Lab Langer

I got a tour, this afternoon, of Langer Lab at MIT. (Labs with multiple Principal Investigators are often given descriptive names (like mine, the Focused Ultrasound Lab), but labs with a single lead professor like Bob Langer are often named after him or her.) The lab employs an astonishing 130 people, so large that there is a hierarchical command structure, with three sub-PI’s under Bob.

Those 130 people are crammed into the tightest lab space I have ever seen. There is literally half the usual floor space between “benches” in order to squeeze more scientific working space into every room, and that space is often overflowing with all kinds of equipment for biological, chemical, and materials science. The place has a feel halfway between a scientific laboratory and a garage workshop. They expose my lab for the theorists we are.

We started in the embryonic stem cell storage room, where our scientific discussion was briefly disrupted by the arrival of a photographer from the Christian Science Monitor. There I learned about the fibroblast feeder layers traditionally required to culture undifferentiated stem cells, and the lab’s recent development of functionalized polymers that obviate this requirement.

We walked from there through a dizzying succession of packed labs, until I was utterly disoriented. We only saw half of the work space, but it was still quite an experience.

Langer Lab is moving to the Koch Institute (yes, that Koch) soon, where it will take over an entire floor of gleaming fresh non-claustrophobic work space. I wish them continued productivity in their new, more comfortable environs.


So I upgraded WordPress to 3.0, and it broke the theme, resulting in a blank blog. I clicked around for a while in the admin interface and eventually activated the new default theme. It looked very nice, not least because it came with a great big piece of art over the top.

I just replaced it with a picture I took on vacation in Morocco a long long time ago. It’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but I needed something really wide to fit the space. The default photo of a distant figure walking a path flanked by arboreal colonnades is probably better art, but I feel more honest showing my own work here.


I finished the Siemens pulse programming course today. Everyone who signed up received a very generic looking Certificate of Achievement for having “successfully completed training for IDEA Sequence Programming: Pulse Sequence Design Philosophy; Real Time Event Programming; Testing Software Utilization; Software Programming Tools”.

The certificate, complete with glossy compass rose and fleur de lis, feels a bit patronizing (are we in sixth grade?) but the course was genuinely informative, and the exercises were pretty neat. With the knowledge from this course, I can draw up at least a rough blueprint for what my research would look like if ported to Siemens MRI systems.


I had to get in by 8:30 this morning for the Siemens course, so there was no time for the bus. That left bicycling … through a rainstorm the likes of which I haven’t seen since vacationing with my parents on Block Island. I was as wet as in that moment standing on the bridge over the log flume. When I got in I wrang a small puddle out of my cuffs. I took off my shoes; three hours later my socks are somehow still sopping.

I don’t really know what rain gear sufficient for this atmosphere would look like, but I should probably find out.

Siemens course

I’m spending this week at an on-site training course led by an engineer from Siemens on how to program their MRI machines. I actually wrote a pulse sequence for Siemens machines a few years ago, but without a clear understanding of how the overall system functioned. The formal introduction, yesterday and today, has been very nice; I now have a much better idea of what I was doing two years ago.

Unfortunately the course starts before 9 AM every day. That means I have to actually live in Eastern Time, which is something I haven’t attempted in years.


I just had a lovely dinner out with my grandparents and my second cousin, a surgeon in the Boston area. Over dinner we learned that she, in fact, was the one who pulled out the pea, about which Google says at least 797 articles have been written. She initially used a standard bronchoscope, since it was a routine biopsy, but when the pea showed up bright green on the videocamera they had to switch to larger colonoscopy tools to extract it.

They sent the sprouted pea to the pathology department for identification, to confirm that the biopsy had encountered a pea, and not, say, corn. They told the referring doctor that to culture the infection he would need potting soil.

Of course, her name hasn’t appeared in any of the world-wide reporting, as she is a mere resident. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure this makes me a celebrity by association.


PAL TVs in Europe run at 50 Hz. I learned this when I was 12, I think, on a family vacation to England. The jet lag left me watching some very interesting programming on UK Channel 4 late at night on the tiny hotel TV, and I immediately wondered why the screen was so awfully flickery. The answer is that I was acclimated to US 60 Hz NTSC TVs, which hardly flicker at all in comparison. The flickery image was obviously crisper though. I quickly changed the channel before announcing the discovery to my parents. Clearly the PAL system, whatever its advantages, was inferior to the superior American standard in the matter of flicker.

When I went back in 2004 I was prepared for the flicker, and for the most part solved the problem by not watching any TV. After that I’d forgotten, though, and for the past few years I’ve spent very little time in Europe. I was just in Sweden a few months ago, though, and it’s only now that I realize

there was no flicker.

Between flat-panel screens that don’t pulse with each frame and digital transport that lets you choose several frame rates, the PAL flicker of my childhood is dead. Now and forever more, screens the world over produce a calm, steady, non-headache-inducing glow.


As I was riding to work this morning through a corner of Brookline, I passed a wild turkey who was walking down the sidewalk like any other citizen headed to work. He or she seemed intrigued by the well-groomed hedge of the adjacent property.

The spambots are playing games with the Turing Test. Got this one today:

I appreciate that this might sound insolent, but I definitely don’t agree with the title No, you can’t do that with H.264 Digital Diary of Ben Schwartz . I think it is a disgraceful insult to mankind. I think you should certainly be more nice next time. Nonetheless I must say, that your writing is brilliant. Sincerely, Domingo Schwallie

Well thought out general-purpose template, but needs some work in the HTML parsing department.


A friend scheduled a roofdeck meteor viewing party last night. Our plan was clearly flawed from the beginning, being in the midst of the Boston glow, beneath thoroughly cloudy skies. Nonetheless, after tacoishes on delicious homemade tortillas, we made a perfunctory pilgrimage to the roof to look up at the thick bright orange cloud that hung low over our heads, and out to marginally clearer skies on the horizon. Not a single star, shooting or otherwise, was evident.

EDIT: We tried it again last night, from the same roof but with clearer skies. We had a lot more luck than I expected; I saw at least five meteors in at most an hour of watching.