Skip navigation

MIT

Moments of Decision
Edited by David Kaiser

How did MIT become MIT? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology marks the 150th anniversary of its founding in 2011. Over the years, MIT has lived by its motto, “Mens et Manus” (“Mind and Hand”), dedicating itself to the pursuit of knowledge and its application to real-world problems. MIT has produced leading scholars in fields ranging from aeronautics to economics, invented entire academic disciplines, and transformed ideas into market-ready devices. This book examines a series of turning points, crucial decisions that helped define MIT. Many of these issues have relevance today: the moral implications of defense contracts, the optimal balance between government funding and private investment, and the right combination of basic science, engineering, and humanistic scholarship in the curriculum.

Chapters describe the educational vison and fund-raising acumen of founder William Barton Rogers (MIT was among the earliest recipients of land grant funding); MIT’s relationship with Harvard--its rival, doppelgänger, and, for a brief moment, degree-conferring partner; the battle between pure science and industrial sponsorship in the early twentieth century; MIT’s rapid expansion during World War II because of defense work and military training courses; the conflict between Cold War gadgetry and the humanities; protests over defense contracts at the height of the Vietnam War; the uproar in the local community over the perceived riskiness of recombinant DNA research; and the measures taken to reverse years of institutionalized discrimination against women scientists.

Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities

In his fourteen years as president of MIT, Charles Vest worked continuously to realize his vision of rebuilding America's trust in science and technology. In a time when the federal government dramatically reduced its funding of academic research programs and industry shifted its R&D resources into the short-term product-development process, Vest called for new partnerships with business and government. He called for universities to meet the intellectual challenges posed by the innovation-driven, globally connected needs of industry even as he reaffirmed basic academic values and the continuing need for longer-term scientific inquiry.

In Pursuing the Endless Frontier, Vest addresses these and other issues in a series of essays written during his tenure as president of MIT. He discusses the research university's need to shift to a broader, more international outlook, the value of diversity in the academic community, the greater leadership role for faculty outside the classroom, and the boundless opportunity of new scientific and technological developments even when coupled with financial constraints. In the provocative essay "What We Don't Know," Vest reminds us of what he calls "the most critical point of all," that science is driven by a deep human need to understand nature, to answer the "big questions"—that what we don't know is more important than what we do. In another essay, on the future of MIT, he celebrates MIT's strengths as being extraordinarily well-suited to the needs of an era of unprecedented change in science and technology. In "Disturbing the Educational Universe: Universities in the Digital Age—Dinosaurs or Prometheans," he describes MIT's innovative OpenCourseWare initiative, which builds on the fundamental nature of the Internet as an enabling and liberating technology.

Vest, who is stepping down from MIT's presidency in the fall of 2004, writes with clarity and insight about the issues facing academic institutions in the twenty-first century. His essays in Pursuing the Endless Frontier offer inspiration to educators and researchers seeking the way forward.

The MIT Nobody Knows

When Jay Keyser arrived at MIT in 1977 to head the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, he writes, he "felt like a fish that had been introduced to water for the first time." At MIT, a colleague grabbed him by the lapels to discuss dark matter; Noam Chomsky called him "boss" (double SOB spelled backward?); and engaging in conflict resolution made him feel like "a marriage counselor trying to reconcile a union between a Jehovah’s witness and a vampire." In Mens et Mania, Keyser recounts his academic and administrative adventures during a career of more than thirty years. Keyser describes the administrative side of his MIT life, not only as department head but also as Associate Provost and Special Assistant to the Chancellor. Keyser had to run a department ("budgets were like horoscopes") andn egotiate student grievances—from the legality of showing Deep Throat in a dormitory to the uproar caused by the arrests of students for antiapartheid demonstrations. Keyser also describes a visiting Japanese delegation horrified by the disrepair of the linguistics department offices (Chomsky tells them "Our motto is: Physically shabby. Intellectually first class."); convincing a student not to jump off the roof of the Green Building; and recent attempts to look at MIT through a corporate lens. And he explains the special faculty-student bond at MIT: the faculty sees the students as themselves thirty years earlier. Keyser observes that MIT is hard to get into and even harder to leave, for faculty as well as for students. Writing about retirement, Keyser quotes the song Groucho Marx sang in Animal Crackers as he was leaving a party—"Hello, I must be going." Students famously say "Tech is hell." Keyser says,"It’s been a helluva party." This entertaining and thought-provoking memoir will make readers glad that Keyser hasn’t quite left.

A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT

An MIT "hack" is an ingenious, benign, and anonymous prank or practical joke, often requiring engineering or scientific expertise and often pulled off under cover of darkness—instances of campus mischief sometimes coinciding with April Fool’s Day, final exams, or commencement. (It should not be confused with the sometimes non-benign phenomenon of computer hacking.) Noteworthy MIT hacks over the years include the legendary Harvard–Yale Football Game Hack (when a weather balloon emblazoned “MIT” popped out of the ground near the 50-yard line), the campus police car found perched on the Great Dome, the apparent disappearance of the Institute president’s office, and a faux cathedral (complete with stained glass windows, organ, and wedding ceremony) in a lobby. Hacks are by their nature ephemeral, although they live on in the memory of both perpetrators and spectators. Nightwork, drawing on the MIT Museum’s unique collection of hack-related photographs and other materials, describes and documents the best of MIT’s hacks and hacking culture. This generously illustrated updated edition has added coverage of such recent hacks as the cross-country abduction of rival Caltech’s cannon (a prank requiring months of planning, intricate choreography, and last-minute improvisation), a fire truck on the Dome that marked the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and numerous pokes at the celebrated Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, and even a working solar-powered Red Line subway car on the Great Dome. Hacks have been said to express the essence of MIT, providing, as alumnus Andre DeHon observes, "an opportunity to demonstrate creativity and know-how in mastering the physical world." What better way to mark the 150th anniversary of MIT’s founding than to commemorate its native ingenuity with this new edition of Nightwork?

Evolving Cultures at MIT

MIT was founded in 1861 as a polytechnic institute in Boston's Back Bay, overshadowed by its neighbor across the Charles River, Harvard University. Harvard offered a classical education to young men ofAmerica's ruling class; the early MIT trained men (and a few women) from all parts of society as engineers for the nation's burgeoning industries. Over theyears, MIT expanded its mission and ventured into other fields—pure science, social science, the humanities—and established itself in Cambridge as Harvard's enduring rival. In A Widening Sphere, Philip Alexander traces MIT's evolution from polytechnic to major research institution through the lives of its first nine presidents, exploring how the ideas, outlook, approach, and personality of each shaped the school’s intellectual and social cultures. Alexander describes, among otherthings, the political skill and entrepreneurial spirit of founder and first president, William Rogers; institutional growing pains under John Runkle; Francis Walker's campaign to broaden the curriculum, especially in the social sciences, and to recruit first-rate faculty; James Crafts, whose heart lay in research, not administration; Henry Pritchett's thwarted effort to merge with Harvard (after which he decamped to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching); Richard Maclaurin's successful strategy to move the institute to Cambridge, after considering other sites (including a golfclub in Brighton); the brilliant, progressive Ernest Nichols, who succumbed to chronic illness and barely held office; Samuel Stratton's push towards a global perspective; and Karl Compton’s vision for a new kind of Institute—a university polarized around science and technology. Through these interlocking yet independent portraits, Alexander reveals the inner workings of a complex and dynamic community of innovators.

Case Studies from MIT

To many science and engineering students, the task of writing may seem irrelevant to their future professional careers. At MIT, however, students discover that writing about their technical work is important not only in solving real-world problems but also in developing their professional identities. MIT puts into practice the belief that “engineers who don’t write well end up working for engineers who do write well,” requiring all students to take “communications-intensive” classes in which they learn from MIT faculty and writing instructors how to express their ideas in writing and in presentations. Students are challenged not only to think like professional scientists and engineers but also to communicate like them.This book offers in-depth case studies and pedagogical strategies from a range of science and engineering communication-intensive classes at MIT. It traces the progress of seventeen students from diverse backgrounds in seven classes that span five departments. Undergraduates in biology attempt to turn scientific findings into a research article; graduate students learn to define their research for scientific grant writing; undergraduates in biomedical engineering learn to use data as evidence; and students in aeronautic and astronautic engineering learn to communicate collaboratively. Each case study is introduced by a description of its theoretical and curricular context and an outline of the objectives for the students’ activities. The studies describe the on-the-ground realities of working with faculty, staff, and students to achieve communication and course goals, offering lessons that can be easily applied to a wide variety of settings and institutions.

A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower

“People are dangerous. If they’re able to involve themselves in issues that matter, they may change the distribution of power, to the detriment of those who are rich and privileged.”—Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has been praised by the likes of Bono and Hugo Chávez and attacked by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Alan Dershowitz. Groundbreaking linguist and outspoken political dissenter—voted “most important public intellectual in the world today” in a 2005 magazine poll—Chomsky inspires fanatical devotion and fierce vituperation. In The Chomsky Effect, Chomsky biographer Robert Barsky examines Chomsky’s positions on a number of highly charged issues—Chomsky’s signature issues, including Vietnam, Israel, East Timor, and his work in linguistics—that illustrate not only “the Chomsky effect” but also “the Chomsky approach.”

Chomsky, writes Barsky, is an inspiration and a catalyst. Not just an analyst or advocate, he encourages people to become engaged—to be “dangerous” and challenge power and privilege. The actions and reactions of Chomsky supporters and detractors and the attending contentiousness can be thought of as “the Chomsky effect.” Barsky discusses Chomsky’s work in such areas as language studies, media, education, law, and politics, and identifies Chomsky’s intellectual and political precursors. He charts anti-Chomsky sentiments as expressed from various standpoints, including contemporary Zionism, mainstream politics, and scholarly communities. He discusses Chomsky’s popular appealhis unlikely status as a punk and rock hero (Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam is one of many rock and roll Chomskyites)—and offers in-depth analyses of the controversies surrounding Chomsky’s roles in the “Faurisson Affair” and the “Pol Pot Affair.” Finally, Barsky considers the role of the public intellectual in order to assess why Noam Chomsky has come to mean so much to so manyand what he may mean to generations to come.

Robert F. Barsky is Professor of English, Comparative Literature, French, and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press), Constructing a Productive Other, Introduction à la théorie littéraire, and Arguing and Justifying. He is currently completing a book on Zellig Harris, for The MIT Press.