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Separating MIT Fact from Fiction

A Guide to Institute Rumor and Gossip

Eric J. Plosky

When MIT was chartered in 1861, most of today’s campus didn’t yet exist. Over fifty years passed before the Institute moved into its brand-spanking-new Great Dome; a massive landfill project in the early years of the century created most of the land that today supports the buildings and rolling green fields east of Mass. Ave.

That’s right; while you sit in 10-250, or stroll along Memorial Drive between the Harvard and Longfellow bridges, or try desperately to avoid eating another serving of Death Croquettes at Walker, you’re on landfill. Fortunately, it’s not the sort of fill that brings to mind botulized diapers and prickly medical waste, but harmless sand and mud, some dredged from the bottom of the Charles. (Actually, mud dredged from the bottom of the Charles could conceivably have the same lethal qualities as Chuck’s waters, so maybe you should worry.)

Our little slice of Cambridge might be relatively new, but it’s still chock-full of stories. Campus is riddled with myths, gossip and rumors -- some of it pure hokum, some of it actually rooted in fact. And MIT’s own bizarre traditions only serve to further confuse matters. For the benefit of the fresh-faced Class of 2003, let’s investigate some of the more famous campus myths; we’ll label each one “confirm” or “dispel.”

George Eastman was the anonymous “Mr. X” whose donation made possible MIT’s move from Boston to Cambridge.

Confirm. Were it not for Mr. Kodak’s deep pockets and profound sense of obligation to the cause of education, Engineers would never have had the chance to tread on Charlesmud every day. There’s a plaque of gratitude to Eastman mounted on the wall in Building 6.

Rubbing the nose of the George Eastman plaque in Building 6 is supposed to bring good luck.

Confirm, with emphasis on ‘supposed to.’ Although I’ve often heard stories affirming this plaque myth, this columnist has had many devastating, demoralizing days that were not improved whatsoever after a little, or even a lot of, Eastman nose-fondling. I’m more inclined to believe the corollary “Walking past the Eastman plaque without rubbing his nose is bad luck.” I once snubbed George on my way to the Humanities Library; he rewarded me by screaming to all within earshot that I was an irresponsible little <unprintable>.

George Eastman is buried behind his plaque in Building 6.

Dispel. I don’t know who first advanced this ridiculous idea, but it certainly doesn’t make any sense. Loved it though he did, Eastman surely didn’t mean to spend the rest of eternity on the campus he created. No, Eastman is buried in the parking lot behind Building 66 -- right underneath the food trucks.

Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, is buried behind the Eastman plaque.

Dispel. Land is buried in Building 58 behind a giant Polaroid snapshot of the Eastman plaque.

Building 20 hasn’t been demolished; it’s been swathed in an invisibility shield.

Dispel (I think). Nobody is sure what sort of radar-evading capabilities the birthplace of radar might have possessed when the wrecking balls first, supposedly, flew. But except for the unexpected appearance of an elevator amidst what, admittedly, could have been fake rubble, there have been no such indications.

Johnson Athletics Center is named not for Howard Johnson, the former MIT president, but for Howard Johnson, the motel/restaurant mogul.

Uncertain. The original plans for JAC did call for a garish blue-and-orange color scheme that evoked cheap motor inns and nearly inedible macaroni and cheese. Even more confusingly, some suggested that the blue/orange motif was meant as a tribute to New York Met third baseman Howard Johnson. Only a dedication plaque to Johnson-former-MIT-president is evidence in HJ-1’s favor.

Professor Noam Chomsky invented linguica.

Dispel. This is where MIT’s academic reputation intrudes on East Cambridge’s reputation as a Portuguese enclave. Chomsky may have played an important role in the creation of modern linguistics, but I’m sure it has nothing to do with Portuguese sausage.

All incoming freshmen have to pass a swim test.

Confirm. Apparently, the story goes, a rather rich family lost an MIT-enrolled child to a Charles drowning accident way back when; the student, a non-swimmer, was on a sailboat, or in a crew shell, and didn’t survive an unexpected dip in the river. To make sure such a drowning could never happen again, the parents required a swim test of all new students. But that was way back when; in 1997, the administration devised a more appropriate policy: All incoming freshmen have to pass a chemical-resistance test. After all, if you fall in the Charles these days, you have to worry about dissolving, not drowning.

Despite sharp reductions in Defense Department spending, MIT is still the center of American weapons development.

Confirm, with a small emendation: MIT has in fact gotten into the biological weapons game, and farmed out its R&D to the on-campus dining-services contractor, Aramark. The United States Air Force’s Worm-Like Objects 221L-7W program grew out of a successful series of tests at Walker dining hall.

Some of the dorms -- in particular, Bexley, Random and East Campus -- are haunted.

Confirm. Actually, all of the dorms are haunted, not just these three, the oldest, most decayed quarters on campus. In point of fact, there are thousands of “ghosts” who supposedly live on campus but are never really seen -- if they are glimpsed at all, the experience is usually fleeting and under dubious circumstances.

Some of the fraternities are haunted.

Cursed, more like it. Or dry. Or reorganizing, or performing community service, or nonexistent.

All freshmen will have to live on campus beginning in the fall of 2001.

We’ ll see.

Mythmaking is alive and well at MIT. Our campus, constructed though it be on hundred-year-old leftover dredge, contains more than the remnants of 1890s dysentery. It contains a penchant for tall tales that helps to sustain us even through the toughest of academic times. As long as we remain able to separate the facts from the frippery, we’ll be fine. (Edwin Land, buried in Building 58. Come on.)