MIT Nerds

As dozens of Nobel Prize winners can attest, students at this university aren't exactly normal

By Claudia Glenn Dowling|Sunday, June 05, 2005
mit-open
mit-open

In MITERS (the MIT Electronic Research Society), an undergraduate club that Damon Vander Lind says “exists for the sole purpose of building cool stuff,” he salvages components from a 1960s-era tape deck. “I was stealing parts for a power supply,” he says. “Old equipment tends to be made of nicer parts.”

Gail Albert Halaban

There is a place or persona or maybe a state of mind called Tetazoo. That stands for “Third East Traveling Animal Zoo,” the name of a dormitory hall at MIT. At the moment, several of its scruffy denizens, including Sam Kendig, 22, are ramming sectional couches down a corridor of classrooms as fast as low-tech human power can, past lab-coated professors and graduate students, none of whom blink an eye. After all, it’s the weekend of the amazing Mystery Hunt—more about that soon—when such peculiar behavior is normal. And in the institute’s 140-year history, these corridors have been traversed by 59 Nobel laureates and 30 astronauts, as well as Dr. Dolittle author Hugh Lofting, architect I. M. Pei, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, inventor Raymond Kurzweil, Ford Motor Company honcho William C. Ford, suspected Al Qaeda agent Aafia Siddiqui, and NPR’s “Car Talk” guys. At a guess, none of them were normal, either. No one seems to be normal at MIT.

In the 1960s, when campus life at Harvard University, on the other side of Cambridge, Massachusetts, meant protesting the Vietnam War, dropping psychedelics, and taking over buildings, counterculture types considered MIT a Pentagon front, where a bunch of nerds developed radar, missiles, and napalm. That wasn’t altogether wrong. But it’s clear now that the nerds have won those culture wars: Technology has taken over the earth.

Think about it. The World Wide Web was born at MIT in 1994. That same year, firms founded by MIT graduates generated $232 billion and employed a million people worldwide. Now Treo phones and Google are part of everyday life. We’re all nerds. And there’s a pretty good case to be made that whatever the students on the MIT campus are interested in at this moment will utterly change our lives again in about a decade. The MIT culture is a fecund environment where some of the finest creative minds on the planet not only nurture ideas but also figure out how to use them. The definition of technology is, after all, “the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes.”

Well, not always practical. Take, for instance, that Mystery Hunt that has those students pushing sofas around. Sam and crew are dragging furniture into a classroom because they will live there, day and night, for the several days it will take them to decipher some 150 complex puzzles. After the sofas are in place, they head off on other missions to stock up for the hunt: scrounging power strips and reference books (Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens, Bicycle Official Rules of Card Games, The Lord of the Rings) and loading up stores of junk food (Marshmallow Fluff, barbecued potato chips, animal crackers, Little Debbie cakes, Mountain Dew) that will fuel them for the weekend. The checkout clerks at the Star supermarket near the campus have become pretty blasé about Mystery Hunt buying sprees. They’ve scanned entire shopping carts full of Coffee-Mate (makes great sparkles when ignited) or aluminum foil (to wrap an entire dorm room, including walls, bed, CDs, and books). Once, for a single-color feast, Sam checked through nothing but orange items: Cheetos, Doritos, carrots, OJ, cheese-peanut butter crackers.

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mit-gathering

Students gather in the wee hours in the East Campus dorm hall. “People all over MIT stay up all night and build crazy things,” says Jenny Hu (center, with sketch pad). Next to her, brothers Jason (face obscured) and Vincent Chen crack their laptops while Damon Vander Lind and Danny Shen wire a motor. “Built into this place is so much competition,” says Natan Cliffer, making music with a water bottle. “You need people’s help to succeed.”

Gail Albert Halaban
This year, 26 separate teams ranging in size from two people to more than 100 are competing in Mystery Hunt. “We’re mainly interested in getting together, solving puzzles, and having fun,” says Sam. But an MIT student’s idea of having fun is cramming a semester’s worth of brain-draining work into three days. Each puzzle, for example, begins on one level, like a crossword, but then moves to another level, like interpreting the crossword’s solution in Morse code. The final level combines all 150-odd answers to create a solution to an overall metaboggler, which enables the winning team to hunt down a hidden circular object, like an Indian-head penny in 1980 or a CD-ROM two years ago. And the prize for all this extracurricular effort? More work. The winning team is rewarded by being allowed to spend months devising the puzzles for the following year’s hunt.

At noon on a Friday, the race begins. Competitors pull up puzzles on Web sites, calculate on printouts, chalk columns on blackboards, tap on laptops. “Who’s good at, like, history?” someone yells. “Can anybody identify this MP3 song?” “If you take the Universal Product Code as a 10-dimensional vector . . .” “Who’s good at sets?” “Get an anagram on . . . ” “Anyone in here really good at poker?” “Who wants to do some Shakespeare?” Sam studies an abbreviation, a numeral 7 followed by the string of letters J. B. F. S. S. C. “James Bond Films Starring Sean Connery!” he crows. “How did I get that?” Answer: The same way a scientist finds a solution to a problem—step by step, applying a mixture of intelligence, inspiration, and doggedness. Competitors have to be good at everything—braille, cryptography, Java, origami, base 16, flag signals, integer sequences, tarot cards, map reading, and Mandarin Chinese.

And so they are. This year’s graduating class of about a thousand entered with the highest SAT scores in MIT’s history: Four percent had perfect scores; the mean in verbal was 711, the mean in math 756. The kids, half of them valedictorians of their mostly public high schools, came from 45 U.S. states and 47 countries. For such students, it was a revelation to arrive on campus and discover others like themselves. “I was always kind of a loner,” says Amanda Seybold, 19, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of a medical equipment buyer and an online stockbroker. Inspired by a high school physics teacher, she applied to MIT and chose to live in the “stereotypically geeky” Random Hall, perhaps best known as the place where you can click on student-designed Web sites to check whether the bathrooms or washing machines are unoccupied. When Amanda was asked whether she’d be able to remember her room number, 225, she said, “Of course—it’s a perfect square.” She knew she was at the right place when everybody began to calculate how many rooms were perfect squares and determined that hers was the only one on the second floor.

Her parents, of course, were worried: The suicide rate at MIT is about one a year, and the last two undergraduate suicides had been in Random Hall. Elizabeth Shin, who in 2000 set her room and herself on fire, got national press when her parents sued MIT for $27 million, claiming that the institute should have informed them that their daughter, legally an adult, was seeking psychiatric help. The case is still in litigation.

“It’s a hard place,” says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions, who has been at the school for 25 years. “MIT can be the critical parent you can never quite please.” After the suicide, Jones looked back at Shin’s application but could detect no trace of the problems the girl had reportedly struggled with since high school. Her academic qualifications were tops. In the 1980s, male and female applicants had a 10 percent to 30 percent differential on the SAT math score. Now, says Jones, “We routinely see girls with 800s in everything.” When Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, himself an MIT graduate in economics, suggested at an academic conference that there might be “intrinsic differences in ability” between men and women in math and science, a female MIT professor walked out. MIT has the high ground after the recent appointment of neuroscientist Susan Hockfield as president. Faculty women are up, too, to 18 percent, and 43 percent of the class of 2005 is female. Jones wants to admit students of both sexes who will not just survive but thrive on stress. “MIT is like a samurai school,” she says. “These students have more courage than most adults.”

The work is grueling and unremitting—“like drinking from a fire hose,” as they say around campus. “This is more pressure than most people have ever been under,” says Amanda who, like many Random residents, is known by her user name, vixen. Now a sophomore with a purple-frosted pageboy, she says upperclassmen helped her get through freshman year. An electrical engineering–computer science major—or EECS, as it’s known in the acronym-crammed world of MIT—Amanda bakes chocolate-chip cookies for the dorm once a week and now does her part to make sure freshmen eat, sleep, and shower. Perhaps the most used acronym in the MIT lexicon is IHTFP, which means, according to the workload, either I Hate This F---ing Place or I Have Truly Found Paradise. For many, both are true. The student mantra is “Work, friends, sleep: Pick two.” The only break is during January’s independent activities period, when kids can engage in special projects or in extra sleep. Few choose sleep.

But back to Tetazoo’s Mystery Hunt headquarters: Sarah Newman, a planetary science major from Minnesota, is solving a logic puzzle. She has also been rehearsing all night for a production of The Who’s Tommy, a rock opera starring a pinball wizard as the classic nerd—socially isolated, extremely talented in a single area. Sarah, however, is not like that. Most MIT students participate in extracurricular activities, including 42 varsity sports. Sarah, whose lower lip is bisected by a silver ring, has just ditched crew for the cycling team. She has art school fantasies and has painted meticulous murals of a Dr. Seuss book and of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in her hall. “Here there are lots of different levels of nerddom,” she says. “There are nerd jocks here, the übernerds who study, nerds who actually have lives.”

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mit-chalkboard
High tech or low, activity fills spare time. “I’m into building devices,” says Sam Kendig, fiddling with an LED (Light Emitting Diode) strobe, while Stephanie Dalquist does calculus and Amrita Masurkar plays Boggle.
Gail Albert Halaban

Still, many believe they could use a little polish. So hundreds attend Charm School, a day of semiserious workshops held during the independent activities period between semesters. At the student union, the strains of a cha-cha waft from the lessons being given by the ballroom dance team. At the Dress for Success booth, an older man demonstrates the Windsor knot for a kid wearing a Sikh turban. At the Table Manners Café, an Asian student (8 percent of the student body is international) asks how to hold a fork. At “How to Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear,” roommate problems are resolved using role playing.

The Charm School workshop with the longest sign-up sheet is Flirting 101. Yes, in the words of a spoof in the campus humor magazine Voo Doo, “the problem set of love is challenging.” A disproportionately female class convenes. “Here is your first assignment—go out and find some more men,” says social philosophy lecturer Lee Perlman. This is not the casual-sex campus of Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons, however. Relationships seem to be serious or not at all—there just isn’t time. Ergo, what Stephanie Dalquist, Sam’s girlfriend, calls hall-cest—the tendency to take up with those in proximity. Perlman believes that MIT kids are less likely to hook up for one-night stands than others because “MIT women are not so susceptible to the need to be validated by men—they are validated by their own accomplishments.” Attendees complain that all anyone talks about is academics. “Girls I meet only talk about quantum physics and don’t shower,” says one male. A beautiful girl quips, “That may be institution specific.” Perlman says MIT students are sloppier than others he has worked with: “I think the sleep deprivation contributes to the elevated level of dishevelment.” Still, most students find love on campus, often settling into domestic relationships.

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mit-brothers

The brothers Chen—Jason, left, and Vincent—exchange instant messages with some friends.

Gail Albert Halaban

Chris Hoffman, a freshman from the island of Kauai who plans to major in aeronautics and astronautics, is one of the boys dragooned into Flirting 101. A handsome kid who blinks as if he were trying to adjust to contact lenses, he is 5'4". “In high school there were only a couple of people shorter than me, but here I’m not that short,” he says. “A lot of my friends here are close to being legally midgets.” “MIT fits the nerd stereotype—smaller, shorter, thinner, younger looking,” says Vincent Chen, an EECS major who feels tall at 5'10". Shortness is noticeable on the crew team, he says: “The other competitors are tall white guys, and then there’s the MIT team. We definitely stand out quite a lot.”

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mit-dragon

Christina Hawkes (“Not everyone has purple hair—really”) makes a duct-tape dragon.

Gail Albert Halaban

Vincent and Sam were on the fencing team together at New York City’s Hunter College High School before they got into MIT. Once a student decides to enroll (MIT loses more than half the students also accepted by Harvard or Yale but has the edge on Caltech, Stanford, and Princeton), he or she chooses a dorm and even which hall of a dorm to live in during rush. As sophomores, students may also choose fraternities or sororities. Sam and Vincent went up to check out the dorms as “pre-frosh” and stayed with an older friend who lived on East Campus. Sam loved it; Vincent was “a little frightened.”

On East Campus, halls have names like Tetazoo and Putz and The Beast from the East. Some halls use house taxes to purchase explosives. “You can’t blow this building up,” Sam boasts. “We’ve tried!” No one smokes in Tetazoo (hall rule: No smoking unless you’re on fire), and most don’t drink much alcohol. No one watches TV. Corridors are shabby and covered with murals. Rooms are anything-goes building projects. Communal cats loll in hallways. At all hours of the night, people are likely to be taking things apart or putting them back together. Bedtime is about 5 a.m. campuswide, but on East Campus, the night hours are busier. This is where many of the MIT “hacks” originate.

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mit-painting

Sarah Newman is replicating Sistine Chapel paintings in her dorm hall.

Gail Albert Halaban

“Hacking is breaking and entering, basically,” says Sam. Sometimes the mission is to explore an unknown basement or rooftop, but other hacks are highly elaborate. One of the most visible targets is the big dome in the center of the campus, where, famously, one morning in 1994 a life-size campus police car appeared, complete with a dummy cop and a box of doughnuts. On other occasions the dome was transformed into a giant beanie cap with propeller (1996), banded with a giant ring engraved with Elvish calligraphy from the opening of the Lord of the Rings movie (2001), and has served as pedestal for a full-scale model of Kitty Hawk, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight (2003). The ascent requires security evasion and a 20-foot ladder. “We have tried eight ways to Sunday—alarms, locks—to prevent kids from getting on the dome,” says Steve Immerman, assistant dean for student life. “We are immensely proud of them—it is part of who we are. At the same time, we have an explicit responsibility to ensure that students do not put themselves or the university at risk.”

“People on East Campus are more likely to carry out these kinds of crazy projects,” says Vincent, who, like 10 percent of graduates, plans to go on to medical school. “People on West Campus would be, ‘Why did you waste your time?’ ” East Campus people are “eccentric,” he says, delicately. “West Campus people probably blend in better when they’re off campus.” Both groups use the word normal to describe West Campus, the Easterners somewhat disparagingly, the Westerners somewhat defensively. “When you think of West Campus, you think of frat parties, beer. When you think of East Campus, you think of fire,” says Amanda, whose Random Hall is West by geography and East by affinity. West is soft tech, biology, and economics; East is hard tech, math, and engineering. “Windows Me to our Linux,” says one of Sam’s friends. West is Starbucks Frappuccino; East is Mountain Dew.

mit-cookies
mit-cookies

Amanda Seybold admits she is no chef and has anything but gourmet tastes: “I eat chicken nuggets and chili and things in cans.” But every Tuesday she bakes cookies for all her dorm mates in Random Hall.

Gail Albert Halaban

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.

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