Saturday, 28 July 2012

Harvard Yard and Meeting Kismet.

It was a lovely morning and so we hired bikes from a little shop opposite Columbus Park, rode around the knuckle of the North End, crossed the Charles River Dam and followed the north bank of the river round to Cambridge and Harvard Square. Boston's modest skyscrapers sparkled across the water as we zig zagged past other cyclists, joggers and the occasional group of sightseers admiring the view.

We locked up the bikes and headed into the yard for a look round. We're in the summer recess so apart from the occasional research student scurrying head down towards a library or lab the campus was mostly populated by tourists, wandering around, trying to work out what gives the University it's magic. Is it in the bricks? Does it seep up from the ground? Or drop from the sky? Is it simply a case of rubbing the shoe on John Harvard's statue? My guess is those, like me, who have to look for it, whatever it is, have no chance of success here. Harvard, like Oxbridge remains, for most of us honest and hard working as we may be, a spectator sport.

The yard is pretty enough, but reminded me more of Birmingham, with it's criss cross of paths, sturdy halls and occasional self-conscious nods to neo-classicism rather than seemingly evolved monastic reverence engendered by the secretive colleges back in Oxford or Cambridge. Beyond this inner sanctum lie the more lively shops and cafes of Harvard Yard, including the marvellous Harvard Bookstore which we spent an hour or so browsing in.

By midday the temperature had become uncomfortably muggy and so after the briefest look round Cambridge Common we headed over to the Museum of Natural History to look round the  astonishing Ware collection of glass flowers. Over 3000 models of plant species blown with exacting, delicate precision by Czech emigre Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph. The handmade craftsmanship is quite staggering.

Back on the bikes we headed through Cambridge to the Massachusetts Institution of Technology Museum to have a look at some of the fascinating machines. MIT has always combined scientific rationalism with artistic bravado in its efforts to expand the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the Museum is a fine mix of the eccentric and the brilliant. Star of the show is Kismet, who in the late nineties became one of the first robots capable of registering and responding to human emotions.

She's a rather sad shell now, but video footage of the early experiments show clearly how nuanced humanoid interaction with her had become.

We were kicked out at closing time just as the skies opened. We sheltered in a coffee shop for a little while, but in soon became apparent that the storm was just gathering and so off we went again, drenched on Harvard Bridge and through the Back Bay as we struggled to return our bikes to the shop by closing time. Cold and soaked we made our way back to the home comforts of Winthrop on the T-train.

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