Smallpox was nothing new in 1721.
Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak.
Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today's world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.
As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.
Smallpox strikes Boston
Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city's population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.
What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation" or “inoculation," and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter" from a victim's scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity" against smallpox.
Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.
The inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, came to be known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, owned by the most influential man in all of Boston, the Rev. Cotton Mather.
Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used" in West Africa, where he was from.
Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation's effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.
The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman's mind. But others were not convinced.
Stirring up controversy
A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.
One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?" The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers" such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God."
In contrast to Mather and Boylston's research, the Courant's articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn't it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?
Franklin, the Courant's editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.
Historians don't know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world's current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.
You might expect that James' little brother would have been inclined to oppose inoculation as well. After all, thinking like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.
That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin's capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.
Truth, not victory
Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.
Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv'd the Distemper in the common Way of Infection."
Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret" not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen."
A scientific perspective
A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.
J. A. Philip; Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 4.0
Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today's researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.
The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.
We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.
When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn't take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.
Why your brain wants you to follow the crowd.
- What can monkeys teach us about stock market bubbles? It turns out that monkeys make decisions much like investors on the trading floor—they develop a herd mentality, mimicking the behavior of others until overinflation and the eventual pop.
- "This tendency to follow the herd emerges from our social brain networks," explains Michael Platt, professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. This network allows us to learn and adapt based on information from those around us. But these learnings are not always positive.
- In the context of money and the stock market, following the herd could result in bad financial decisions. The key, Platt says, is learning to take a step back and resist impulses, which in some ways goes against our evolution and the way our brains work. "There's a trade off between speed and accuracy in decision-making," he says. "If we could slow people down, that would allow more evidence to accumulate, and they're more likely to make a better decision."
All the latest titles from the experts at MIT.
The following titles represent a selection of recent offerings from MIT faculty and staff. Happy reading!
Novel, Biography, and Memoir
"The Planet After Geoengineering" (Actar, 2021)
By Rania Ghosn, associate professor of architecture
This graphic novel makes climate engineering and its controversies visible in five stories assembled from the deep underground to outer space. Each "geo-story" — Petrified Carbon, Arctic Albedo, Sky River, Sulfur Storm, and Dust Cloud — depicts possible future Earths that we come to inhabit on the heels of a geoengineering intervention.
"Camino Road" (Primary Information, 2021)
By Renée Green, professor of architecture
Green's debut novel is an homage to (and parody of) the historically male-dominated genre of the road novel. Set between the late 1970s and early 1980s, and combining the genres of road novel, countercultural memoir, travel journal, epistolary novel, and screenplay, it is the record of the mind of a young woman coming of age as an artist, traveling in Mexico, and exploring the bohemian milieu of 1980s New York.
"The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir" (Crown, 2020)
By Sara Seager, the Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Sciences and professor of Earth, atmospheric and planetary Sciences; physics; and aeronautics and astronautics
A pioneering planetary scientist, Seager searches for exoplanets — especially that distant, elusive world that sustains life. But with the unexpected death of her husband, the purpose of her own life becomes hard for her to see. As she struggles to navigate life after loss, Seager takes solace in the alien beauty of exoplanets and the technical challenges of exploration.
"The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir" (Penguin, 2021)
By Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society
In this vivid narrative, Turkle ties together her coming of age and her pathbreaking research on technology, empathy, and ethics. Growing up in postwar Brooklyn, Turkle searched for clues to her identity in a house filled with mysteries. Before empathy became a way to find connection, it was her strategy for survival.
Science and Medicine
"Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity" (MIT Press, 2021)
By Arup Chakraborty, Institute Professor and professor of chemical engineering, chemistry, and physics; and Andrey Shaw
This book provides an accessible explanation of how viruses emerge to cause pandemics, how our immune system combats them, and how diagnostic tests, vaccines, and antiviral therapies work — concepts that provide the foundation for our public health policies.
"Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World" (University of Chicago Press, 2020)
By David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society; professor of physics, and associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
Kaiser introduces readers to iconic episodes in physicists' still-unfolding quest to understand space, time, and matter. He explores moments of discovery and debate among the minds of Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Stephen Hawking, and many more who have indelibly shaped our understanding of nature as they've tried to make sense of a messy world.
"Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings" (Pantheon, 2021)
By Alan Lightman, professor of the practice of the humanities in MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing
From the acclaimed author of "Einstein's Dreams" comes a collection of meditative essays on the possibilities — and impossibilities — of nothingness and infinity, and how our place in the cosmos falls somewhere in between.
"Mercury Stories: Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Noelle E. Selin, associate professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Henrik Selin
This book explores how people have made beneficial use of mercury for thousands of years, how they've been harmed by its toxic properties, and how they've tried to protect themselves and the environment from its damaging effects. The authors develop and apply an analytical framework that can inform other efforts to evaluate and promote sustainability.
"Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality" (Penguin, 2021)
By Frank Wilczek, the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics
Wilczek offers a simple yet profound exploration of reality based on the deep revelations of modern science. With clarity and joy, he guides readers through the essential concepts that form our understanding of what the world is and how it works. Through these pages, we come to see our reality in a new way — bigger, fuller, and stranger than it looked before.
Culture, Humanities, and Social Sciences
"Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance" (NYU Press, 2021)
By Moya Bailey, MLK Visiting Professor in the MIT Program in Women's and Gender Studies
When Bailey first coined the term "misogynoir," she defined it as the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital spaces. In this book, Bailey shows how Black women actively reimagine the world by engaging in powerful forms of digital resistance at a time when anti-Black misogyny is thriving.
"Combating Inequality: Rethinking Government's Role" (MIT Press, 2021)
Edited by Olivier Blanchard, professor emeritus of economics, and Dani Rodrik
Economic inequality is the defining issue of our time. In this book, leading economists, many of them current or former policymakers, bring good news: We have the tools to reverse the rise in inequality. In their discussions, they consider which of these tools are the most effective at doing so.
"Insurance Era: Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America" (University of Chicago Press, 2021)
By Caley Horan, associate professor of history
Horan shows that "the rise and dissemination of neoliberal values ... were the result of a project to unsocialize risk, shrinking the state's commitment to providing support." This has had the effect of laying burdens on people who are often the least capable of bearing them.
"Just Money: Mission-Driven Banks and the Future of Finance" (MIT Press, 2021)
By Katrin Kaufer, director of Just Money at the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Lillian Steponaitis, CoLab research affiliate
In this book, Kaufer and Steponaitis take readers on a global tour of financial institutions that use finance as a force for good. In so doing, they remind us that money, if used intentionally and equitably, can be just money — a tool that serves nature, human development, and social justice.
"The Mental Life of Modernism: Why Poetry, Painting, and Music Changed at the Turn of the Twentieth Century" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Samuel Jay Keyser, professor emeritus of linguistics
Keyser argues that the stylistic innovations of Western modernism reflect not a cultural shift but a cognitive one. Behind modernism is the same cognitive phenomenon that led to the scientific revolution of the 17th century: the brain coming up against its natural limitations.
"Beyond 9/11: Homeland Security for the Twenty-First Century" (MIT Press, 2020)
Edited by Chappell Lawson, associate professor of political science; Alan Bersin; and Juliette N. Kayyem
What does it mean to "secure the homeland" in the 21st century? What lessons can be drawn from the first two decades of U.S. government efforts to do so? In this book, leading academic experts and former senior government officials address the most salient challenges of homeland security today.
"Money for Nothing: The Scientists, Fraudsters, and Corrupt Politicians Who Reinvented Money, Panicked a Nation, and Made The World Rich" (Random House, 2020)
By Thomas Levenson, professor of the practice in MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing
Advances of the Scientific Revolution created newly abstract ideas about money, transforming it from something material — discs of precious metal — to a mathematical notion of money, shares, or bonds, or insurance that could evolve over time. Levenson shows how we are still vulnerable to the same risks that brought down Britain's first experiments with financial invention.
"States of Childhood: From the Junior Republic to the American Republic, 1895-1945" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Jennifer S. Light, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society
Across the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century, simulated cities, states, and nations sprang up in which children played legislators, police officers, bankers, shopkeepers, and other adults. They passed laws, grew food, and constructed buildings, among other tasks, inside virtual worlds. Light examines these "junior republics" and argues that they marked the transition to a new kind of "sheltered" childhood for American youth.
"American Fascism" (Society for Cultural Anthropology, 2021)
Edited by Heather Paxson, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology, with Christopher Nelson and Brad Weiss
If the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol represents a return of fascism, when was it here before? Is fascism an appropriate category to understand this moment? The essays within this anthology provide some context for our current political moment; they are provocations for the future, and for the anthropological work that lies ahead.
"Wall to Wall: Law as Culture in Latin America and Spain" (Vernon Press, 2021)
Co-edited by Ana Yáñez Rodríguez, lecturer in Spanish within MIT Global Languages
In this collection, a wide array of scholars based in the U.S., Spain, and Latin America explore the encounter of Hispanophone cultures and the law. Contributors delineate a fraught relationship of complicity, negotiation, and outright confrontation covering five centuries and a global landscape.
Technology and Society
"Redesigning AI: Work, Democracy, and Justice in the Age of Automation" (Boston Review, distributed by MIT Press, 2021)
Edited by Daron Acemoglu, Institute Professor and professor of economics
This book brings together experts — economists, legal scholars, policymakers, and developers — to explore the intersection of technology and economic justice, and to consider what steps tech companies can do take to ensure the advancement of AI does not further diminish economic prospects of the most vulnerable.
"The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — and How We Must Adapt" (Currency, 2020)
By Sinan Aral, the David Austin Professor of Management and professor of information technology and marketing
Drawing on decades of research and business experience, Aral provides an insider's tour of how social media affects our decision-making and shapes our world in ways both useful and dangerous, with critical insights into the social media trends of the 2020 election and beyond.
"The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals about Our Future with Robots" (Macmillan, 2021)
By Kate Darling, researcher at the MIT Media Lab
Are robots going to replace us and take our jobs? While those discussions are going on in many industries, Darling offers a different take. She argues that by treating robots the same way we treat animals — with humanity — and incorporating them in our work, military, and family life, our future with robot technology looks bright.
"Data Feminism" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Catherine D'Ignazio, assistant professor of urban science and planning, and Lauren F. Klein
Data are neither neutral nor objective. While they have been used for good (exposing injustice, improving health outcomes), they have also been used to discriminate (granting home loans, determining jail sentences). The authors present a new way of thinking about data informed by intersectional feminism, and offer strategies for how data scientists can work toward a more just society.
"Recommendation Engines" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Michael Schrage, visiting scholar in MIT Sloan's Initiative on the Digital Economy
Schrage explains the origins, technologies, business applications, and increasing societal impact of recommendation engines, the systems that allow companies worldwide to know what products, services, and experiences "you might also like." Part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.
"What to Expect When You're Expecting Robots: The Future of Human-Robot Collaboration" (Basic Books, 2020)
By Julie Shah, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, and Laura Major SM '05
A vision for how robots can survive in the real world and how they will change our relationship to technology. From teaching them manners, to robot-proofing public spaces, to planning for their mistakes, this book answers every question you didn't know you needed to ask about the robots on the way.''
"Data Action: Using Data for Public Good" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Sarah Williams, associate professor of urban studies and planning
Data inevitably represent the ideologies of those who control their use; data analytics and algorithms too often exclude women, the poor, and ethnic groups. In this book, Williams provides a guide for working with data in more ethical and responsible ways.
Education, Work, Business, and Management
"Workforce Education: A New Roadmap" (MIT Press, 2021)
By William Bonvillian, senior director for special projects at MIT Open Learning, and Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning
Bonvillian and Sarma offer a roadmap for rebuilding America's working class. They argue that we need to train more workers more quickly, and they describe innovative methods of workforce education that are being developed across the country.
"Step Up, Step Back: How to Really Deliver Strategic Change in Your Organization" (Bloomsbury, 2020)
By Elsbeth Johnson, senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management
Johnson challenges some of our most fundamental beliefs about how to lead change — and about what we consider "leadership." She suggests leaders need to do more in early stages of the change, in specific ways and at specific times, and do less in later stages of the change.
"The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge" (Seven Stories Press, 2021)
By Peter B. Kaufman, project manager for resource development and strategic initiatives in MIT Open Learning
How do we create a universe of truthful and verifiable information, available to everyone? In this book, Kaufman describes the powerful forces that have purposely damaged our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely, drawing up a progressive agenda for how today's free thinkers can band together to fight them — and win.
"Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It" (Princeton University Press, 2020)
By Erin L. Kelly, MIT Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies, and Phyllis Moen
Years of research shows how organizational change and work redesign strategies can address burnout, overload, and turnover — especially timely as many professionals in the past year have been asked to do more with less in extremely challenging circumstances.
"Shaping the Future of Work: A Handbook for Action and a New Social Contract" (Routledge, 2020)
By Tom Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, and Lee Dyer
This book provides a clear roadmap for the roles workers and leaders in business, labor, education, and government must play in building a new social contract for all to prosper. It is a call to action for a collaborative effort to develop both high-quality jobs and strong, successful businesses while overcoming the deep social and economic divisions that are all too apparent in society today.
"Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work . . . Wherever You Are" (Harper Business, 2021)
By Robert Pozen, senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Alexandra Samuel
You can thrive and excel when you're working remotely, if you adopt the mindset, habits, and tech tools of professionals who are even more productive outside the office. Learn to think like a "business of one," and that entrepreneurial mindset will transform your experience of remote work.
"Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education" (Harvard University Press, 2020)
By Justin Reich, associate professor of comparative media studies
Reich describes how learning technologies — even those that are free to access — often provide the greatest benefit to affluent students and do little to combat growing inequality in education. We still need new teaching tools, and classroom experimentation should be encouraged, he asserts. But successful reform efforts will focus on incremental improvements, not the next killer app.
"Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn" (Doubleday, 2020)
By Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning, and Luke Yoquinto, research associate in the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics
Sarma and Yoquinto summarize the history of pedagogy and offer a vision for a different future, asking important questions about the efficacy of exams, the notion of innate ability, and new scholarship on how learners understand, absorb, and utilize information and skills. They argue for a more accessible, flexible, and engaging learning ecosystem.
"Make it Clear: Speak and Write to Persuade and Inform" (MIT Press, 2021)
By Patrick Henry Winston, former Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science
Effective communication can be life-changing. This book from the late MIT professor and former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory helps readers understand how writing and speaking tools can help you get a job, make a sale, convince a boss, inspire a student, or even start a revolution.
Arts, Architecture, and Design
"Dance, Architecture and Engineering (Dance in Dialogue)" (Bloomsbury, 2021)
By Adesola Akinleye, research affiliate in the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology and a CAST Visiting Artist
Generated from a year of exchanges of movement ideas in cross-practice conversations and workshops with dancers, musicians, architects, and engineers, Akinleye engages with dance's offer of perspectives on being in place. Themes addressed include how dance and city-making cultures engage with female bodies and non-white bodies in today's era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
"Architecture of Coexistence: Building Pluralism" (Architangle, 2020)
Edited by Azra Aksamija, associate professor of architecture
This book investigates how architecture can shape an open-minded and inclusive society, highlighting three internationally renowned projects: the White Mosque in Visoko, Bosnia-Herzegovina (1980); the Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Austria (2012); and Superkilen park in Copenhagen, Denmark (2011). Essays and interviews provide intriguing insights into architecture's ability to bridge cultural divides.
"The Cannibal's Cookbook: Mining Myths of Cyclopean Constructions" (ORO Editions, 2021)
By Brandon Clifford, associate professor of architecture
Bridging the realities of our ancestors and ourselves, this book proposes a series of architectural "recipes" after dining on a body of past expertise. Recipes are deciphered from ancient cyclopean masonry systems, but with a contemporary twist; they cannibalize leftover debris — building rubble that typically stuffs our landfills — to construct new buildings.
"Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Sasha Costanza-Chock, associate professor of civic media
"Design justice" is an approach to design that is led by marginalized communities and that aims to challenge, rather than reproduce, structural inequalities. This book documents a multitude of real-world community-led design practices and connects design to larger struggles for collective liberation and ecological survival.
"The World as an Architectural Project" (MIT Press, 2020)
By Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and Roi Salgueiro Barrio, lecturer in SA+P, with Gabriel Kozlowski, researcher in SA+P
The world's growing vulnerability to planet-sized risks invites action on a global scale. This book shows how, for more than a century, architects have imagined the future of the planet through world-scale projects. With 50 speculative projects by visionary architects documented in text and images, this ambitious and wide-ranging book is the first compilation of its kind.
"Things Fall Together: A Guide to the New Materials Revolution" (Princeton University Press, 2021)
By Skylar Tibbits, associate professor of architecture and co-director of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab
Today's researchers are exploiting newly understood properties of matter to program materials that sense, adapt, and fall together instead of apart. This book describes how these materials open new directions for industrial innovation and challenge us to rethink the way we build and collaborate with our environment.
Cities and Planning
"A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy" (Island Press, 2021)
Edited by Alan Berger, professor of urban studies and planning; Carolyn Kousky; and Billy Fleming
Coastal adaptation is necessary if communities are to adequately protect themselves from increased tidal flooding and sea level rise. Planning is critical to their survival. "A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation" inspires innovative and cross-disciplinary thinking about coastal policy at the state and local levels while providing actionable, realistic policy and planning options for adaptation professionals and policymakers.
"Street Commerce: Creating Vibrant Urban Sidewalks" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)
By Andres Sevtsuk, associate professor of urban studies and planning
Will e-commerce and big-box stores overtake the smaller-scale stores lining streets accessible on foot or by public transit? Sevtsuk offers a thoughtful analysis of the issues involved in implementing successful street commerce and provides examples from around the world where cities have reinvigorated their street commerce.
"Furthering Fair Housing: Prospects for Racial Justice in America's Neighborhoods" (Temple University Press, 2021)
Edited by Justin P. Steil, associate professor of law and urban planning; Lawrence J. Vale, associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and the Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning; Nicholas F. Kelly PhD '21; and Maia S. Woluchem MCP '19
The 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule was repealed by the Trump administration, jeopardizing the most significant federal effort to increase equal access to valuable opportunities such as top-performing schools and good jobs. By placing the history of fair housing in the context of the centuries-long struggle for racial equity, the authors show how the policy can be revived and enhanced to advance racial equity in America's neighborhoods.
"Toward Urban Economic Vibrancy: Patterns and Practices in Asia's New Cities" (SA+P Press, distributed by MIT Press, 2020)
Edited by Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability, and Zhengzhen Tan, executive director of the MIT Sustainable Urbanization Lab
This book presents new cities in Asia from the perspective of economic vibrancy, identifying key mechanisms for measuring success. This analytical framework addresses the mechanisms along three dimensions: underlying forces that foster the dense and diverse production and consumption activities; creative financing; and the digitalization of urban systems.
For Young Readers
"Peculiar Produce: The Alphabet Book" (Hand Press Ink, 2021)
By Thomas Moya; illustrated by Arthur Grau, senior communications officer in the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics
A picture book that teaches about uncommon foods and introduces readers to children's names from different cultures. Using alliterative text and aspirational vocabulary to encourage discussion of body image and healthy eating, characters represent fruits and vegetables that highlight differences and imperfections.
We live in a world dominated by science, but most people don't understand its most essential characteristic: establishing standards of evidence to keep us from getting fooled by our own biases and opinions.
- Maintaining standards of evidence is the most important and least appreciated idea in science.
- Modern science was established in the late Renaissance when networks of researchers began working out best practices for linking evidence with conclusions.
- In the face of science denial and attempts to create a post-truth society, we have to protect the primacy of standards of evidence in science and society.
I talk a lot about science to people who are not scientists. It's generally a lot of fun because most folks are science-curious even if they don't think about it a lot on their own time. But whether I'm talking about alien life, black holes, or the weirdnesses of quantum mechanics, there is always one really important idea that I try to get across that generally no one is interested in:
Standards of evidence. It's the most important boring idea in the universe.
Networks of scientists led to scientific societies
The development of modern science was a long, slow process that required input from most of the world's cultures ranging from ancient Greece and medieval Islam to India and China and eventually Renaissance Europe.
One of the most critical elements in Europe was the gradual build-up of international communities of scholars. While we usually think of science as being driven forward through the inspiration of one singular genius after another, that's only part of the story. For every Galileo and Newton there were hundreds of people you never heard of. They formed a network of thinkers and tinkerers writing letters to each other and making visits across the continent. In this way, they exchanged notes on things like the best way to carry out an experiment on boiling liquids or a new way to consider the mathematics of problems in celestial mechanics.
Unless you are a scientist, you probably have very little idea of how science knows what it knows, or even more important, how it knows what it doesn't know.
While they might not have known it at the time, what these scholars were also doing was setting up the foundations for an international order of scientific knowledge that would rest upon mutually agreed standards of evidence.
Eventually these networks became formalized. Scientific academies started popping up in places like Italy where the Academy of the Mysteries of Nature was founded in Naples in 1560. Later the Royal Society in England, formally known as the The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, was established in 1660. The French Academy of Sciences was formed just six years later. Over the years, these institutions and others would lead the way in establishing "best practices" for how to carry out scientific research and how to make sure that the conclusions a scientist drew from that research were supported by the evidence.
Scientific societies led to standards of evidence
Credit: Karlis Reimanis via Unsplash
I'm telling you this not because I think the history is so cool (though it is). Instead, what matters is seeing how the idea of standards of evidence was born in its scientific form. It came from people arguing in public over what should count as public facts or better yet public knowledge. Science didn't drop out of the sky fully formed. It was, and is, the fruit of a very human, very collective effort. The goal of that effort was to determine the best way to ask nature questions and ensure that you're getting correct answers.
This was not, by the way, a smooth process. There were lots of wrong turns in figuring out what counted as meaningful evidence and what was just another way of getting fooled. But over time, people figured out that there were standards for how to set up an experiment, how to collect data from it, and how to interpret that data. These standards now include things like isolating the experimental apparatus from spurious environmental effects, understanding how data collection devices respond to inputs, and accounting for systematic errors in analyzing the data. There are, of course, many more.
In this way, scientists figured out which standards were useful in linking evidence to conclusions.
Why standards matter
Science is now the most powerful force shaping human life. Without it, there could never be seven billion of us living on the planet at the same time. It has shaped and reshaped how we eat, how we travel, how we deal with sickness, how we communicate, and how we go to war. It is also how we are pushing Earth into new and dangerous (for us) climate states. But despite all this ubiquity and power, unless you are a scientist, you probably have very little idea of how science knows what it knows, or even more important, how it knows what it doesn't know.
Most of us don't understand what it means to have standards of evidence or how these standards get applied. That means that we can't see how the same methods that gave us our cell phones also gave us our understanding of climate change. When a pandemic hits, we can't see how the science is going to be an evolving process as those standards of evidence get used to sort through the firehose of real-time data. And when it comes to things like UFOs or "Ancient Aliens," we won't see that holding fast to those standards is the only thing that can keep us from being fooled by a conclusion that we may want to be true as opposed to accepting the one that actually is true.
Admittedly, standards of evidence is not the most thrilling topic in the world. But it very well may be the most important.
Humans could, in theory, one day use scaling laws to extend our lifespans.
- Scientists have observed that in nature, all things scale with size in a way that is mathematically predictable.
- Similar scaling laws hold for things like growth and lifespan. As theoretical physicist Geoffrey West explains, larger mammals generally live longer because of the inverse relationship between body size and the rate at which cells are damaged.
- By having this theory of scaling laws, "you can determine what the parameters are, the knobs that you could conceivably turn to change that lifespan," says West. Instead of living to be 100 years old, humans could someday hack our cells to last for two centuries.