Tech Day 2014 - The Future of Planet Earth

Helen Hill
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Alumni took a big drink from the firehose on Saturday, June 7th, 2014 at the annual Tech Day program in Kresge Auditorium. This year's theme: The Future of Planet Earth.

Read this story at MIT Alumni Association

Through almost five billion years of evolution, planet Earth has withstood extremes of temperature, climate change, impacts with other bodies in space, magnetic field reversals, extinctions of life on a massive scale, and much more. Yet through it all, the planet stabilized enough to allow the formation of life sustaining systems that we are familiar with today.

Tech Day 2014 explored what we know about the emergence of life, the Earth, its systems, and the stresses that are inherent as well as imposed by human activity. The questions this program investigated are: How does what we have learned about the past help us to predict where we are going and how to lay the groundwork for a sustainable future?

Speakers: Kerry Emanuel (EAPS), Taylor Perron (EAPS), Tanja Bosak (EAPS), Christopher Knittel (Sloan), John Lienhard (MechE), and Sara Seager (EAPS). Introduction by Rob van der Hilst (EAPS).

Tech Day 2014 Welcome
MIT President L. Rafael Reif

Rafael Reif has served as the 17th President of MIT since July 2012. As president, he launched the MIT Innovation Initiative and a new environment initiative to drive progress towards solutions around environment, climate, and constructing a sustainable human society. In his previous role as MIT’s provost, Dr. Reif helped create and implement the strategy that allowed MIT to weather the global financial crisis and spearheaded the development of the Institute’s online learning initiatives, MITx and edX. A member of the MIT faculty since 1980, Dr. Reif has served as director of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories and as department head of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He earned the degree of Ingeniero Eléctrico from Universidad de Carabobo, Valencia, Venezuela, and his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

Earth Under Stress: Thinking differently about climate research
Kerry Emanuel '76, PhD '78, Cecil & Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science, EAPS

For the past half century, scientists have been at work on amassing an impressive array of data and models to help us understand the stresses placed on the planet by an accelerated rate of climate change. This talk will assess the current understanding of the major climate processes and propose new directions for climate research.

Lessons from the Landscapes of Earth and Other Planets
Taylor Perron, Cecil and Ida Green Assistant Professor of Geology, EAPS

Landscapes are open archives of planetary history. Looking elsewhere in the Solar system, and into Earth’s past, shows us that some landscape features are surprisingly robust. But the specific forms they take on appear to depend on life, and more recently, on human impacts. This talk will explore clues left in planetary landscapes and the light they shed on the state of planet Earth.

The Impact of Life on Planet Earth
Tanja Bosak, Hayes Career Development Assistant Professor, EAPS

As the physical planet evolved, the phenomenon of life paralleled this development. Unlocking the traces left by early forms of microbial life offers insights into the story of life on Earth, the ways in which it has met overwhelming challenges, and clues towards sustaining the world that we are a part of.

Solving the Energy Conundrum
Christopher Knittel, William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics, Sloan School of Management

Human life has been so remarkably successful that its sustainability has become the major challenge of our age. Meeting energy needs in a sustainable fashion will require not only bringing together investors, corporations, scientists, and policy makers but new ways of thinking. Can economics be the catalyst in this?

Solutions for Water Supply
John Lienhard, Samuel C. Collins Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE)

With increasing populations, development, and climatic instability have come increased stress on the supply of potable water and significant environmental consequences. While our renewable fresh water, from precipitation, can’t be increased, it is possible to tap the vast reserves of the oceans. The costs and energy requirements of desalination have fallen steadily in recent years, and progress continues to be made.

Is There Life Out There?
Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics, EAPS/ Physics

Life is part of the natural state of planet Earth, but is it part of the natural state of the universe? As we find ways of meeting the challenges to life on Earth, new tools are being developed to peer even deeper into space in the search for other forms of life. What lessons can we use here on Earth from what we have learned about the ability of life to thrive in hostile environments? Can they help us solve some of the major issues we face today?

Speaker Biographies


Rob van der Hilst
Van der Hilst's cross-disciplinary and collaborative research focuses on understanding geological processes in Earth's deep interior, both on a regional scale – for instance, continental structure and evolution of Tibet, East Asia, and North America, the subduction of oceanic plates beneath western Pacific island arcs, the upper mantle transition zone beneath Hawaii, and the complex region just above the core mantle boundary beneath Asia and Central America – and the global scale, unraveling, for instance, the pattern and nature of mantle convection. The main tools he uses (and develops) are global reflection seismology and seismic tomography, but he integrates these findings with constraints from geology, (geomagnetic) plate reconstructions, mineral physics, and geodynamics MORE
Kerry Emanuel
Emanuel’s research interests focus on tropical meteorology and climate, with a specialty in hurricane physics. His interests also include cumulus convection, and advanced methods of sampling the atmosphere in aid of numerical weather prediction. He is the author or co-author of over 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and two books, including Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, recently released by Oxford University Press and aimed at a general audience, and What We Know about Climate Change, published by the MIT Press. He is co-founder of the MIT Lorenz Center, a new climate think tank which fosters creative approaches to learning how climate works. In 2006 he was included among Time Magazine’s “100 People who Shape Our World” MORE
Taylor Perron
Professor Perron's research seeks a quantitative understanding of the processes that create landscapes, both on Earth and on other planets and moons. His approach combines theory and numerical modeling, field and remote sensing observations, analysis of data from planetary missions, and laboratory experiments. A central theme in his research is understanding why landscapes develop uniform patterns, such as evenly spaced valleys and branching river networks, and how to interpret these patterns as records of the geological past. Other topics of recent interest include the influence of life on Earth’s surface topography, oceans and paleoclimate on Mars, the formation of river networks on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), and the influence of climate on erosion and landscape evolution MORE
Tanja Bosak
Professor Bosak studies microbial fossils to understand the parallel evolution of life and the environment. She also undertakes laboratory experiments on modern microbes to test how they shape rocks and why microbes produce unique polycyclic lipid compounds that can persist in sediments for billions of years. Bosak received the American Geophysical Union’s James B. Macelwane Award (2011) and MIT’s Edgerton Award (2012) MORE
Christopher Knittel 
Professor Knittel's research focuses on environmental economics, industrial organization, and applied econometrics. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the Productivity, Industrial Organization, and Energy and Environmental Economics groups. Knittel is an associate editor of The American Economic Journal -- Economic Policy,The Journal of Industrial Economics, Journal of Transportation Economics and Policy, andJournal of Energy Markets. His research has appeared in The American Economic Review, The American Economic Journal, The Review of Economics and Statistics, The Journal of Industrial Economics, The Energy Journaland other academic journals MORE
John Lienhard
During more than 26 years on the MIT faculty, Professor Lienhard’s research and educational efforts have focused on heat transfer, desalination, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and instrumentation and through them, energy-water nexus issues. Last month he was named to lead the MIT's newly established Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) to spearhead research that will help humankind adapt to a rapidly changing planet and combat world-wide water and food-supply scarcity. In addition, the lab will elevate the Institute's commitment to address the collective pressure of population growth, urbanization, and climate variability — factors that endanger food and water systems in developing and developed countries alike MORE
Sara Seager 
Professor Seager's focus is on exoplanet atmospheres and interiors. A mere hypothesis until the mid-1990s, over 1800 are now known to orbit nearby stars, with thousands of more planet candidates known. Now that their existence is firmly established, a new era of exoplanet characterization has begun. A subset of exoplanets, called transiting planets, pass in front of and behind their stars, as seen from Earth. Transiting planets have immeasurably changed the field of exoplanets because their physical properties, including average density and atmospheric thermal emission, can now be routinely measured. Seager’s group aims to understand the atmospheric composition and the interior structure of exoplanets, with a focus on the new and growing data set of transiting exoplanets. Seager has been recognized in the media by Popular Science Magazine’s Fifth Annual Brilliant Ten in 2006, Discover Magazine’s “Best 20 under 40″ in 2008, Nature’s Top Ten in 2011, and Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012. She was recipient of a 2013 MacArthur "genius grant." MORE

Photos from the event via EAPS Flickr photostream (Images credit: Darren McCollister)

Tech Day 2014