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Charles Deserves Respect, Not Sodium

Charles Deserves Respect, Not Sodium

There's a yearly East Campus tradition, dating back about as far as many people on campus can remember, called the Sodium Drop which involves lobbing a significant mass of sodium metal, perhaps a pound or so, into the Charles River. The sodium reacts explosively with the water, to the glee of hundreds of onlookers that traditionally flock to the railing of the Longfellow Bridge to view the event.

I went to watch the Sodium Drop when I was a freshman; it was part of my Residence and Orientation Week experience. That was in 1984. I'd heard the Charles was polluted, that you'd need a tetanus shot if you fell in. At that time I also had no sense of my surrounding community or the issues that it faced. The Sodium Drop seemed like no cost fun.

Now I know that the perception that I had, one shared by many to this day, isn't valid. The Charles River is not a sterile sewer. Years of work by government agencies, volunteers, and researchers (many from MIT) has begun to restore the Charles to a living, vibrant ecosystem. Birds and turtles now call the river home. Fish jump along next to sailboats and sculls as they pass through the water. Porpoises have returned to the Charles River dam. While much work remains to be done, there's even hope that parts of the Charles will be swimmable within the next decade. The tradition of the Sodium Drop runs counter to the goal of a healthy river.

There's no denying the human fascination with things that burn or blow up: it seems to come from somewhere deep inside the soul. But when the pursuit of that fascination results in the pollution of the environment, or the death of aquatic life due to the percussive force of underwater explosions, the cost of fun becomes too high.

Today, society increasingly stereotypes scientists as people who act without regard to consequence. Behind every toxic waste dump is someone who thought it wouldn't matter, or did what had always been done before. The Sodium Drop exactly fits the stereotype, albeit on a smaller scale. At MIT, we're supposed to be different. We're supposed to be the ones who can think for ourselves, who relish breaking the status quo when it becomes outmoded. The tradition of the Sodium Drop has become just that: outmoded. I ask that those who organize it find an alternative and equally alluring tradition that doesn't sacrifice the quality of the fragile river environment that is MIT's backyard.

Michael W. Halle G