Whether after tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia, hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, typhoons in the Philippines, or even during search efforts after last month’s lost Malaysian Airlines flight, waves have been the focus of many urgent conversations in the past decade. Anyone who has a home on or near a coastline is talking more these days about the simple calculus of storm surges, beach erosion, and sea level rise than ever before.

Into this discussion last fall came Waves, a new book by Fredric Raichlen SM ’55, ScD ’62, a civil engineering professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology. aas

Raichlen’s deceptively simple book, part of MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge Series, teaches its readers all the basics about waves, then takes direct aim at this century’s most pressing concerns about them. Listen to Raichlen’s discussion of the book in this month’s Alumni Books Podcast.

Raichlen, who studied waves at MIT’s hydrodynamics lab in the 1950s (now the Parsons Lab), says the book was his way to dial back the hysteria waves cause and ground readers in their fundamentals. In Waves, one learns that:

  • A tsunami, even far out to sea, is considered a shallow-water wave.
  • The sun has as much to do with tides as the moon does.
  • A storm in Alaska can cause wave damage to shorelines in Los Angeles, over 3,000 miles away.

“I wanted to lay down some of the basics of ocean waves in a simple fashion, and in the latter part of the book talk about areas I had become involved in both in research and in engineering consulting,” says Raichlen, who taught and conducted research at Caltech for nearly 50 years before retiring in 2001.

Readers will notice that the book sticks to its premise of essential knowledge and stops shorts of editorializing on climate change. “I really wanted to avoid that,” Raichlen says in the podcast. “Climate change and sea level rise are important to our coastal regions…[but] things are really not that definite in terms of quantitative estimates of sea level rise and there’s a wide range of ideas of the magnitude and rate of sea level rise. So I wanted to talk about things more definite.”

raichlen sound

Listen to the complete podcast here. Listen to past books podcasts on optics, health care, and architecture by visiting MITAA on Soundcloud.


Witze pictured in Iceland while reporting on the Laki volcano.

This Monday, March 31, at 1 p.m. EDT, join a live Twitter chat with Alexandra Witze ’92, a correspondent with Nature. Find out how the geology major became an award-winning science journalist. Witze recently published Island on Fire about the 1783 eruption of Iceland’s Laki volcano, which she calls “one of the worst natural disasters you’ve never heard about.” Missed the chat? Read the storify recap of the discussion.

The chat will begin with questions about how MIT prepared her for a career in science writing, the massive societal impact of the Laki eruption, and why she thinks Twitter is a go-to tool for any journalist.

Follow the chat at #mitalum and tweet your own questions.

About Alexandra Witze
After graduating from MIT, Witze enrolled in a science journalism program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In a recent interview with MIT’s Spectrum, she notes that MIT “has been very helpful in giving me a solid technical grounding. I can read a research paper and understand what it is trying to say.”

In addition to Nature, she has written for Science News, Dallas Morning News, and EARTH magazine covering a wide range of topics including the science of lightning, earthquakes, and features on high profile scientists. British explorer Nick Crane praised her book Island on Fire as “a volcanic tour de force; terrific story-telling.” Most recently, she served as a journalism fellow in complexity science at the Santa Fe Institute.

This event is co-sponsored by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and the MIT Alumni Association


Downton Abbey fans have seen scant evidence of 20th-century media in the Masterpiece Classic program, but that may change in coming seasons. Thanks to the founding of BBC Radio in 1927, estates in financial trouble like that which Downton faces in season 4 get a huge boon, says Shundana Yusaf SM ’01.

In this edition of the MIT Alumni Books Podcast, Yusaf, a professor of architecture at the University of Utah, discusses her book Broadcasting Buildings: Architecture on the Wireless. Listen to this podcast9780262026741

Since architecture was a large focus of early BBC productions, the public came to appreciate homes like the Crawleys rather than looting or pillaging them as aristocratic strongholds in a changing world.

“Downton Abbey is a perfect example of houses becoming white elephants,” says Yusaf.

“They became a burden for the families…and architects become champions of conservation, but it puts them in a strange position. Conservation means that you have to promote the protection of properties that in popular culture are seen as symbols of historical injustice. Now you have to revamp them and package them as heritage of the people who have been subjugated.”


In the podcast, Yusaf discusses this topic and others, including the role of media in transforming architecture, how her MIT education made her rethink what one could do with an architecture degree, and how technology is changing the way people visit holy spaces around the world.

Hear more by listening to this podcast interview.

The MIT Alumni Books Podcast presents alumni authors discussing their latest books. It can be found on iTunes and on most other podcast platforms. Help us keep up with recent books or send along names of alumni authors you’d like to hear interviewed.

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If it’s possible to lase Jello for your party guests, Stephen Wilk ’77 can tell you how. He can also tell you the best ingredients for a laser gin-and-tonic.

In his recently published book How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap, published by Oxford University Press in the fall, Wilk provides dozens of inquiries into such geeky interests.208397

Consider this volume The Anarchist’ Cookbook for MIT alums. If you’ve ever wondered why cats’ eyes are reflective, why the moon is blue every so often, whether autopsies of murder victims’ retinas will reveal images of their assailants, or who the first spectacle-wearers were in history, this is your book.

Besides some hard science and math, Wilk is a student of pop culture, too. As he discusses here, Hollywood has done some good in popularizing science over the years.

“My concentration is on optics,” Wilk says in this podcast. “I’ve been a great admirer of science popularizers like Stephen Jay Gould, L. Sprague de Camp, and Carl Sagan. And I wanted to write the same sort of thing that I was reading, with the emphasis on my own particular background.”


Hear more by listening to this podcast interview and add your comments below.

Note to MIT alumni: This podcast presents alumni authors discussing their latest books. Help us keep up with recent books or send along names of alumni authors you’d like to hear interviewed.

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Despite spending 18% of its money on health care, the United States gets less in return than other countries. Here, doctors more often prescribe antibiotics for common viruses despite knowing better, and patients often don’t stick to their physicians’ recommended treatment.

Doug Hough ’71 discusses these and other such quandaries in the U.S. health care system in a new book. Amid the chaos of the Affordable Care Act’s debut year, Hough published Irrationality in Health Care, What Behavioral Economics Reveals About What We Do and Why.

Doug Hough ’71.

Hough, who studied economics under four Nobel laureates in his days at MIT, is now an associate professor in the department of health policy and management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. After teaching medical students traditional economics for years, he discovered that behavioral economics, a relatively new field, appealed much more strongly to their experience. Hough realized that no one had yet written an examination of how the country might learn from applying such a model to the healthcare system at large.


“The problem with the Affordable Care Act,” says Hough, “and in some sense with is that now people are mandated to have some insurance…but in order to have that insurance they’ve had to go through that awful experience on the website. [Americans] want to buy insurance with as much difficulty as they have buying a book on Amazon.”

“One way this whole process could have been easier is to say by default you are automatically insured. That way, everybody would know they would have insurance starting January 1, and they’d have the ability and ease to change that in a relatively short period of time.”

Listen to or download this podcast for more of Hough’s thoughts on contemporary health care and economics.

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Paige Parsons ’90 has photographed Bono and Bjork, Green Day and Guns & Roses, Madonna and Morrissey.

A profile of Lenny Kravitz in concert.

But a quarter-century ago, she was writing about rock, authoring witty critiques of bands on the Boston scene for The Tech. Parsons called an Elvis Costello show in 1989 “spectacular” but panned Love and Rockets for their “monotonous” and “painful” show at the Orpheum.

Hundreds of rock shows later, Parsons has amassed an awe-inspiring body of photography work that tells much of the stories of rock and its fans from jaded gen-x’ers to digital-native millennials.

Currently the house photographer at the Fillmore, San Francisco’s most prestigious and storied rock venue, Parsons completed a retrospective of her best work in 2012, entitled Once in a Lifetime. The work appeared at her first solo show of the same name at a Palo Alto gallery last February.

“I chose to explore the relationship between fan and artist through photography,” Parsons writes in her artist’s statement. “Musicians may rehearse for a performance, but the fans complete the exchange of dynamic energy that fluctuates from one performance to the next; it’s never the same twice.”

“I hope those viewing my work will feel the unique rush of literally being between the spectator and performer. Whether a show is intimate and sparse, or in a field with ten thousand fans, my mission is to capture the intense emotion of this unique relationship.”

1.21.14 - Parsons - Die Antwoord

Fans carry a body-surfing Ninja of the band Die Antwoord.

After studying art and design at MIT, Parsons pursued photography part-time while working as a user-interface designer at Apple and Netscape in the Bay Area through the 1990s. As a consultant, she has helped startups with information architecture and web design and maintained a blog, The Color Awesome, covering the music industry.

Meanwhile, her rock photography has appeared regularly in the past two decades in Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, SPIN, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Crawdaddy, Prefix Mag, 7×7, and Keyboard Player. She publishes much of her work on her website and through her Facebook page.

Why the affinity towards photography over words? Parsons found part of the answer to that question in 2008, when she discovered that she was dyslexic. “Through finding out about my own learning differences, I have also come to appreciate my unique strengths and all the gifts that also come along with seeing the world from a different point of view,” she says.



If squirrels had written American history, it’s likely that they would have stayed as wild as wolves and as rare a sight in cities as coyotes or deer.

But as Etienne Benson PhD ’08 points out in a recent Journal of American History issuesquirrels came to cities by invitation.

Photo: Inhabitat.

Photo: Inhabitat.

The eastern gray squirrel, which Benson focuses on, was plucked from his native forest habitat as landscape architects designed the country’s greatest city parks in the late 19th century. Because industrialization had stripped away their daily encounters with beasts of burden, Americans found spotting squirrels in city parks a pleasant substitute.

We can learn a lot from our history with squirrels, says Benson, an assistant professor in the department of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The way urban Americans thought about squirrels [in the 19th c.] was definitely condescending and rooted in a hierarchical understanding of nature and society,” he told Popular Science.  At first, squirrels were “a novel and much-commented-upon feature of the American urban scene,” first introduced in Philadelphia and Boston and then in other major parks around the country.

We all know how that history changed.

Squirrels soon became known for spreading diseases and parasites. In big cities, they occupied dumpsters, harassed tourists, and chewed electric lines. “No feeding wildlife” signs popped up from Central Park to Yellowstone. As cities developed more holistic attitudes towards ecology, Benson notes, squirrels found themselves in trouble.

“The killing of squirrels by hawks, while perhaps distasteful, was natural and a sign of the city’s ecological revival,” writes Benson.

As for squirrels in Cambridge, Benson cites Mt. Auburn Cemetery as the first area park where they were introduced. They migrated eastward and were first observed in Harvard Square in 1902. The only squirrels native to MIT’s campus, it turns out, might be robotic ones or those employed for various tasks on Scratch.

Benson’s interests go beyond squirrels. He studies the way humans interact with nature around the world, particularly in terms of technology. In a 2008 essay, Benson expressed concern for the overexposure many species get in the wild from scientific surveillance. His 2010 book, Wired Wilderness: Technologies of Tracking and the Making of Modern Wildlife, expands that argument.

Benson’s interest in squirrels predates MIT, but in studying for a PhD at SHASS, he found a welcoming place for his curiosity.

“My PhD advisor at MIT, Harriet Ritvo, is one of the people who have made it possible to take human-animal relationships seriously as a historical topic,” says Benson. “Without her model and support I don’t think I would have had the courage to take on the topic or to submit the paper to a journal like this.”


Book critics the world over spend the month of December in earnest contemplation of what books, regardless of the crude calculus of sales figures, had the biggest impact in the year. While these lists may serve the utilitarian role of easing holiday-gift conundrums, they also are cross-sections of our times.

Judging by class notes alone, Institute alums published well over a hundred books in this calendar year. In case you missed them, here are a few notable page-turners that have made critics’ best-of lists:

A stocking stuffer for hackers.

A stocking stuffer for hackers.

  1. The New York Times named After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead by Alan Blinder PhD ’71 to its 10 Best Books of 2013 list.  “Blinder criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations,” says the reviewer, “especially for letting Lehman Brothers fail, but he also praises them for taking steps to save the country from falling into a serious depression. Their response to the near disaster, Blinder says, was far better than the public realizes.”
  2. The Seattle Times named Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley MBA ’03 to its 31 Best Titles of 2013 list. ”With terrific reporting and story-telling, Lapsley has put voluptuous flesh and bones on the legendary tales of the phone phreaks,” wrote one reviewer.
  3. On The Economist’s list of the Best Books of the Year is Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb and American Strategy by Kenneth Pollack PhD ’96. Pollack, the reviewer writes, reveals “why America would be mad not to endorse Barack Obama’s strategy of containment” of Iran.
  4. Rosalind Williams HM ’02 also appears on The Economist list for The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris and Stevenson at the End of the World. Williams’s book is a “magnificent attempt to recapture the sense, so prevalent at the end of the 19th century, that the world was finished, explored and done.”
  5. The Washington Post singled out Moises Naim SM ’78, PhD ’79 for The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be on its Notable Nonfiction of 2013 list. “It’s not just that power shifts from one country to another, from one political party to another, from one business model to another, Naim argues; it’s this: ‘Power is decaying,’” writes the Post.
  6. Forbes cites Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry by David Robertson SM ’85, PhD ’90 with Bill Breen as one its ten best of the year. The book “tells the surprising saga of how the company’s management innovated its way to success with lessons that can be applied to all sorts of businesses.”
  7. On Amazon’s Best Science Books of 2013 list is Lance Fortnow PhD ’89 for his book The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible, which chronicles the history of what is arguably “the most important open problem in computer science, if not all of mathematics.”
  8. Also on Amazon’s science list is Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by former MIT student Annalee Newitz. Newitz looks back on past extinctions in earth’s history and ponders the dire consequences of the next one, which might already be happening.

What did we miss? Tell us about your book or that of a classmate that won acclaim in 2013. Identify the book and author in the comments below.


Got some smart people on your shopping list for the holidays? One option is to plunge into the heady universe of the MIT Press and pluck out a few prizes for family and friends. You’ll find books ranging from provocative to inspiring to fun. And MIT alumni get a 20 percent discount too.

“Publishers have personalities and, befitting the scholarly publisher with its home at MIT, the MIT Press is known for exploring new fields,” notes MIT Press Director Ellen Faran. “The press’s seasonal lists usually include some intriguing titles that transcend discipline boundaries to bring important ideas to the general reader.” A few of Faran’s picks:

MITpress_outer limitsThe Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us by Noson S. Yanofsky

Examining the levels of infinity or human insights about time, Yanofsky argues that computers, physics, logic, and human thought processes are limited. Take the Monty Hall problem, for example. If the Let’s Make a Deal host offered you the prize behind one of three doors, what additional knowledge do you gain when he eliminates one of the doors? (Okay, so you may learn to overcome some limits with this book.)

China’s Vanishing Worlds: Countryside, Traditions, and Cultural Spaces by Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang

More than a thousand photographs illustrate this portrait of the changing face of China, from village school houses and eco-tourism outposts to modest country dwellings and festivals. These dynamic images document the disappearing cultural landscapes and lifestyles of rural China.

MITpress_nightworkOther choices?

Nightwork, updated edition, by Institute Historian T. F. Peterson

The giant Brass Rat placed on the borrowed Caltech Canon during the 2006 hack took some 1,000 hours of machining to make and now resides in the MIT Museum. Find many more facts and photos about MIT’s glorious hacking history in this revised version.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

These concise lessons in design, drawing, the creative process, and presentation—from the basics of “How to Draw a Line” to the complexities of color theory—provide a enjoyable primer in architectural literacy. Learn about Informed Simplicity and how to explain architecture to your grandmother.

The Metamorphosis of Plants by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Originally published in 1790, German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tells the story of botanical forms in process, revealing the metamorphosis of plants. The book includes 123 numbered paragraphs, accompanied by color photographs and line drawings.

Get your discount: MIT alumni earn a 20 percent discount on all titles ordered directly from the MIT Press website. At the checkout, use this promotion code: MITALUM. Sign up for the newsletter, if you want regular updates.



Lola Ball '91, SM '82

Lola Ball ’91, SM ’92

When Lola Ball ’91, SM ’92 was growing up in Brooklyn, the tight city living never allowed for a dog. But after graduating from MIT and moving to Colorado, she got a Chocolate Lab, Porter, and immediately fell in love. A second Lab, Scooby, followed shortly after.

But when Porter was diagnosed with cancer in early 2008, Ball felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and unsure of the best course of action. “It wasn’t something I ever expected,” she says. “There isn’t a single pet owner I’ve met that was ready for it.”

The cancer was located near many of Porter’s organs and surgery and chemotherapy were not an option. Ball settled on one goal: Make Porter as comfortable as possible.

“It’s hard to know the right thing to do,” she says. “I was open to anything—acupuncture, animal massage, and holistic therapy. The only thing was to give him the best quality of life. I was essentially doing hospice care.”

Porter died a few months after his diagnosis. Ball was overwhelmed by the experience.

“I didn’t want anyone to go through the trial-and-error I went through,” she says. “I became very passionate about sharing my message.”

Lola_2Her book, When Your Dog Has Cancer—Making the Right Decisions for You and Your Dog, was published earlier this year. Ball says the book includes an end-of-life plan and hospice tool kit that can help any canine owner through the dying experience.

“It’s hard to make sense of what’s best for you and your family,” she says. “No two dogs will ever have the exact same situation. It’s a vast continuum that ranges from standard cancer treatments like chemotherapy to hospice, natural dying, and euthanizing options.

Ball, now living in Washington, wrote the book while working full-time as a program manager at Microsoft. While canine cancer may seem worlds apart from the rigidity of programming, Ball says she applied an engineering mentality to writing the book and chronicling Porter’s experience.

“In engineering, it’s about knowing your facts,” she says. “You take a logical approach. What are the conditions and requirements? Similar to caring for a dog, you dissect what you’re faced with and the pros and cons will dictate your decision.”

In 2009, Ball adopted Jasper, a Labrador Retriever-Hound mix, from Pasado’s Safe Haven, an animal sanctuary near Seattle. About a year later, Jasper was diagnosed with cancer and Ball relied on her experiences with Porter to navigate Jasper’s final months.

“The second experience was much smoother,” she says. “I knew more about the dying process. Being prepared helps make the experience a little less awful.”

Today, Ball’s home includes Scooby, now 13, and Apollo, 3, a Springer Spaniel-Rottweiler mix who was born on the day that Jasper died. She is a founding member and board member on AHELP (Animal Hospice End of Life Project).

“At the end of your pet’s life, it’s about giving them more good days than bad days,” she says. “As pet owners, we can take responsibility to make their treatment the best possible.”

Read more about When Your Dog Has Cancer—Making the Right Decisions for You and Your Dog.