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School Secrets: 5 things to know about MIT

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 24, 2012 05:44 PM

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mit funny buildings.jpgBy Melissa Werthmann

Since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened its doors in 1865 in response to America's increasing industrialization, the school -- regarded as one of the most academically rigorous in the country -- has had some really impressive people walk its halls. Besides Will Hunting, MIT's famous alums include Buzz Aldrin and James Doolittle.

When MIT isn't cranking out productive members of society, it's generating its own power. "All power is generated by our own nuclear reactor," said Max Maybury, a freshman computer science major* -- and that's just the beginning of the long list of awesome things about life at MIT.

Want to sail the Seven Seas? Head to MIT. That's right: MIT offers a pirate certificate to students who complete four physical education classes: pistol, archery, sailing, and fencing. "It's kind of tough to get into sailing," Maybury said. "You have to take a bunch of classes. They're not just going to put anyone out on the Charles."

Although MIT forbids their pirates from committing actual acts of piracy, it's a big deal to receive the certificate. "People get so excited about it," said Christine Sowa, a sophomore studying management and mathematics, who has taken sailing and is therefore one-quarter pirate.

MIT students aren't just using the school's tunnel system to avoid sunlight. Plenty of colleges have underground tunnel systems, but not many are as vast as the one at MIT; the seemingly endless, intricate network connects nearly every building on campus.

"It's pretty cool that it connects all of the buildings," said Sowa, who added that she often sees students racing through the tunnels in wheely chairs, "but I think it's more used by the people that do the hacking."

Not to be confused with the school's other type of hacking, tunnel hacking refers to exploring the system's unauthorized spaces, mostly just for the thrill. But last year, a group of students combined the two types of hacking, arranging thousands of tiny green army men throughout the tunnels, Sowa said. "It was just really funny because it all happened overnight," she said.

Hacking is so huge at MIT that in recent years, students have had the option to include a hacker's map on their class ring.

Everything at MIT is numbered. Seriously, everything. MIT students pretty much speak in code: Rather than using names for buildings or courses, they use a system of numbers understood only by their species. A computer science major, for example, is 6-3, Maybury said.

"MIT students really like to speak their own language," said Sowa, who thinks the system came to be because her peers just really love to quantify things. "I didn't know about the numbering system before I came to MIT, so I was really confused the first few weeks."

MIT students can't fail. In an effort to ensure student happiness, MIT instituted a policy for first-semester freshmen known as "pass, no record": If students don't pass the class, there's no record of them ever taking it. In the second semester, the policy changes to "ABC, no record."

"MIT really wants their students to be happy. They know that students here can be pretty hard on themselves," Sowa said. "It's a hard transition, and it can be really difficult for students to figure out how to budget their time.

Technically, a student could earn his degree without taking any core classes -- as long as he's smart enough to pass the tests that get him out of each subject. But proceed with caution: Those tests are incredibly challenging and have high requirements for a passing grade, Maybury said. "I looked at the chem one and handed it right back," he said.

smoots bridge measurements.jpgIt may be the "Harvard Bridge," but it's got MIT's mark all over it. Allegedly, back in the late 1800s, both Harvard and MIT were vying to be the namesake for the Harvard Bridge (i.e., the Mass Ave. bridge). When Harvard won, MIT officials took the decision to court -- then mysteriously dropped the case after their architects and mechanical engineers inspected the building plans. Apparently, the school didn't want to have its name on such a poorly designed bridge.

(And while that story is interesting and all, the Harvard Bridge was built in 1891. MIT did not move to its current location until 1916.)

Still, thanks to MIT alum Oliver Smoot, there's no doubt whose bridge it really is. In October 1958, when Smoot decided to join a fraternity, one of his rites of initiation was to measure the Harvard Bridge in an unheard-of unit of measurement: himself. And so, those that cross the span will forever know that it's a 364.4-smoot (plus one ear) trip between the banks of the Charles; a member of Smoot's former fraternity re-paints the measurement markings every semester.

But don't you dare think the smoot is some silly measurement. Local police departments use smoots to estimate the location of accidents, and Google Calculator even recognizes smoots. As for Smoot himself, he went on to serve as president of the International Organization for Standardization and chairman of the American National Standards Institute.

*Editor's Note: While it's true that MIT does have a nuclear reactor and generates its own power, the two don't actually go hand in hand. The latter happens at the school's cogeneration plant.

MIT students, what do you love about your school?

Interested in more 'School Secrets'? Find out what's weird and wacky about life at Northeastern, BU, BC, and Harvard, and check back for fun facts about the rest of Boston's institutions of higher education.

Photos by bettlebrox (top; Flickr) and Robin Stevens (bottom)

About Melissa -- I'm a journalism student at Northeastern University, originally from New Jersey. I love hiking, kayaking, and cereal, and I am a vegetarian. I'm afraid of nothing, except butterflies. I love Disney movies, and I hope to one day meet Betty White.

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