Making a Better World | Basic Research and Discovery
 



All the MIT SHASS disciplines conduct basic research

Discovery-driven research is the currency of human progress. Research expands our shared body of knowledge, and it handsomely returns society’s investment by generating new knowledge that expands and sometimes fundamentally changes our understanding of ourselves and the world. All the MIT SHASS disciplines conduct basic research, and champion the importance of basic research to society as a whole.

Empowering every MIT student

MIT SHASS faculty also teach every MIT undergraduate. By empowering MIT students with political, economic, cultural, and historical perspectives — as well as skills in critical thinking, languages, and communication — the School increases the capacity of every MIT graduate to serve the world well, across the broad range of humanity's challenges.

 

Selected Stories

The MIT Campaign for a Better World


Announcing the new comprehensive campaign, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said, "Humanity faces urgent challenges — challenges whose solutions depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world's political, cultural, and economic complexities."

Discover the role of MIT's Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences fields in solving the economic, cultural, and political dimensions of global issues, and in problem-solving in collaboration with our STEM colleagues.  More

BASIC RESEARCH

What we're doing when we try to live our lives well

Philosopher Tamar Schapiro studies how we blend reason and emotion while refining our adult selves. More

BASIC RESEARCH

Song of the Human | A musical work inspired by Shigeru Miyagawa's research

New work by composer Pete M. Wyer draws inspiration from MIT linguistic scholar Shigeru Miyagawa's hypothesis on the origins of human language: "Human speech can be quite musical — there's pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamics — and if one removes words, what's left is the song of the human, and it's remarkably similar to birdsong."  More

THE HUMAN FACTOR

How philosophy can address the problem of climate change

"[A]lmost anyone engaged with global issues of human well-being, the distribution of resources, or the future of society is doing moral philosophy. Even the most technocratic assessment of costs and benefits makes assumptions about the value of human life and the demands of justice....Making our ethics more explicit, being self-conscious about our principles and premises, improves our moral thinking. This is particularly true when the questions are ones of public policy." More

BASIC RESEARCH

Professor Bengt Holmström wins 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded to MIT's Bengt Holmström and Harvard's Olvier Hart for their contributions to contract theory. Holmström is the Paul A. Samuelson Professor of Economics in the MIT SHASS Department of Economics, with a joint appointment in the Sloan School.  More

BASIC RESEARCH

Norvin Richards explores how our voices shape the rules of grammar

Linguists who study syntax have catalogued myriad distinguishing rules and patterns among world languages — without necessarily explaining why such differences exist. But now Richards has a new explanation, detailed in his book, Contiguity Theory, recently published by the MIT Press. More

BASIC RESEARCH

Via IDSS, Christia and Jadbabaie collaborate on study of sociopolitical change

With the new Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), MIT researchers in the social sciences have an official research platform for collaborating with peers in engineering and the sciences. In this project, social scientist Fotini Christia and civil engineer Ali Jadbabaie join forces to study the evolution of cultural norms and the dynamics of sociopolitical change.    More

BASIC RESEARCH

Why children confuse "and" with "or"

A study co-authored by MIT linguists concludes that children deploy a more sophisticated mode of logical analysis than many experts have previously realized. More

GLOBAL HEALTH AND POVERTY ALLEVIATION

A Sampler of Health Sector projects
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT

J-PAL’s Health sector aims to encourage health-promoting behaviors and improve the delivery of health care services, as well as to better understand the impact of health care on reducing poverty. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | INNOVATION & ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY ARE LINKED

Interview with economic historian Anne McCants

"Economic history viewed on a very long timescale tells us that innovation and population size/density are highly correlated. A shorter time horizon tells us that population size alone is not enough. Rather, it is in populations where lots of people are both permitted and capable of 'having a go,' where innovation thrives best." More

BASIC RESEARCH

Code of the humans

New book by Noam Chomsky and Robert Berwick explores how people acquired unique language skills. More

THE HUMAN FACTOR | HEALTH CARE, EQUITY AND INNOVATION

Political scientist Andrea Campbell highlights the impact of equity on health outcomes.

"Any initiative to address health and health care goals must wrestle with and address the enormous disparities that exist in health coverage, access, and outcomes across racial and income groups in the United States. It’s as if poor or black Americans are living in a different country, and in terms of poverty, health insurance, and health care access, effectively they are. This is a political and social problem as much as a technical one."  More

CORE | BASIC RESEARCH

MIT senior takes on double major in brain and cognitive sciences plus theater arts

Abra Shen pursues medicine and theater, and someday hopes to combine the two. More

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Thomas Levenson receives the 2016 Levitan Prize in the Humanities

Levenson, professor of science writing and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, has been awarded the $30,000 research grant, which will support his investigation into the economic, cultural, and scientific history of an 18th century financial crisis known as the South Sea Bubble. More

BASIC RESEARCH

Elizabeth Wood: The Roots of the Ukraine Crisis

In February 2014, Russian troops rolled into Crimea, the garden spot of Ukraine, and seized control, shocking the international community. MIT Professor Elizabeth A. Wood’s new book asks why Russia annexed this peninsula, plumbing the depths of history to explain Russia’s current posture on the world stage. More

BASIC RESEARCH + CORE

MIT named among three top universities in the world for humanities, arts

The Times Higher Education 2015 World University Rankings has named MIT one of the top three universities worldwide for arts and humanities education. The three top ranked universities — Stanford University, Harvard University, and MIT — are closely aligned in the evaluation metrics. More

BASIC RESEARCH | ETHICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya analyzes the sources of moral action

“I really feel compelled right now by questions about climate change ethics … the worry that nothing I do may make a difference, the fact that decisions we’re making in the next generation will affect many billions of humans, or possibly even whether human life will exist in a few hundred years’ time,” Setiya says. “I feel there are very challenging, often upsetting, but unavoidable questions raised there.” More

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY

Deborah Fitzgerald receives lifetime achievement award from Agricultural History Society

Fitzgerald, Professor of the History of Technology, and former Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT-SHASS, has been honored for her research, mentorship, and leadership. In its award citation, the society notes that Fitzgerald's research has articulated "important themes in twentieth century America," and that she has been a central force in furthering the society, cultivating next-generation scholars." More

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Tom Levenson discusses his new book, The Hunt for Vulcan

Tom Levenson, Professor of Science Writing and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing will give a presentation about his new book The Hunt for Vulcan — the planet that was repeatedly discovered (although it did not exist).  More

RESEARCH TO POLICY: EDUCATION

Haitian educators and MIT faculty develop Kreyòl-based teaching tools

Six veteran educators from Haiti — two biologists, two physicists, and two mathematicians — were on campus recently to work closely with MIT faculty to develop and hone Kreyòl-based, technology-enhanced pedagogical tools for STEM education. More

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ADVANCING JUSTICE 

3 Questions | Melissa Nobles on advancing racial and restorative justice

Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor, and Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, esearches historical injustices in democracies. MIT SHASS Communications spoke with Nobles recently about the ongoing aftermath of shooting deaths in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland, and what her research suggests about the current efforts to advance civil rights in America. More

BASIC RESEARCH: THOUGHT AND DECISION-MAKING

Philosopher Robert Stalnaker solves problems the MIT way

Focus on real-world concerns underpins research in areas including game theory, linguistics, decision theory, and economics. More

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE

Donca Steriade: Searching for the building blocks of language

The syllable has long been considered to be the basic building block of language in the area of rhythm. MIT's Donca Steriade now believes that that different element — known as the "interval" — may be the basic unit of rhythm in human language. More

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE AND MIND

MIT linguist
 Danny Fox named Anshen-Chomsky Professor of Language and Thought

Fox does research that illuminates both language and the mind itself. "He belongs to the rare breed of researchers who not only discover remarkable new facts about language, but also has the vision to see what these discoveries are teaching us about the mind as a whole, about the structure of language as a part of the human mind, and about the internal workings of language itself." — David Pesetsky, Head, MIT Philosophy and Linguistics  More

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Kai von Fintel: Decoding the Meaning of Language

"What makes linguistics, the science of language, so fascinating, von Fintel says, "is that it exists at the intersection of science and the humanities." You use a scientific approach, and you get to apply it to something central to humanity." More

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

David Kaiser awarded the Davis Prize from the History of Science Society

The History of Science Society has awarded the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize to MIT historian and physicist David Kaiser for his book How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (W. W. Norton, 2011). More

BASIC RESEARCH: ORIGINS OF POWER, PROSPERITY, AND POVERTY

Economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson publish new thesis on the wealth of nations

A collection of the significant reviews, interviews, videos, broadcasts about the thesis on the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty More

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Rosalind Williams: on the "Human Empire"

An historian who finds evidence and insight in literature, Rosalind Williams, Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, recently completed a book examining the critical juncture when human endeavors began to dominate the planet as never before. Forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press (2013), The Triumph of Human Empire, explores this turning point in history and technology through the works of three writers from the late 1800s. More

INNOVATION/RESEARCH: MUSIC21 TOOLS

Cuthbert receives $500K Digging into Data grant for innovative musicology tools.

Associate Professor of Music Michael Cuthbert, together with an international team of researchers, has been awarded a $500K grant from the Digging into Data consortium (including $175K from the National Endowment for the Humanities). The grant supports his for work using computational techniques to study changes in Western musical style. More

Irene Heim

BASIC RESEARCH

Scientific Reunion commemorates 50 years of Linguistics at MIT

To celebrate the first 50 years of MIT’s graduate program in Linguistics, alumni, former faculty and postdoctoral scholars attended a Scientific Reunion, held at MIT on December 9-11, 2011, and participated in a discussion of some of the foundational questions investigated by its past and present members. Professor David Pesetsky writes, "Intellectually, it was first-rate and exciting; there were some fireworks (just as we'd hoped). It was also a very emotional weekend. Collectively, this was the group that built the field."  More

neurons firing

RESEARCH

SHASS stories by the MIT News team 

The research, profile, and feature stories archived on this page are written by the MIT News staff, principally by Peter Dizikes. More

RESEARCH TO POLICY: HEALTH INSURANCE

MIT economists Finkelstein and Gruber demonstrate the health and financial benefits of Medicaid

Landmark study shows the effects of health insurance program: much better health and more financial stability for the poor; more bills paid for hospitals and doctors. Professors of Economics Amy Finkelstein (a principal investigator) and Jonathan Gruber contributed to the study. More

The deaths of others book cover

RESEARCH TO POLICY: CIVILIANS IN WARFARE

In The Deaths of Others, John Tirman explores fate of civilians in America's wars

Americans are greatly concerned about the number of our troops killed in battle — 100,000 dead in World War I; 300,000 in World War II; 33,000 in the Korean War; 58,000 in Vietnam; 4,500 in Iraq; more than 1,000 in Afghanistan — and rightly so. But why are we so indifferent, often oblivious, to the far greater number of casualties suffered by those we fight and those we fight for? This is the compelling, largely unasked question that John Tirman, a principal research scientist and executive director at the MIT Center for International Studies, answers in The Deaths of OthersMore

Daron Acemoglu

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ECONOMIC STABILITY

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu on inequality and the financial crash

This excellent podcast interview with Daron Acemoglu, Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Economics, examines the role of income inequality in the financial crash. More

BASIC RESEARCH: LANGUAGE AND MIND

Q&A with Linguist David Pesetsky

Why is the idea of Universal Grammar controversial?  What does linguistics tell us about how we think? — Q&A with David Pesetsky, Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science More

Kresge Auditorium

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ECONOMICS

Economics Symposium launches MIT's 150th celebration | From Theory to Practice to Policy

This symposium, organized by the School's Department of Economics and the Sloan School of Management, celebrated the role of MIT’s faculty and students in advancing the fields of economics and finance, in putting the latest developments into practice, and in contributing to the design of public policy. Story + On Demand Videos

Nobel Prize in Economics

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ECONOMIC INNOVATION

Peter Diamond receives Nobel in Sweden

Institute Professor Peter Diamond PhD ’63 will collect the Nobel Prize in economics on Friday, Dec. 10, during a ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden. Diamond, Dale T. Mortensen of Northwestern University and Christopher A. Pissarides of the London School of Economics won the prize for their analysis of “markets with search frictions,” which roughly equates to any setting in which buyers and sellers don’t easily find one another. More

Fox Harrell

BASIC RESEARCH: ART/TECH INNOVATION

Harrell convenes thought-leaders to catalyze new research informed by science, humanities, and arts disciplines.

Bringing together the resources of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Associate Professor Fox Harrell has led a joint workshop focused on research informed by both the arts and sciences. 55 thought leaders gathered to explore the goal of using technology to better understand society—and using the humanities and arts to build creative computational systems. More

US Constitution

BASIC RESEARCH: AMERICAN HISTORY

Maier's Ratification delivers new knowledge about the adoption of the US Constitution, the most consequential debate in American history

"A stunning examination of... 'the beginning of American national politics' — the debate that explains the way we Americans govern ourselves, resolve disputes, conduct diplomacy, choose leaders and protect our freedoms."  More

cultures of war cover

BASIC RESEARCH | HISTORY OF CONFLICT

Dower's Cultures of War is 2010 National Book Award finalist

Over recent decades, Pulitzer-winning historian John W. Dower has addressed the roots and consequences of war from multiple perspectives. Here he examines the cultures of war revealed by four powerful events—Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, and the invasion of Iraq in the name of a war on terror.  More

violin on score

BASIC RESEARCH: TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN IDENTITY

Objects and Identity: Sherry Turkle's Research

"In 1976, when Sherry Turkle arrived at MIT to teach the sociology of science, she quickly noticed how the still-new computer was becoming part of the fabric and language of daily life. When she probed deeper, she found 'there was a real passionate attachment to the computer, a possibility to project yourself into the machine.' Within that, Turkle, a psychologist as well as a professor, saw bigger questions about how that might change our very sense of self-identity." Full Story at The Boston Globe

Sir Isaac Newton

BASIC RESEARCH: HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Newton and the Counterfeiter
Boston Globe on Levenson's new book

"MIT professor Thomas Levenson has written a page-turner about Isaac Newton's mind at work, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In a little known episode, Newton was tapped to manage England's Royal Mint at a time when the preponderance of fake money in circulation caused a financial crisis.    More

RESEARCH TO POLICY: ADDICTION

Natasha Schull examines technology and gambling addiction    

Natasha Schull, Assistant Professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, observed that gamblers become transfixed for hours at video poker and slot machines. What, she wondered, kept them glued to machines until they lost all they had to lose? Schull is publishing her conclusions that proprietary mathematical algorithms and immersive technology are used to keep people gambling until they—in the industry jargon—"play to extinction." More

BASIC RESEARCH

MIT's philosophers release eight books this year

It's unusual for philosophers to publish many books these days — major papers are the more typical way to publish research — which is why the publication of eight books by eight of the 12 MIT philosophy faculty in the span of a year marks a noteworthy chapter for the Institute's philosophy section. More

Alien Ocean bookcover

BASIC RESEARCH | CULTURE OF SCIENCE

"Alien Ocean" explores the world of marine microbiologists

When Professor of Anthropology Stefan Helmreich set out to examine the world of marine microbiologists for a new book, his research took an unexpected twist. Helmreich, who has been recognized for his innovative cultural anthropology work, had decided to study scientists who chase some of the world's smallest creatures in some of the world's most forbidding places. So he spent long hours interviewing microbial biologists. But during the years of Helmreich's research, the entire field shifted gears. More