Ithaca, N.Y. — Today we introduce the first in an Ithaca Voice series highlighting just a handful of the crazy cool things Cornell University professors are researching, writing, designing, discovering, or (insert verb here) at any given time.

We have no doctrinal preferences and no academic prejudices. Our sole criteria is that the professor’s work be, as the headline suggests, “crazy cool.” And, no, we don’t have a precise definition of “crazy cool.”

(Got a professor we should highlight? Email me at

Without further ado…

1 — Building the perfect camera system … for Mars

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Alex Hayes. (Courtesy of Cornell)

Cornell professor Alex Hayes and senior research associate Rob Sullivan have been named “co-investigators” of a camera system selected to fly on a 2020 mission to Mars, according to the university.

The camera, called Mastcam-Z, will “examine Martian surface mineralogy” for the unmanned trip. The Cornellians will help “preflight development, calibration, in-flight operation and scientific analysis” for the project, the university says.

The rover Opportunity’s view of Mars, colors unvarnished. (Courtesy of NASA)
The rover Opportunity’s view of Mars, colors unvarnished. (Courtesy of NASA)

2 — “Catalytic chemistry” to change making of plastic

Can plastic making be more sustainable?

A $20 million federal grant given in part to Cornell professor Geoffrey Coates will let scientists try to find out.

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Geoffrey Coates (Courtesy of

Coates will look at how “catalytic chemistry” might be able to make plastics from carbon dioxide instead of petroleum, which is how they’re typically made. That could have potentially significant environmental and industry consequences.

3 — Turning 90, Soviet dissident once banished to Siberia still teaches at Cornell

Cornell professor in physics and government Yuri Orlov spent almost a decade at a hard labor camp in Siberian exile at the hands of the Soviets in the USSR. Orlov was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

He eventually made it to NYC, and in 1987 joined Cornell’s Newman Laboratory.

Now turning 90 Wednesday, he still teaches a seminar in human rights and a graduate physics seminar at Cornell, according to the university.

“His physics research investigates systematic errors, spin coherence time and other theoretical issues related to the proposed measurement of the proton, electron and deuteron Electric Dipole Moments,” the university says.

For his birthday, 30 Russian human rights groups in Moscow are going to get together to throw a party in Orlov’s honor.

Orlov will Skype in from Ithaca, according to the university.

Orlov in 2008. (Courtesy of Megan Dirks)

4 — “Building a computer similar to our brain”

Rajit Manohar

A Cornell professor involved in the university’s NYC tech campus is working with IBM to build “a computer similar to our brain,” he tells the university.

Rajit Manohar spearheaded the design for the new computer chip. It’s “inspired by the human brain,” according to the university.

“The chip, called TrueNorth, is made of 5.4 billion transistors and 1 million ‘neurons’.”

Cornell’s statement said:

“The TrueNorth chips could be put in computers that can handle complex tasks like image processing and voice recognition. The design of the chip allows a computer, like a brain, to engage in pattern recognition – identifying a human, or a cat, or a bicycle – as easily as people can.

5 — Skewering University of Illinois for hypocrisy on academic freedom

A professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about to get a tenure faculty appointment saw the offer revoked after sending Tweets critical of Israel’s incursion in Gaza.

Michael Dorf
Michael Dorf

Cornell law professor Michael Dorf has since skewered the university and professor for “irony and apparent hypocrisy on both sides.”

He writes:

Less than a year ago, Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise reaffirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom as a “core principle” in touting “the critical importance of the ability of faculty to pursue learning, discovery and engagement without regard to political considerations. 

That statement was issued to explain why the university opposed an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. Salaita, for his part, has been an outspoken supporter of that boycott.

6 — Could #IfTheyGunnedMeDown actually make white America more ignorant?

Travis Gosa

The death of Michael Brown has spurred outrage and a social media campaign, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, intended to highlight double standards in media coverage of black Americans.

But that campaign may have unintended consequences. Cornell Africana professor Travis Gosa says that “research suggests that media coverage of these tragedies may actually cause white Americans to be more afraid of young black men and to support harsher policing, such as stop-and-frisk,” according to the university.

“Awareness of racial inequality doesn’t seem to motivate white Americans to support policies that address police violence,” Gosa says, “it can have the opposite effect, while media reports of blacks rioting and looting can reinforce stereotypes of black criminality.”

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.