Rochester Institute of Technology. It’s a name that often understates a trade school that has grown to a comprehensive university. In 1829, RIT was founded to train specialized workers, feeding the demand for skilled labor during the Industrial Revolution. From this legacy, RIT has grown, relocated and changed its academic foci, finding itself among the ranks of the best universities in the nation.
Many times we find ourselves rushing from one class to the next, complaining about the drear of the weather and failing to give credit to the opportunity surrounding us. Not only does RIT have nationally outstanding applied science programs (as its name would suggest), but it also has the truly amazing School of American Crafts, an outstanding foreign language department, and one of the most renowned imaging science schools in the country. It seems that anything that you could possibly want to learn can be found on this campus, you just have to dig a little. My particular area of excavation for this article is the little known but quickly expanding area of intensive research at RIT. Thus, I began snooping around for the most intriguing and world changing ideas I could find.
Searching For the Most Massive Black Holes
The first stop was the Center for Imaging Science to talk to Dr. Daniel Batcheldor about his research in Astrophysics. After confusing his obviously English accent with what I thought might be Australian, I received a crash course in the study of Hyper Massive Black Holes (HMBHs). Although this may seem extremely counter intuitive, they are in fact really big black holes.
Because it is theorized that the universe is always expanding and has been for about 15 billion years, modern physicists logically deduce that the beginning is some sort of unity or singularity where all space and time began. This theory is commonly referred to as the Big Bang. Since all time, matter and energy started at this singularity, shortly after the Big Bang, the universe was an extremely hot, dense place. This was a strange, unknown expanse in which energy forms were merged and matter was not yet arranged into the full spectrum of life supporting elements we enjoy today. Consequently, there is little known about how in these very early days of our universe particles and energy evolved into the elements, galaxies, stars and solar systems that make up our existence today.
One of the ways that cosmological objects are held in an ordered arrangement is by gravitational forces. Just as the gravity of the sun, planets and the moons holds them in an arrangement that provides the biological paradise known as earth, black holes provide the intense gravitational forces that hold together the inner regions of galaxies. Batcheldor and his buddies are trying to find the most massive black holes in the universe. Lucky for them, Einstein’s equations of relativity combined with modern computational techniques allow scientists and mathematicians to model the formation of these massive black cosmic bodies that are up to three billion times as massive as the sun.
After the Hubble telescope’s recent stop at the orbital repair shop, scientists can once again detect the warped light waves traveling past black holes, helping them find HMBHs. If scientists are able to find larger, even more massive black holes and mathematically model their formation time, they can theorize whether or not primordial black holes existed and what size they may have been. These massive objects exerting their gravitational force would have had significant influence on the formation of the universe we know now. This interdisciplinary research is bringing us closer to understanding the origin of everything we know.
“You don’t have to be a mathematician or a physicist to appreciate the beauty of the images we study,” said Batcheldor, referring to the breathtaking images the Hubble telescope provides. They are truly inspiring and remind us of human aspirations to understand the universe around us. Whether or not we will ever be able to understand our origins is yet uncertain, but there are some world class scientists working on the question right in our own brick backyard.
The following Monday, I had a meeting with the “Nano-guys” two Ph.D. candidates working under Dr. Ryne Raffaelle at the NanoPower Research Laboratory (NPRL) which is housed within the Golisano Institute for Sustainability. Matthew Ganter, Chris Schauerman and I sat down in Java Wally’s with large cups of coffee and proceeded to have a caffeine powered conversation about the coming age of Nanotechnologies.
Nanotechnology is particularly interesting because it is not really a new technology in the conventional sense. More accurately, it is an “enabling technology” — one that will integrate into many of the products we currently use to make them better, faster and stronger. (Imagine half the weight but twice the battery life of your laptop.) Nanotechnology, in the broadest sense, is the deliberate altering of the molecular structure of a material in order to create desired properties. Stronger metals, more conductive carbon and more effective drug delivery are all becoming possible by engineering materials on the nano-scale.
NPRL is using nanotechnologies to create more efficient energy storage, transfer and collection. Schauerman has been working to create carbon data transfer cables that are more efficient than their metallic counterparts, while Ganter has been improving the performance of batteries through the incorporation of single-walled carbon nano-tubes. Recently, he and his colleagues have been able to nearly double the performance of smaller coin-cell-type batteries and are moving the technology towards larger prism type batteries. By conducting this research in close proximity to corporations, government and other contributing universities, NPRL is positioning itself to be quite influential in the next generation of power technologies.
The NPRL has tripled in size since Schauerman started working there in 2003, and he has seen the research shift from basic scientific understanding to the development of complete systems. “It’s exciting to see these things work consistently,” he says. “[There are] things that haven’t been seen before.”
Aside from the über-technical research Schauerman and Ganter conduct, they are also required by law to do humanitarian research to ensure that they are in touch with the societal implications of nano-technologies. I had actually met these two young scientists when they led a discussion on the ethical and societal implications of nanotechnologies. “We think it’s important, and RIT is uniquely positioned for this type of cutting edge research,” said Schauerman.
This conversation intrigued me so deeply that I decided to dive into the bureaucratic depths of the Library of Congress website to find this legislation. Surprisingly and quite quickly, I came across the “21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.”
Although it was a bit of a dry read, when passed in 2003, the act allocated 3.7 billion dollars to be distributed from 2005 through 2008 to harbor the growth of the nanotechnology field. The act is designed to be “encouraging interdisciplinary research” and hopes to create a “true interdisciplinary research culture.”
The Biotechnical Scene
Later that same Monday, I met with an Electrical Engineering professor, Dr. Dan Phillips. Unable to hold an interview in his office, which is cluttered with stacks of books, binders and academic papers, we walked down the hall and held our discussion over a lab workbench.
“Biomedical” is almost as popular a buzzword as “healthcare” and the gradual increase in research initiatives in many locations on campus reflect this popularity. As Phillips described it, “Biomedical and biotechnology research is alive, well and a best kept secret.” There is biology-based research going on in so many places on campus that it becomes difficult to put your finger on it, but it has been slowly building on campus for the past few decades.
In his own research, Phillips works closely with physicians at Strong Memorial Hospital to better understand epileptic seizures from an electrical engineering standpoint. By monitoring the electroencephalogram (EEG), or the electrical signals on a human scalp, they are developing methods of detecting the onset of a seizure.
If the seizure can be detected just a short while before it affects a person, they can put themselves in a safe position. There may even be the possibility of creating an electrical signal to stop the seizure from occurring. This technology could potentially give back the quality of life to some three million Americans who have epileptic symptoms. Until then, the best method of detection seems to be a well-trained dog that can alert a person to an epileptic seizure and provide assistance before the seizure happens.
In a broader view of the campus, the International Center for Hearing and Speech Research (ICHSR), which links the National Technical Institute for the Deaf with the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, has been conducting neurological research relating to the speech and hearing science since dating back to the late 80s. The Biomedical and Materials Multimodal Imaging Laboratory within the Carlson Center for Imaging Science is currently researching the fusion of MRI and PET imaging techniques. This fusion of imaging technologies will give the medical community a more comprehensive look inside the human body.
The Kate Gleason College of Engineering (KGCOE) has also been expanding into the biomedical area. KGCOE facilitates the research of professors and also involves multidisciplinary senior design teams designing necessary supporting technologies. The Electrical Engineering department has even submitted a proposal to develop a brand new Biomedical Engineering program as well. All of these research projects have been recently grouped together under RIT’s Bio-X cross disciplinary initiative to promote awareness and collaboration.
RIT has also recently put forward the initiative to become the nation’s leading innovation university. Some people may view it as a marketing strategy. Others see it as a way to conduct business. Still, others believe it to be a way to make the world a better place. Although it can be understood from different perspectives, it can be said with certainty that the fields of technology in the 21st century are increasingly complex and require individuals who have a comprehensive awareness of their own special area of study, complementary disciplines, and the overarching societal concerns. The idea that one person can start a revolution is less true now, if it ever was.
Nonetheless, these revolutions are still very real. It seems that as we move further into the 21st century, technology becomes more integral to our lives and defines a standard of living. Modern physics is moving increasingly closer to understanding the unique origins of our universe. Bio-medical and biotechnology studies are reshaping our understanding human life. And nanotechnologies hold the promise of reshaping our technological economy (and evidently our consciousness as well). We use our intellect, skills and a deep history of science and medical practices to create health, wealth, power, happiness (or at least serotonin) and arguably, life. Personally, I wouldn’t call it “Mad Science” so much as “Modern Science.”
As the evolution of our world continues, we should all challenge ourselves to pay closer attention, recognize what our university has to offer, see the challenges of the larger world around us, and identify the talents of others in our community. As Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”