Vincent and then his younger brother, Jason, chose to live in West Campus’s Simmons Hall, an architectural statement dubbed the Neon Sponge, which opened in 2002. It has a meditation room, an exercise room, the Ping Ping Chai café serving bubble tea, and Blu Dot designer furniture. No surprise that the East Campus types consider Frank Gehry’s brand-new Stata Center also a waste of money. “It’s a great magical castle,” says Amanda’s boyfriend, Natan Cliffer, sternly. “But MIT didn’t need a magical castle.” Sam seems personally offended by Stata’s lack of right angles; Vincent admires it.
At 2:30 a.m. during Mystery Hunt, Vincent’s and Sam’s paths briefly cross. “He was coming back from some party, and I was measuring things in the middle of the night,” says Sam, going point to point with climbing rope for a puzzle solution. Still, at MIT, “normal” is a relative term—even West Campus and the fraternities are geeky. Westerners had a few Mystery Hunt teams of their own. And the measure Sam is using is called a smoot, named after a Lambda Chi Alpha pledge whose body was used in 1958 to measure the distance across a bridge that spans the Charles River near MIT. The length is 364.4 smoots “and one ear.” Each year the fraternity repaints the measures. Oliver Smoot himself, ironically, headed the International Organization for Standardization for two years. Life after MIT.
And that’s where the Michelin hits the macadam. A mission statement holds that MIT was founded to apply science for the benefit of humankind. In the post–World War II era, many graduates applied science to military might. By the Vietnam War, even MIT students were protesting the “Military Institute of Technology.” Sarah’s MIT alum parents met at a protest. Her father, now a neuroscience professor, graduated wearing a sign protesting the Vietnam War. Sarah herself is torn between going back to Israel this summer to teach Palestinian and Israeli teenagers coexistence through the computer language Java and an internship with NASA. Which is the greater benefit for humankind?
Antiwar actions prompted MIT to spin off Draper Laboratory (military guidance systems) into a freestanding entity. But the facility still employs many graduates—a lot of whom would rather live in a broom closet on campus than move on. The late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, who loved his student days there, noted MIT’s parochialism. “It has developed for itself a spirit, so that every member of the whole place thinks that it’s the most wonderful place in the world,” he wrote. “It’s like a New Yorker’s view of New York.” As a postgrad, Feynman, of course, put physics to use for the benefit of humankind by helping to develop the bomb at Los Alamos.
These days, when remote-control devices fly missions in Afghanistan and prowl the surface of Mars, even extreme geeks who don’t follow the news are aware of the ethical ramifications of their work. Sam’s focus is microelectric mechanical systems, and his name wound up on a paper called “Generating Electric Power With a MEMS Electroquasistatic Induction Turbine Generator” (“a gas generator about an inch square and a quarter-inch thick,” he says). As a senior who, like 67 percent of MIT graduates, expects to get a higher degree, he needs sponsorship. He succumbed to an interview with Lincoln Laboratory, but didn’t pursue it. “It was far too focused on military applications,” he says. “I’m much more fond of blowing things up as a hobby.” Damon Vander Lind, 20, who lives across the hall, agrees. “Especially with Iraq, I don’t want to develop weapons systems.” A physics major putting himself through MIT by working on his father’s salmon-fishing boat in Alaska, Damon says he is interested in “wind turbines or things for the third world that don’t make you feel like a bad person.”
In the1980s many MIT graduates followed the money to Wall Street. In the 1990s, Silicon Valley attracted talent. But the students of the new millennium are more idealistic. They are drawn to sustainable technologies and ways to improve health care in the developing world. The institute itself has been moving steadily into biotechnologies. The U.S. government pours $412 million into research at MIT each year, and today the Department of Health and Human Services invests twice as much as does the Department of Defense. In 2003 almost twice as many graduates went to work at nonprofits (9 percent) as did in defense (5 percent). “Optimism, happiness, peace,” is how Dean Jones characterizes the interests of today’s students. Computer models of disease, custom-designed pharmaceuticals for autoimmune conditions like arthritis and diabetes, new ways to deliver medications, new tests, cures for cancer—“these kids can do it all,” says Dean Immerman. “We provide the laboratory.”
Sam’s girlfriend Stephanie, 23, got her first masters in materials science and engineering and is getting another in technology and policy. She just got back from Brazil, where she was practicing her Portuguese by teaching low-cost water testing and nonelectric refrigeration in the Amazon. She has also studied French, Spanish, Russian, German, and Mandarin. Jenny Hu’s thesis, “A Microfluidic Platform for High Throughput Biological Assays,” is about a technique to make quick, cheap genetic tests. But Minneapolis-raised Jenny, 22, whose parents are chemists from Taiwan, also helped make a low-tech rowing device to generate electricity in Mali. “I’m interested in helping people and not just making consumer products,” she says. She and her boyfriend, Danny Shen, the son of medical researchers in Canada, are both involved in Mayapedal, an outfit constructing bicycle-based machines in Guatemala. Danny, 22, a fanatical cyclist who made a trip from Boston to New York in under two days, also works with a group called Bikes Not Bombs and on a World Health Organization project that plans to make power kits for hospitals in Africa. His former foot-high yellow Mohawk, now framed, adorns a kitchen wall on Tetazoo. After finishing his master’s degree project creating miniature wireless sensors for use in schools and hospitals, he plans to go to medical school like his hero Paul Farmer, who runs a clinic in Haiti. Says Danny, “I think the measure of a doctor is whether he brings peace, goodness, and ease to the people he treats.”
By Sunday evening, 54.5 hours into Mystery Hunt, the floors are covered with crashed bodies, crushed Cheez-Its and Post-its scribbled with numbers, letters, carbon dating, pentacles. The phone rings. “The hunt is over,” announces a team leader. “So who won?” ask those still awake. “Random did.” Laptops snap shut, cords are unplugged, blackboards erased. “I’m not vacuuming—I did it last year.” “Anybody heading back to Third East, take the sectionals!”
Classes start soon. After another blur of sleepless nights, the class of 2005 will graduate. If MIT is the soul of the old machine culture, today it nurtures nerds with hearts as well as minds. Over the years, the practical uses to which graduates have put their knowledge has shifted from power to wealth to love for humankind—a marriage between man and machine. Perhaps these well-rounded geeks are making their way into the world not a moment too soon.
A hallway known as the Infinite Corridor joins East Campus and West Campus. Twice a year, in a phenomenon known as MIT Stonehenge, the setting sun shines through the main entrance to the university and directly down the corridor. The ruddy font of photons gilds the marble floor, streaming past the juggler balancing a club on his forehead, the volunteer collecting for tsunami relief, the girl learning to ride a unicycle, the doorway to a nanotechnology lab, the hiding place where Mystery Hunt’s coin was found behind a fire hose, as hundreds of students, heading both east and west, follow the path of light.