Geek Beat: Flying Cars! Falling Pianos!

MIT kicked off the annual Cambridge Science Festival with something a little different this year: it opened its labs to the world, and invited everyone and their brother – even their kid brother – to stop in for the one-day “Under the Dome” open house.

There were over 200 different exhibits and demonstrations on display across the grounds, for better or worse – there were only five hours to explore them all. (On the other hand, my sprints up and down the aptly-named Infinite Corridor logged 16,377 steps, according to the pedometer MIT Medical representatives gave me upon my arrival.)

Highlights from a few of my favorites:

1. Flying Cars
Okay. So we all know that when Marty McFly and the Doc DeLorean out to 2015, the streets are packed with flying cars, right? And maybe you’ve been feeling a little cheated by the fact that’s it’s 2011, and there’s not an airborne minivan in sight, right? Right? Wrong!

Woburn-based transportation company Terrafugia — founded, naturally, by MIT aeronautics engineers — brought their demo flying car to the event, parked it right there on the grass, wings out, headlights off. It’s an FAA and road-approved 970-pound vehicle that runs on high-octane gasoline, drives like a car (i.e. fits in a one-car garage), flies like a plane, and is big enough for two people and a bag or two of golf clubs. The company established proof of concept in 2008 (with the version pictured), and is working on finalizing a more streamlined version that it’ll start selling later this year at a cost of about $200,000. It already has nearly 100 traffic-weary clients on the waiting list.

2. Blacksmithing
As much as the MIT materials sciences department is about cool, new materials with a lot of words like nano and biomimetic, the department also goes back to basics. Way, way back, with anvils and forges. In fact, one of the more popular first year courses in that department is the blacksmithing lab where students can learn to pound red-hot irons into bottle openers, knives, and axes using the most traditional of crafts. It’s not just about doing old-fashioned work for fun either — the real purpose is to give these students who might otherwise never get a feel for the oldest crafts in the study of materials a true chance to really understand how a metal feels and reacts under the pounding of their hammer.

3. Non-Newtonian Fluid
This demonstration was set up courtesy of the Department of Chemical Engineering, but you can try it at home: mix equal parts corn starch and water, mix it up and swish it around with your hands. When you move slowly, it’s a watery sort of fluid. Move more quickly and it becomes hard and doughy, solid enough to pick up — until you stop and it turns liquid flows right back out again. That’s because you’ve created a non-Newtonian fluid, where, unlike water, the viscosity changes depending on how much stress you apply: by moving quickly, you jostle the molecules right into a traffic jam situation, until you slow down and give them the leisure to slip smoothly past each other.

Corn starch and water are a pretty common way to demonstrate the concept, but think about this: with a fluid that gets harder and harder the faster you apply pressure to it, imagine what the right non-Newtonian fluid could do between a couple layers of Kevlar in a bulletproof vest.

4. Video Game Testing at Gambit
I suspect there would be something wrong with the world if MIT did not, in fact, have a dedicated video game research center. But, of course, it does: the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, devoted to the teaching and researching not just of video gaming, but to questions and applications that can be answered by gaming. Take Elude for example: A game developed in collaboration with doctors at MGH, it’s actually meant to mimic symptoms of depression, creating an interactive tool that can help the public, even if only through metaphor what the disease is like. (I mean, clearly it’s not actually literal — it’s a sad little man climbing a tree with birds that explode green Skittle-looking beads).

Mind you, it’s not a fun game in the Mario Bros. sense, but the fact that it could have actual real-world clinical applications? That’s pretty incredible.

5. Baker House Piano Drop
Almost every year since 1972, the Baker House dorm has tossed a piano off its six-story roof to celebrate the spring term deadline to drop a class, and this year was no different. Words don’t really do this justice — so instead, I invite you to click through the slideshow where we got it all on camera: the launch, the descent, the crash, and the final dismantling by mob: