The Idea Factory gives outsiders a taste of MIT
THE IDEA FACTORY
By Pepper White.
Dutton, $21.95, 313 pp.
By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON
ONE HAS TO WONDER WHY anyone outside of MIT would want to get in, other than pure masochism. MIT is the only place I know of where students heckle pre-frosh/parent tours, whispering quick warnings about the problem sets and workload, then disappearing into the Infinite Corridor crowds.
Yet, as Associate Provost Jay Keyser pointed out in an Independent Activities Period seminar two years ago, MIT students have a love/hate relationship with their school. We loathe the work but would never consider going anywhere else. Even I, a graduate in creative writing, couldn't have seen myself at that little red-brick school up the river.
MIT simply is the place for science and engineering, not just because of its outstanding faculty and research, but because of the way it teaches us to think. MIT grads look at a problem from every angle, weighing each approach, discerning its advantages and disadvantages, ultimately coming up with the right solution.
It is precisely this combination of MIT's prestige and proven track record of producing quality scientists and engineers that lured Peregrine White, Jr. SM '84 to Cambridge in 1981. White (who goes by the somewhat less formal name of "Pepper") documents his trials as an MIT grad student in The Idea Factory, appropriately subtitled "Learning to Think at MIT."
White spent his first week here in the Technology and Policy Program, but soon switched to mechanical engineering in an effort to find funding. Unable to locate money for a project he wants to work on -- environmental engineering and energy conservation are his main interest -- he settles for real, hands-on, grimy engineering work helping to build a rapid compression machine (RCM).
White moves smoothly through his years as a master's student, taking the reader from desk-hunting to IM soccer, from time spent in a tiny Allston apartment to a stint as a Senior House tutor, and from the initial euphoria of being at MIT to the day he failed the PhD qualifiers. White's prose is lively and surprisingly clear for an engineer. He describes his first encounter with the computers in 6.001 lab as a mystifying experience:
I thumbed through the guide to the machine, looking for an instruction that said, "Press any
key to start" or "Type ENTER to start." There were no clues anywhere. It wasn't written on the blackboard. It is so obvious,
such common knowledge, such an idiotproof concept that everyone should know intuitively how to start.
After half an hour of reading and rereading the manual and looking through my notes, I asked the nineteen-year-old teaching assistant. Yes, it is humiliating to ask a mealymouthed sophomore for help, but age has nothing to do with ability.
"Hit the space bar," he said.
At times, White's prose does become excessive, as in "the look in her eyes was sad, sad the same way that had made me fall in love with her when John Lennon died." These instances are relatively infrequent, however, and the rest of the book is an easy, comfortable read.
The Idea Factory works on different levels for the MIT student and the outsider. Students and alumni will find a pleasant (or not-so-pleasant, depending on how you look at it) familiarity in White's journeys through campus, his long days and nights of research, and of course, the horrible unpleasant shock of his first test at MIT. Non-MIT grads, on the other hand, will probably be shocked by the amount of work White has to do, the school's oppressive atmosphere and the sheer genius and enterprise of the students. (One of White's Senior House residents runs her own software consulting company; another mentally calculates a Poisson distribution for guests arriving at a study break.)
The latter view -- that sense of wonder, awe and unease provoked by MIT -- is surely the one White wants to evoke in his readers. MIT is unique, and only those of us who have suffered through it can really understand what the "MIT experience" is all about. White succeeds in giving the ordinary person the flavor of that experience and a glimpse into the minds of the people who voluntarily choose to subject themselves to it.
The Idea Factory does not attempt to capture the MIT spirit -- that is best exemplified by Brian Leibowitz' hack book, The Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks. Perhaps the experience-for-spirit tradeoff is for the best, though, because The Idea Factory treads ground IHTFP does not -- the same ground trod by the average MIT geek -- and for that reason, gives a fuller, more realistic approximation of life here at the 'Tute.