Can shaking buildings be exciting? A live taping of You’re the Expert at MIT Museum on April 16 revealed the answer is “yes” – especially when one’s surrounded by an appreciative audience in Cambridge on a Tuesday night.

You’re the Expert uses comedy to add pizzazz and the occasional double entendre to explanations of academic research. According to the show’s website, its podcast has been climbing the charts on iTunes.

The comedians applied their razor-sharp wits to solving structural engineering problems and defining jargon. Although their responses would have been academic disasters in a civil engineering class, they led to explosions of laughter.

What are modal parameters? “This bridge is dead,” comedian Myq Kaplan said, confusing the words with “mortal parameters.”

What is system identification? “When a bridge tells you what its name is,” Kaplan replied.

What is structural health monitoring? Placing monitor lizards on a bridge, an audience member guessed.

monitor lizard
Would you want this lizard to test a bridge for you? Photo Credit: Joachim S. Müller via Compfight cc

The guest, assistant professor Babak Moaveni from Tufts University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, assured us no lizards are involved in structural health monitoring.

Structural health monitoring, Moaveni’s specialty, focuses on finding out how “healthy” a building, bridge or other structure may be – and how long it is likely to survive. It’s like using a stethoscope or other medical test equipment – except for structures, not people. 

The equipment Moaveni uses is sometimes expensive. He can send a drone helicopter underneath a bridge to measure how well the bridge is holding up under its everyday loads.

Moaveni also shakes buildings to find out how they respond. The audience chortled while he explained how he excites buildings by using mechanical shakers.

“The smaller one is called Mighty Mouse,” Moaveni said with a straight face.

“Could it make me a martini?” comedian Robert Woo asked.

Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can't make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc
Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can’t make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc

Kaplan described nondestructive testing dramatically. “Just as Batman did in The Dark Knight, this man and his army of cameras are our last line of defense.”

Moaveni doesn’t just shake structures and take photos of them, though. Some of the testing is destructive.

“We are planning to destroy a building in California. It’s in the city of El Centro,” Moaveni said. He explained that every structure has its natural frequency, but that does not mean it is destroyed at that frequency.

“I’m not saying we go and break something to hear the damage,” Moaveni clarified. He uses these tests to find out how buildings respond to earthquakes.

Gesturing overhead, Moaveni described how one might test a building like the MIT Museum.

“This building is already excited,” Chris Duffy, the host and producer, quipped.

“This is the most excited a museum gets,” Kaplan said.

“Usually, my class doesn’t get this excited,” Moaveni said as he described the definition of manual excitation. Loud guffaws from the audience interrupted him.

Moaveni said his current research involves predicting when structures may fail in the future. “We want to have a ‘check building’ light,” he said.

Since 30 percent of bridges in the United States have outlived their design life, according to Moaveni, being able to predict when a bridge will fail would be extremely useful.

“Is that man a God? Maybe. That is up to peer review,” Woo commented.

This month, Mother Jones published the results of a surprising investigation into the foul effects of lead in the United States. The article claims leaded gasoline caused a wave of crime in the last century. Crime rates dropped once the lead was removed. The author also says lead causes lower IQs and ADHD.

Journalist George Monbiot was skeptical when he first saw the news. After digging up related academic studies, he published a supportive article in TruthOut. He focused on crime, not on ADHD or IQs.

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism website weighed the evidence and cautions us that other chemicals may be involved and that the connection between lead and violence is not entirely clear. As the article says, there is “no clear biological pathway by which the metallic element lead somehow turns on a violence switch in the human brain.”

A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)
A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)

I’ve been interested in investigating the link between crime and heavy metal pollution ever since I read a publication which said that researchers had tested biological samples from prison inmates and found that the heavy metal concentrations in their bodies were much higher than that of a control group. This article describes that study and other research on the connection between lead and crime.

Race and income may play a role in kids’ lead exposure. For example, lead pollution tends to be concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in New Orleans. The maps in the Mother Jones article show income and lead concentrations in these communities.

Based on this evidence, one can reasonably say: if a young person grows up in a lead-polluted community, experiences hardship due to poverty and/or violence, and is more likely to be arrested and judged guilty based on his race and/or income, his likelihood of entering the prison system could become very high.

It is possible that other chemicals in addition to lead may be affecting youth too. We should address these problems when we talk about environmental issues, equal opportunity, and public policy.


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In November, I withdrew into the snowy environment of northern Massachusetts to reflect on my goals for the coming year. I live next to a park belonging to the Trustees of Reservations, so bluejays and nuthatches kept me company while I wrote. Before and after work, I spent hours sifting through my ideas about what to cultivate – and what to prune back – during the coming year.

Nuthatch
A nuthatch (Source: Terry Sohl)

I took a three-week vacation from Twitter to reduce the “noise” in my environment. Surrounded by the peace and quiet of the wildlife refuge, I made some difficult decisions about my priorities and commitments for the coming year.

  • I chose to offer the services that match my personality, background and interests. So I rewrote the skills, experience and bio pages of this website – as well as my LinkedIn profile. These pages now show my commitment to working on writing and technology projects that have social benefits. They also emphasize my experience in engineering and fascination with the way things work.
  • I made the difficult decision to close out my media relations contract and focus on content production – writing, website editing, and social media outreach. I gave notice to my client on January 2nd and am currently seeking a new project to replace that contract.
  • Translating science content is very satisfying for me. The more technical it is, the better. Working with an MIT professor on a physics book earlier this year showed me that not only do I have the “chops” for hard science, I relish covering it. I feel confident promoting my services to academics and technology professionals. I plan to seek out more science-intensive projects during the coming year. I am comfortable working with clients anywhere in the United States.
  • Although I want to keep at least one nonprofit project on my calendar at any time, I don’t plan to specialize in working for nonprofits. I am very interested in partnering with green businesses and universities and combining projects from different sectors. I recently signed up to do a long-term blogging project for a brownfield remediation business and plan to take on other similar projects.
  • I’m in the process of retooling NetSquared Boston, the meetup I co-organize, to make sure that it addresses unmet needs within the nonprofit tech community. My leadership role in NetSquared Boston gives me many professional opportunities, including networking and low-cost computer training. I plan to refresh some of my web development and software skills soon to stay current with the state-of-the-art technology that is coming out each year.
  • Although I was considering moving to Denver or Chicago earlier, I now plan to stay in Massachusetts for the next few years. I visited family in Chicago in early January and made the decision while I was there. Although I miss Chicago, there are many reasons for me to stay in Massachusetts.
  • Finally, I have a resolution to take more risks with writing and journalism this coming year. I want to go to events like the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, take the leap toward doing projects that are outside my comfort zone, and continue to experiment stylistically as a writer.

I’ve pruned back my commitments from 2012 now so that new ideas can flourish. If the flower that I am attempting to cultivate has a name, it’s a “science and technology writing flower.” It probably looks like this image:

Fractal flower
Fractal flower (Source: 123RF)

Identifying and following my dreams was what led to my success in graduate school. After a year of freelance work, stopping to take time to smell the roses and retool my approach to my career goals was exactly what I needed this winter.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Where in the world are our cell phones going? It shouldn’t be as difficult to answer this question as it is to find Carmen Sandiego.

MIT’s Senseable City Lab produced an award-winning Trash Track website which shows that it does take some sleuthing to find the final resting places of our waste. Here’s their video which excavates the fate of garbage from Seattle. While viewing this, remember that this video covers a limited time period; in 20 years, these batteries and cell phones may migrate elsewhere.

Because we live in a closed ecological system, what we have on this planet stays here (unless we send it out to orbit in space). And, one way or another, our garbage will be reused.

Like petroleum, which is made of compressed swamp residue – imagine the Everglades being buried for thousands of years – yesterday’s trash will become tomorrow’s treasure…. or, at least, tomorrow’s fast food packaging.

Our descendants will work with whatever we make – wherever we leave it for them. Think of it as a partly recyclable, sometimes toxic inheritance. This is one reason that I write about DIY.

Even sea animals may live inside bottles or reuse bits of glass. The video below shows that some of them already do.