Inside the nerds HQ
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown has not been known for his fits of enthusiasm. But two years ago, travelling in the US, Brown was overcome. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was bowled over by an inspirational mix of technology and entrepreneurialism. Hm, he thought to himself, we could do with something like this back home.
Over the following 18 months, Brown set to work on his colleagues, the ministers for trade and education, and also exerted his charms on MIT. Brown wanted the institute to establish a satellite operation in the UK. MIT did not like that idea, but agreed that something else might work. In November last year Brown announced a joint venture between MIT and Cambridge University.
Details of the Cambridge-MIT Institute have yet to be determined. There will be exchange programmes, and integrated courses, but probably not a dedicated building. Funding has already been established: the British government will supply £68m, with £16m more to come from the UK’s private sector. And not a cent from the Americans.
What is so special about MIT that Britain should provide all the cash? Having followed Brown to the genius school, I may be able to explain. MIT has produced 46 Nobel laureates, including ten current faculty members. The architect IM Pei came out of MIT, as did the engineer Charles Stark Draper, whose invention of “inertial navigation” – for manned and unmanned vehicles, regardless of weather and not reliant on information from external sources – proved tremendously useful for aircraft, submarines, missiles and space vehicles (another alumnus, incidentally, is Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon). It was to MIT that the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee turned when looking for somewhere to safeguard his invention, the World Wide Web. There have also been contributions to the arts, typically technical in nature: Herbert Kalmus invented Technicolor; and Richard Leacock developed the handheld super-8 camera which made possible the naturalistic style of cinema verite .
Crucially, for Gordon Brown, MIT has also produced countless winners in business. Research carried out by BankBoston in the mid-90s showed that MIT alumni have created more than 4,000 companies – including 3Com, Campbell’s Soup, Digital, Gillette, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, McDonnell Douglas and Texas Instruments – employing more than 1.1m people. Worldwide sales amounted to around $232bn: if they formed a national economy, the MIT-related companies would rank 24th in the world, just ahead of Thailand.
The campus at MIT extends for a mile along the Charles river, overlooking Boston. The “front” is neo-classical, but many of the buildings – known by number, like the teaching courses, not by name – resemble factories, or dismal Soviet government headquarters. Along the endless corridors, overhead ducts run open to view. This is considered a good thing: a celebration of the technical complexity of modern construction. The closed doors of offices and labs are brightened up with something to amuse visitors: a mathematical paradox, or perhaps a cartoon, like the one in the physics building which shows Schrödinger’s cat fading drolly into dotted outline.
Like the buildings, human beings at MIT suggest that function is more important appearances: if you’re looking for the Beautiful People, they’re not here. Some cultivate geek chic, others achieve it inadvertently, with ill-fitting jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with equations, hefty key-chains hanging from a belt loop. One of the most highly praised scientists I met during a week at MIT, professor Wolfgang Ketterle, ranged the labs in pink trousers; on his feet he wore sandals with black socks.
Ketterle, a softly spoken German physicist in his early 40s, was instrumental in producing the first-ever atomic laser, using gas frozen to millionths of a degree above absolute zero. This achievement was singled out by President Clinton at MIT’s 1998 graduation ceremony; and when Ketterle was offered a job in Germany, his supervising professor, David Pritchard, took the extraordinary step of handing Ketterle one of his own labs – and half his funds – to keep him. Bob Silbey, the booming dean of science, says this was unusual but not exceptional. MIT has a history of supporting young people in this way, “as opposed to, I’m sorry to say, the Harvard approach which is to wait for someone to be successful and then hire them.”
And what about the students? The youngsters who come to MIT, says Marilee Jones, dean of admissions, are often the sort of schoolchildren who, rather than dance to rock music, will examine it for mathematical patterns. They’re accustomed to being put on pedestals by teachers and regarded as weirdos by classmates. “But they’re kind of fearless,” she generalises. “Often shy – but they have this confidence, a willingness to keep trying. They’re not focused on ‘What will people think?’”
When Jones first came to MIT she thought everybody terribly rude. “They asked questions all the time: ‘Where did you get that information?’ or ‘How do you know that?’” Gradually she came to recognise that they were not insulting her, just seeking knowledge. At MIT students are encouraged to take that search into several areas: undergraduates studying for a science degree, for instance, must also take courses in humanities and social sciences. The intersection between disciplines, which each student experiences personally, often provides the most inspirational work – and opportunities for commercial spin-offs. For instance, a theoretical physicist may need the help of an engineer to build an experiment; biologists mapping genes need computer scientists to construct the appropriate software.
And whatever the course of study, MIT strongly encourages learning by trying. The best known example of this hands-on approach is course 2.007, a 30-year-old competition for engineers. Around 140 students took part this year, using items supplied by sponsors including Black & Decker, Ford and General motors: windshield wiper motors, plastic gears, disk magnets, plastic wheels, a syringe, sheets of wood, aluminium and steel, and rubber bands. The challenge – ironical homage to Nasa’s Sojourner – was to devise a robot capable of collecting “Mars rocks” (rubber balls and hockey pucks) and dump them in a bin while warding off attacks from an opposing robot.
One student who took part is Kate Thompson, currently working on a project to develop “intelligent” packaging for foods using electromagnetic labels. How did she do? “The robots worked,” she grins. “I think that is a total ‘win’. But there were other people who did amazing things,” she concedes.
Other courses are less explicitly practical than engineering, but the practical approach still applies. Professor Wit Busza demonstrates physical laws in a lecture by turning himself into a human pendulum. Thompson’s friend Joe Foley, learned the techniques of blacksmithing to improve his understanding of the Iron Age. To appreciate hand-eye coordination, he learned to juggle. He also took a course on playwriting: “I only wrote a couple of good plays,” he says modestly.
An entertaining outcome of the practical approach is the “hack” – the traditional MIT name for a student prank which has little in common with the drunken thefts and breakages that occur in other centres of higher learning. Ideally, a hack combines technical know-how with a sense of humour and breath-taking audacity. Officially, MIT disapproves -hackers face substantial fines if they’re caught – but the best hacks receive approval after the event: they’re showcased at the MIT museum, and on the website. One, the greatest of recent years, involved the overnight installation of a police car on MIT’s dome. Another time, hackers amended an engraving in marble, high above the main entrance, by concealing it behind a replica panel in polystyrene – stained to match the marble and inscribed with precisely same lettering. (Instead of honouring “Agriculture and Commerce” the institute briefly hallowed “Entertainment and Hacking”.) A fraternity house, ATO, routinely contrives to short-circuit an illuminated sign at the nearby Sheraton hotel, leaving only those three letters showing. After President Nixon was accused of being incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, mischievous MIT students set to work on a pedestrian crossing, changing the command “Stop” to read “Chew”.
Outsiders at Ivy League schools – themselves occasional targets – can be sniffy. “They think, ‘Uch, those hacks are so immature ’,” reports Marilee Jones. “And I think: ‘No, you’ve missed the point.’ It’s performance art: these kids figured out a way to get a car on the roof . It was only there for two hours – and nobody knows who did it.”
Not all the critics are outsiders. The billionaire founder of MicroStrategy, Michael Saylor – an MIT alumnus – recently told the New Yorker that he regretted MIT’s nerdy, individualist ethos. A sparsely attended reunion in 1997, he said, proved to be his worst weekend in ten years. “Everything I’ve ever believed in my life – that it’s a great thing that MIT lets in only the intellectual crème de la crème, not the prom queen and the racquetball guy and the student-body president, like Harvard does – was all wrong. We should have let those guys in, because those guys are the social lubricant… That same weekend, I guarantee you, somewhere off in Silicon Valley, 600 MIT nerds from my class were lying under tables in their cubicles with their beanies on, cussing out the establishment and laughing about that stupid reunion.”
But unlike Saylor, many people consider that MIT has spawned some kind of business mafia, holding sway over swathes of the new economy. If that’s right, it’s because the institute complements its technological achievements with the Sloan School of Management, for turning students into entrepreneurs. Some don’t appear to need lessons. For instance, it was students, not faculty, who devised the $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, now widely regarded as most important business-plan competition in the US. In 11 years, the competition – which is open to outsiders – has spawned companies with an estimated market value of more than $10bn. (This year’s winner, EyeGen, beat 200 other entries with a technology developed at MIT, a dye that makes DNA visible to the naked eye.) The faculty’s role? “We just get out of the way,” jokes the school’s dean, Dick Schmalensee.
With students like these, Jones believes, the future is in good hands. The Millennium generation, she reports, has a substantially different world-view to that of the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers currently running the institute. “They’re pragmatic – and also idealistic – and they trust authority. We have a generation coming through that does not necessarily prize individualism – but MIT is all about individualism. This has enormous implications for our marketing. My job is to sound the alarm.”
One such student, Erick Tseng, joins me in the brightly coloured canteen to talk about his studies, and his prospects. Erick, who turned down a place at Harvard to come to MIT, was recently elected president of the senior class of 2001. His interests, typically, are wide-ranging. His double-major is computer science and electrical engineering, with management science: by Friday, he must write a paper about Japanese intellectual property on the net. He recently took a course in jazz history, and sings in the choir (baritone). On another course, he studied high-speed photographic techniques pioneered at MIT – freezing the image of a bubble as it explodes. Last summer, Erick worked as an intern with Microsoft in Seattle; this year he’s lined up a stint with Goldman Sachs in New York. Erick, it must be noted, wears his sandals without socks.
In anonymous rooms throughout the campus – often in the basements – an extraordinary range of inspirational work is carried out. In the leg lab at the artificial intelligence department, a man with one leg tests walking aids while a robotics engineer called Peter Dilworth sits in the far corner – on a chair constructed out of a luxury car seat – performing calculations with pencil and paper. Defunct robots hang from the ceiling above him, and on his desk squats a robot, Troody, which Dilworth has modelled on a dinosaur known as a Troodon. Responding to commands from a TV remote-control, Troody can stand and maintain balance autonomously using a built-in, battery-powered computer. Within a short time it will be possible to make her walk, and even run, says Dilworth. Museums round the world have already put in orders for their own model: Dilworth will keep most of the profits, though MIT will benefit too.
In ocean engineering, there’s a vast tank in the basement, enabling engineers to research the swimming techniques of fish. Craig Martin and David Beal show me a model they have constructed – a tuna with black lycra stretched over its hooped metal ribs – which will soon be presented to London’s Science Museum. “This one is a pike,” says Beal, moving on. “Pike can turn 180 degrees in just a tenth of their body length.”
Elsewhere, professor Dan Nocera takes me for a tour of his laser labs. In the first, green laser light is chanelled and deflected by optics on a tabletop. Even in the dark, the beam appears faint – but if I were to put my finger in it, Nocera warns, the flesh would burn and the deflected light would blind us. The point of the project? To produce photosynthesis in a beaker. That is, to simulate the sun itself, right here in a dingy basement.
MIT students do not graduate “with honours”, because a simple degree is itself considered an honour. Similarly, no VIP has ever been given an honorary degree from MIT as this would devalue them; in 1949, exceptionally, Winston Churchill was presented with an honorary lectureship.
2250 words © FT Magazine