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MIT’s quirky genius on display at open house

Thousands attended an open house at MIT yesterday that helped commemorate the university’s 150th anniversary. Thousands attended an open house at MIT yesterday that helped commemorate the university’s 150th anniversary. (Kayana Szymczak for The Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — To much of the public, MIT is a rarely visited warren inhabited by brilliant thinkers who sometimes adorn the Great Dome with a replica of the Apollo lunar module or a solar-powered version of an MBTA trolley.

But yesterday, in an open house attended by thousands of the awestruck, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology swung wide its doors to places, people, and preposterously ingenious projects that the public rarely sees.

An electrified pickle, anyone? A wind tunnel that can blow at 170 miles per hour? Or a pencil that makes music as it scribbles? These were just a few of the compelling and curious attractions that MIT unveiled on a festive day that helped commemorate the university’s 150th anniversary.

Take Trisha Andrew and her electrified pickle. The postdoctoral researcher in organic and nanostructured electronics positively glowed as she showed off a hefty Vlasic pickle that lit up, pulsed, and began smoking like a vegetable version of Frankenstein’s monster.

Soaked in sodium chloride and impaled on electrodes, the pickle began to shine from within as Andrew demonstrated the principle behind a light-emitting diode, the increasingly popular LED that is used in items from brake lamps to computer screens to high-definition televisions.

As a growing audience oohed and aahed, Andrew bathed a new pickle, started the [electrical] juice, and watched her creation light up like a Christmas tree. “The electricity excites the sodium inside the pickle,’’ Andrew explained.

Excitement also filled a 1930s wind tunnel dedicated by Orville Wright and named for the brothers who pioneered human flight. Inside a plain door marked simply as Building 17, senior instructor Dick Perdichizzi of the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department shepherded small groups into the steel shell, where they were buffeted by a take-it-easy 30 mile-per-hour wind that ruffled their clothes, tousled their hair, and produced ear-to-ear smiles. “You felt like you were weightless,’’ reported Trevor La Salvia, 13, of Brookline. “It just felt really weird,’’ chimed in Michael Nally, 13, also of Brookline.

Perdichizzi said the wind tunnel allows students to research “whatever moves around the air.’’ That list covers the usual suspects like airplanes and helicopters, but it also includes baseballs, golf balls, the MIT cycling team, and even four-wing dinosaurs.

A dinosaur? “There was some controversy about a flying dinosaur that was discovered in China, and there was some question about whether it was a flier or a glider,’’ Perdichizzi said. The verdict at MIT? “Glider,’’ the instructor said.

The open house also included access to the president’s office, which university officials said has not occurred for possibly 60 years. Above the stone fireplace, dating from 1916 when MIT moved here from Boston, appears “Alia Initia e Fine,’’ a Latin inscription translated as “From an end springs new beginnings.’’ The office, which overlooks a lush lawn and the Charles River, gives President Susan Hockfield a view of the Back Bay neighborhood where William Barton Rogers founded the university in 1861. His portrait hangs above the fireplace.

Leslie Price, executive assistant to Hockfield, greeted a steady stream of guests yesterday. From her desk beside Hockfield’s office, Price said, “I get to sit in the front row and watch what happens.’’

Watching what happens was the watchword nearly everywhere on campus. Other treasures included a self-directed robot named Putzputz, the champ of the university’s annual competition, which demonstrated how it “sees’’ balls with a camera, “senses’’ obstacles such as walls, and moves on its own to collect and dispose of them.

Putzputz was temporarily on the fritz as one of its four creators — Stanislav Nikolov, a senior from Bulgaria via Queens, N.Y. — waited for a partner to find a replacement fuse. This being MIT, Nikolov said, a fuse would not be difficult to find. In a few minutes, as predicted, Putzputz returned to action.

Nikolov helped build the device, which resembles a wired-enshrouded jewelry box, during a month of independent study. Some students use the time to unwind, Nikolov said, and “some people take a vacation building robots.’’

Jay Silver, a doctoral student, showed in the Media Lab how he likes to spend time. Using a pencil, some electrical wires, and a piece of paper, Silver delighted an audience by making what sounded like music as he scribbled and drew.

When asked for a practical application, Silver replied, “You mean, other than trying to turn the world into a musical instrument?’’

At MIT, such questions seem to make sense.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.