Obama Visits MIT, Pushes Clean Energy

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President Barack Obama’s limousine transported him from Building 13 to Kresge Auditorium via Memorial Drive for his address at Kresge Auditorium on Oct. 23.
David Da He—The Tech

On October 23, 2009, President Barack Obama came to MIT to speak about clean energy and the Recovery act. He also toured several Institute labs that are working on energy issues.

Due to a limited number of tickets, very few students were actually able to attend the speech. About 200 tickets were made available for students, faculty, and staff that deans of each school were allowed to distribute within their departments.

During his speech in Kresge Auditorium, President Obama commended MIT for its “extraordinary energy research” and urged Americans to take leadership in cleaner technologies.

After President Susan J. Hockfield’s introduction, Obama began his speech with a light-hearted joke. “It’s always been a dream of mine to visit the most prestigious school in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said, making fun of his alma mater. After a pause, he added “hold on a second — certainly the most prestigious school in this part of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In his speech, Obama encouraged a “peaceful competition” between the United States and other countries to develop clean technologies first.

“The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation,” he said.

The president also threw his support behind the Recovery Act, a stimulus bill intended to push America towards green jobs and research. The act gave the “largest single boost in scientific research in history.”

The bill also gave $80 billion for creating jobs in alternative energy and energy efficiency.

In addition, Obama advocated the Senate climate change bill, which he said would “transform our energy system into one that’s far more efficient, far cleaner.” The bill would introduce a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama’s speech lasted only about 20 minutes. Afterwards, he left to attend a fundraiser for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Patrick and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) were both in attendance.

Before his speech, Hockfield and MIT Energy Initiative director Ernest J. Moniz toured Obama through several laboratories currently working on energy issues.

Obama saw presentations on high-powered, virus-assembled batteries and solar cells from Professors Angela M. Belcher and Paula T. Hammond ’84; quantum dot LED lights from Professor Vladimir Bulovic; offshore wind turbines from Professor Alexander H. Slocum ’82; and solar cell concentrators from Professor Marc A. Baldo.

The professors were given very short notice about Obama’s visit and had to limit their demonstration to an experiment that was “Easy to describe, had no chemicals, and no water” said Belcher.

The professors said that Obama understood the science relatively quickly and made a very good impression.

It was “interesting how quickly [Obama] understood the technology,” said Hammond, adding that the president asked several great questions such as “How can biology solve these problems?”

“He’s just a warm, friendly human being,” Slocum said. “I’ve met plenty of plastic politicians. Obama is just real.”

Each of the groups had only about five minutes to present their research.

After everybody had presented, Belcher gave Obama a card with the periodic table of elements. “In case you’re ever in a bind and need to calculate a molecular weight, here’s a periodic table for your wallet,” she said. The other side of the card had a chart of amino acids.

Obama later referenced the card in his talk. “This tells you something about MIT — everybody hands out periodic tables … what’s up with that?”

Obama seems to have enjoyed his visit at MIT, “You just get excited being here and seeing these extraordinary young people and the extraordinary leadership of Professor Hockfield because it taps into something essential about America — it’s the legacy of daring men and women who put their talents and their efforts into the pursuit of discovery.”

By coincidence, a protest held for the International Day of Climate Action fell on the same day. Protestors gathered on Killian court to form themselves into a “<350” shape to represent the amount of carbon dioxide per million required to stabilize the Earth’s climate. MIT’s protest was just one of about 4,500 similar protests around the world.

Several people showed up around 77 Massachusetts Ave. and in front of the Student Center to protest human rights violations, the war in Afghanistan, healthcare reform, and abortion.