Dean’s Lecture Series: Rocks, Clouds, and Lightning: Energy, Materiality, and Infrastructural Systems

Event Start Date: Wednesday, February 16, 2022 - 12:00 pm

Event End Date: Wednesday, February 16, 2022 - 2:00 pm

Location: Virtual

Dr. Debbie Chachra - Dean's Lecture Series

Abstract: The digital world appears weightless, ephemeral, and expansive, all flickering pixels and data coursing through the ether, a sharp contrast to the coarse world of matter that stubbornly takes up space and resists movement or change.

But information technologies are just the newest and most glamorous example of a centuries-old project: the creation of networked, collective infrastructural systems to transport atoms (including water, fuel, goods), energy, and bits from where they’re created to where they’re consumed, in order to provide their users with unprecedented individual agency. These systems, now global, are made possible by increasingly complex technologies; by the transformation of raw materials into the networks themselves and the devices we use to access them; and above all, they are powered by exponentially increasing amounts of energy.

What’s more, these networks displace the associated material realities – the costs and harms of energy generation and the production of goods, including the environmental and social effects of extraction, pollution, and waste – away from their users and to other places and communities. From greenhouse gas emissions to e-waste, the digital world has its feet firmly in the material one.

The advent of fossil fuels transformed our relationship with our landscape and the material world. Now, renewable energy – inexpensive, distributed and abundant – has the potential to transform it again, into one that is sustainable and equitable. But we have to decide to create that world.

Bio: Dr. Debbie Chachra is a Professor of Engineering and was one of the earliest faculty at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA. Her research interests include infrastructure, materials, and undergraduate engineering education, including the design of learning experiences and investigation of student perspectives and pathways. She writes, speaks, and consults widely on these topics, and is currently writing a book on infrastructural systems for Riverhead, for publication in 2023. Prior to joining the Olin faculty, she held a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, and she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering physics and materials science, respectively, at the University of Toronto.

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