike can find inspiration in her story on MIT News — and of course, OCW’s got relevant courses too.

In the second grade, Kelsey Moore became acquainted with geologic time. Her teachers instructed the class to unroll a giant strip of felt down a long hallway in the school. Most of the felt was solid black, but at the very end, the students caught a glimpse of red.

That tiny red strip represented the time on Earth in which humans have lived, the teachers said. The lesson sparked Moore’s curiosity. What happened on Earth before there were humans? How could she find out?

A little over a decade later, Moore enrolled in her first geoscience class at Smith College and discovered she now had the tools to begin to answer those very questions.

Moore zeroed in on geobiology, the study of how the physical Earth and biosphere interact. During the first semester of her sophomore year of college, she took a class that she says “totally blew my mind.”

“I knew I wanted to learn about Earth history. But then I took this invertebrate paleontology class and realized how much we can learn about life and how life has evolved,” Moore says. A few lectures into the semester, she mustered the courage to ask her professor, Sara Pruss in Smith’s Department of Geosciences, for a research position in the lab.

Now a fourth-year graduate student at MIT, Moore works in the geobiology lab of Associate Professor Tanja Bosak in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences…

Keep reading >

Start your own exploration of life’s origins on Earth, with the free lecture notes and more in OCW’s 12.007 Geobiology, co-taught by Professors Tanja Bosak and Roger Summons.

Go deep with oceanographer Carl Wunsch

Photo of a smiling man in front of a chalkboard covered in math and diagrams.

Carl Wunsch, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography (Emeritus) in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. (Photo by Helen Hill.)

Like many scientific fields, oceanography has gone through big changes in recent decades. It’s been blessed with more high-quality data and powerful computing, leading to more accurate oceanographic models and underlying theories. It’s going through culture shifts, e.g. from male-dominated to one where women are increasingly prominent. And as oceanography has been central to our growing scientific understanding of climate change, it’s thoroughly embedded in the science communication challenges and cultural debate around this curiously contentious issue.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear an insider’s perspective on the evolving science and all these changes?

Let MIT professor Carl Wunsch be our guide. With a career starting in the mid-1960s, Professor Wunsch “is at the heart of many of the major advances in modern physical oceanography,” writes Nature climate science editor Michael White.

Professor Wunsch is the latest guest on Michael White’s “Forecast” podcast, which features long format interviews with climate scientists about climate science. Their conversation is a captivating “one-stop history of the field, and a deeply personal insight into how major science questions are conceptualized and addressed,” full of rich stories about the science, and the personalities, conflicts and connections, that make this world turn.

You can also learn some oceanography directly from Wunsch’s two courses on OCW – 12.842 Climate Physics and Chemistry and 12.864 Inference from Data and Models – and his popular online textbook Evolution of Physical Oceanography (also free on OCW). These are just a few of OCW’s extensive oceanography resources.

> Listen to “Carl Wunsch and the rise of modern oceanography” on the Forecast podcast.

Courses from MIT’s 2018 MacVicar Fellows

Four faculty portrait photos.

The 2018 MacVicar Faculty fellows are (clockwise from top left): Shankar Raman, David Autor, Merritt Roe Smith, and Christopher Capozzola.
(Courtesy of MIT Registrar’s Office.)

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

For the past 26 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors David Autor (economics), Christopher Capozzola (history), Shankar Raman (literature), and Merritt Roe Smith (history).

OCW is honored to share courses from all of this year’s Fellows.

David Autor

14.03 Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy

14.661 Labor Economics I

14.11 Putting Social Sciences to the Test: Field Experiments in Economics

14.662 Labor Economics II

Christopher Capozzola

21M.630 Black Matters: Introduction to Black Studies

21H.223 War & American Society

21H.221 The Places of  Migration in United States History

21H.105 American Classics

21H.225J Gender and the Law in U.S. History 

21H.224 Law and Society in US History

Shankar Raman

21L.451 Introduction to Literary Theory

21L.704 Studies in Poetry: From the Sonneteers to the Metaphysicals

21L.009 Shakespeare

21L.703 English Renaissance Drama: Theatre and Society in the Age of Shakespeare

21L.017 The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability

Merritt Roe Smith

STS.462 Social and Political Implications of Technology

21H.116J The Civil War and Reconstruction

STS.050 The History of MIT

STS.001 Technology in American History

STS.025J Making the Modern World: The Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective

STS.427 The Civil War and the Emergence of Modern America, 1861-1890

Through the OCW Educator initiative, we have also collected Instructor Insights from Professor David Autor about how he teaches 14.03 Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy. His roundabout path to teaching labor economics is both fascinating and encouraging to those of us on a winding path toward finding our passions!

Interested in more Instructor Insights from past MacVicar Fellows? Visit our OCW Educator portal to search for Insights from MIT Teaching Award Recipients. Delve into the minds of Lorna Gibson, Catherine Drennan, Arthur Bahr, Dennis Freeman, and many other MIT professors advancing teaching and learning in their fields.

MIT Energy Initiative celebrates 10 years of innovative research and education

Grid of six photos.

Top row (l-r): Tata Center spinoff Khethworks develops affordable irrigation for the developing world; students discuss utility research in Washington; thin, lightweight solar cell developed by Professor Vladimir Bulović and team. Bottom row (l-r): MIT’s record-setting Alcator tokamak fusion research reactor; a researcher in the MIT Energy Laboratory’s Combustion Research Facility; Professor Kripa Varanasi, whose research on slippery surfaces has led to a spinoff co-founded with Associate Provost Karen Gleason. (Photos: Tata Center for Technology and Design, MITEI, Joel Jean and Anna Osherov, Bob Mumgaard/PSFC, Energy Laboratory Archives, Bryce Vickmark.)

It’s said that our ability to harness and use energy underlies the very development of modern civilization. Now, as the world grapples with climate change induced by many decades of runaway carbon emissions, our long-running quest for simply more and cheaper energy shifts toward cleaner and zero-carbon sources, and more just systems and policies to ensure that all people have fair access to essential energy resources. It’s no exaggeration to say that our future lives depend on it.

Ten years ago, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) was launched to build momentum, coordinate efforts, and generate the innovations needed to fuel this energy system transition. A lot has happened in those 10 years, as MITEI’s Kathryn M. O’Neill reports in MIT News:

On any given day at MIT, undergraduates design hydro-powered desalination systems, graduate students test alternative fuels, and professors work to tap the huge energy-generating potential of nuclear fusion, biomaterials, and more. While some MIT researchers are modeling the impacts of policy on energy markets, others are experimenting with electrochemical forms of energy storage.

This is the robust energy community at MIT. Developed over the past 10 years with the guidance and support of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) — and with roots extending back into the early days of the Institute — it has engaged more than 300 faculty members and spans more than 900 research projects across all five schools.

In addition, MIT offers a multidisciplinary energy minor and myriad energy-related events and activities throughout the year. Together, these efforts ensure that students who arrive on campus with an interest in energy have free rein to pursue their ambitions…

…What has MIT’s energy community as a whole accomplished over the past decade? Hockfield says it’s raised the visibility of the world’s energy problems, contributed solutions — both technical and sociopolitical — and provided “an army of young people” to lead the way to a sustainable energy future.

Read the full story >

MIT OpenCourseWare is pleased to feature many of the subjects in the MIT Undergraduate Energy Minor on our Energy Courses page.

Machine learning courses by Regina Barzilay, 2017 MacArthur Fellow

Photo of Regina Barzilay relaxing against a table in classroom, with students working in the background.

Photo: Lillie Paquette/MIT School of Engineering

Congratulations to MIT computer scientist Regina Barzilay, Delta Electronics professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

This morning, the MacArthur Foundation announced that she’s a 2017 Fellow, awarded for her leading-edge work “[d]eveloping machine learning methods that enable computers to process and analyze vast amounts of human language data.”

In one of her most recent projects, Professor Barzilay aims to bring machine learning assistance to the complex and constantly-evolving field of oncology.

You can sample Professor Barzilay’s teaching in these two OCW courses:

Kerry Emanuel on climate change and hurricanes

A satellite measurement of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 25 found that intense storms in the eastern side were dropping rain at a rate greater than 3.2 inches (82 mm) per hour.
Credits: NASA/JAXA, Hal Pierce.

“‘[With global warming, we could see] a 50-percent increase in the destructive potential” of the most powerful tropical storms,’ says meteorologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

For decades, MIT’s Kerry Emanuel has been a go-to researcher for those seeking insight into how climate change may affect catastrophic storms. The above quote is from 1992, in a Newsweek article “Was Andrew a Freak — Or a Preview of Things to Come?” — and has never been more timely.

Kerry is also an eloquent and forceful voice pushing leaders around the world to take the risks of climate change more seriously.

Now we’re once again deep into storm season around the world, and it’s not pretty. With events still unfolding in Texas with Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey, and weeks of escalating devastating monsoon floods in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, many people are asking: are these extreme storms the result of climate change?

The current thinking: it’s complicated. Foremost, we shouldn’t be seeking a direct causal link between climate change and any particular storm. As Professor Emanuel told The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney a few days ago:

“My feeling is, when there’s a hurricane, there’s an occasion to talk about the subject,” he said. “But attributing a particular [weather] event to anything, whether it’s climate change or anything else, is a badly posed question, really.”

Scientists are clear that climate change has “threat multiplier” effects on storms, increasing the likelihood and severity of some aspects. For instance: warmer waters and warmer air increase the moisture available and the energy in storms; disruptions in atmospheric circulation increase the likelihood of a storm “stalling out” over a region; and ocean storm surges are made more destructive when melting ice caps have raised the baseline sea level.

“The thing that keeps forecasters up at night is the prospect that a storm will rapidly gain strength just before it hits land,” Emanuel recently told Agence France-Presse, citing Harvey as an example. “Global warming can accentuate that sudden acceleration in intensity.”

Interestingly, it’s still uncertain whether global warming will lead to more or less frequent hurricanes. But in terms of catastrophic damage, storm frequency seems less important than the severity of storms, where climate change does have a clear footprint.

[Update, Sept. 26 2017: Kerry just gave an in-depth 1 hour talk at MIT, entitled “What Do Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Portend?” Watch the video, or read highlights in the news coverage.]

Kerry Emanuel has been a frequent contributor on OCW. Check out these two courses particularly connected to the storms + climate change issue.

  • 12.103 Science and Policy of Natural Hazards introduces the science of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes and explores the relationships between the science of and policy toward such hazards. It presents the causes and effects of these phenomena, discusses their predictability, and examines how this knowledge influences policy making.
  • 12.340 Global Warming Science provides a scientifically rigorous foundation to understand anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, an introduction to climate models, the material impacts of climate change, and the science behind mitigation and adaptation proposals. [See also the archived MITx on edX version of this course.]

Want to get into a global conversation about climate change, its impacts and how we should respond? Check out the growing online community at MIT ClimateX.

Courses from MIT’s 2017 MacVicar Fellows

Photos of three MIT professors

MIT professors Maria Yang (left), Caspar Hare (center), and Scott Hughes have been named 2017 MacVicar Fellows. (Photos by Bryce Vickmark (Yang), Patrick Gilooly (Hare), and Justin Knight.)

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

For the past 25 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors Caspar Hare (philosophy), Scott A. Hughes (physics), and Maria Yang (mechanical engineering).

OCW is honored to share courses from two of this year’s Fellows.

Caspar Hare

24.06J/STS.006J Bioethics

Scott A. Hughes

8.962 General Relativity

Through the OCW Educator initiative, we have also collected teaching insights from several current and past MacVicar Fellows.

Arthur Bahr

21L.460 Medieval Literature: Legends of Arthur

21L.705 Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf

Wit Busza

Vibrations and Waves Problem Solving

Dennis M. Freeman

6.01SC Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I

Lorna Gibson

3.054 Cellular Solids: Structure, Properties and Applications

Steven R. Hall

16.06 Principles of Automatic Control

Anne E. C. McCants

21H.134J Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective

21H.343J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today

21H.991 Theories and Methods in the Study of History

Haynes R. Miller

18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics

18.915 Graduate Topology Seminar: Kan Seminar

Hazel Sive

7.013 Introductory Biology (Spring 2013 version)