Just Thinking

By Norman Boucher / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

On most days Ian Dell’Antonio sits in a small fifth-floor Barus and Holley office thinking about the universe. More precisely, Dell’Antonio ponders something that is thought to be found everywhere but that no one has been able to perceive—something, in fact, that doesn’t interact with any other form of matter. And he just received $600,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to keep pondering it.

Not far from Dell’Antonio’s office is a bigger one on the fourth floor of the CIT building, where Amy Greenwald sits trying to figure out how humans think so that she can get robots—she prefers the word agents—to follow suit. Her particular interest at the moment, she says, is how to get artificial agents to handle “a potentially noncooperative situation.” The NSF has just given her $375,000 to keep going.

Dell’Antonio, an assistant professor of physics, and Greenwald, an assistant professor of computer science, are two of the fifty-seven young scientists to receive the latest Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, given annually to the most promising beginning researchers in the country.

Dell’Antonio gathers the data for his research at telescopes aimed toward deep space from locations in Tucson, Arizona, and Chile. There he and his colleagues examine randomly selected regions of the universe for the distribution of something called dark matter. Scientists theorize that the interplay between dark matter and dark energy (“which is even weirder than dark matter,” Dell’Antonio says) is responsible for the stretching of galaxies observed in the cosmos. The interplay between dark matter and dark energy may well be shaping the future of the universe.

“One of the big problems in physics,” Dell’Antonio says, “is, what is this stuff? People have spent the last century finding such things as neutrons in larger and larger particle accelerators, and we’ve completely missed this.”

Greenwald uses game theory to figure out how to get computers to make complex decisions rapidly and accurately. A simple example, she says, is unravelling a voting scheme such as the Google search engine. “When you search Google,” she says, “Google aggregates Web sites into some kind of list of the population’s preferences. Businesses, as a result, are always trying to game the Google system.”

During the summer Greenwald runs a mentoring program that brings undergraduate women from different schools to campus and immerses them in artificial-intelligence research. “My objective,” she says, “is to inspire them to do a PhD in computer science.”

The two scholars’ awards may have been intended as government encouragement of important research, but Greenwald notes that when the awardees went to the White House reception honoring them, the event was actually held at the Old Executive Office Building and was hosted by a White House science adviser. On the other hand, when the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots were feted a week or so later, their reception was in the White House Rose Garden. The host was President Bush.

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September / October 2004