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Deep Conversations

Dean Magnanti -- An Engineer for All Seasons

By Zach Ozer

Features Columnist

The Tech: Your forte is implementing efficient systems on a large scale. Is MIT more or less efficient because students never sleep and so the facilities are always being utilized to some extent at some time?

Dean of Engineering Thomas L. Magnanti: My thesis adviser many years ago wrote a book called Compact City. Compact City was designed to be a city that was a mile by a mile by a mile -- a cube. His idea was that you would have 24 hour utilization of the city. You would have restaurants and some of us would eat dinner at six in the morning and some of us would eat dinner at eight at night. And in some ways, MIT is like a Compact City in that we are always around.

I’ll tell you a little story about this. I used to have an office across campus in building E40. At that time I lived far out so I had a condo in town and two nights a week I would stay in town. I would typically work late at night, go get a few hours sleep, then come back the next morning. But no matter what time I left, there were always still students.

I would leave at 11-12 but still there would be students. One night I got really busy and was in the office at three in the morning. So I went out, looked around the student area and not a student was in sight. I declared (triumphantly) “Finally. Finally I’ve outlasted them.” Just as I’m going out the door a student comes walking in. It’s just hopeless. I think that’s part of the vibrancy. There’s always something happening.

TT: Now this is just a hypothetical, but if we assume that MIT is the smartest place in the world and you’re the head of the School of Engineering, does that make you the smartest engineer in the world? Or does that just make you the smartest person alive?

Magnanti: None of the above. Again, one of the great things about being at MIT is that there are lots of people who are smarter than you around this place.

TT: So are you the coolest engineer in the world?

Magnanti: Uh, no. I wouldn’t say that either.

TT: Could you fix a toaster oven?

Magnanti: No. I’m actually mechanically challenged. In fact my wife doesn’t like me changing light bulbs because there’s a good chance that I’ll do something wrong when I do it. But we have a toaster that’s broken in our basement and I have not fixed it. Instead of collecting toasters we tend to collect televisions. I think we have about ten televisions.

TT: Do you post them on reuse?

Magnanti: No, we’re still using ’em.

TT: Obviously, you’ve had a lot of experience with being an engineer and advising engineers, so if there was one reason that came up in your mind for not being an engineer, what would it be?

Magnanti: (long pause) Hmm... I don’t know the answer to that one. I was gonna say to be a poet or be an artist, but engineers can do that as well. I think there’s no good reason not to be an engineer. There is absolutely no good reason not to be an engineer.

TT: I think that’s the right answer.

Magnanti: Engineers can do everything.

TT: What’s the messiest finger food that you really enjoy? Ya know the thing that like drips with some sort of sauce and no matter what you’re gonna need a napkin afterwards.

Magnanti: I guess I would just say fried chicken. I like fried chicken. But I have had something once called pigeon pie. I was in Morocco and pigeon pie is this big pie and you eat it with your fingers. You just sorta pull it out and... (Motions as if hurriedly dumping an object into mouth) and that was actually quite pleasant.

TT: Ok. But here’s the real question: Should you use a napkin immediately after you get messy, or should you wait until you’re done and just remain messy till the end?

Magnanti: (Pause) This is an important question.

TT: This is an important question.

Magnanti: You gotta think about this.

TT: Cuz you could either have a stack of napkins this high (motions several inches off of table), or just look foolish for ten minutes.

Magnanti: Yeah, I tend to be of the school of using lots of napkins. Grab a napkin, use it up, go to the next one, use it up. But I can relate to people who might just wait to the end. Go to some of these crab places where you crack your crabs and I think there it might just be better to go for it... Not to use the napkins over and over again.

TT: Alright, so this is just one of those questions... are you the proverbial “man” and should I be “sticking it to you?”

Magnanti: I don’t even know what that means.

TT: Ya know... sticking it to the man... it’s just an expression...

Magnanti: What’s the “proverbial man?” I don’t understand the question

TT: Like society, kind of, or like, ya know all those movies, like umm... Did you ever see “Animal House”?

Magnanti: Never seen “Animal House.”

TT: In that movie, the Dean is “the man,” he’s holding everyone down, he’s un-cool... so the question was more like, have you become less hip since your younger days?

Magnanti: When I first joined MIT, I had hair down to my shoulders. I came out of the hippy generation of the late 60s and early 70s I’ve certainly become less hip than I used to be. That’s for sure.

TT: So the first time I read your name I thought it was either Man - Gati or Man - Ga - Niti. So what I want to know is: what’s the worst mispronunciation of your name you’ve ever heard?

Magnanti: I don’t know if it’s pronunciation, but I had once someone say that I must be an Irish goat ’cause I’m a McNanti. So, I’m Mc, in terms of Irish, and Nanti is a goat. Guess that makes me Italian Irish.

TT: So you hold degrees in chemical engineering, statistics, mathematics and operations research. Did I get most of them?

Magnanti: That’s it.

TT: Oh, ok. Are you really a renaissance man? Did you know DaVinci?

Magnanti: Well, I’m old enough to know DaVinci. We were doing stone tablets when I first came to MIT.

TT: Sanskrit?

Magnanti: Yeah, a little bit of Sanskrit. I think I’m old enough to know DaVinci.

TT: Was he a cool guy?

Magnanti: Very cool.

TT: Italy and all that... You ever chill out?

Magnanti: Yeah, we came from the same small town in Italy.

TT: You’ve done everything... Business, research, you’ve even been an editor in chief of Operations Research. Is there anything you haven’t done, or at least, anything that Homer Simpson hasn’t done yet?

Magnanti: There are things I haven’t done that I have always want to do. My life’s aspiration has been to play left field for the Boston Red Sox. So it was gonna be Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Tom Magnanti. But I didn’t quite have the talent. To this day I don’t drink coffee because there’s an old wife’s tale about how coffee can stunt your growth and I never know when I’m gonna have a growth spurt... then I can go play for the Celtics with Jody and Speed. I’m still waiting for that. That’s my real aspiration, to play sports.

TT: Can we just send you to Mars to make sure that you really have done everything? The first mission...

Magnanti: This would actually be good for life after deaning. Very good idea. Maybe I could take some compatriots, folks that have been deaning. We could take a whole crew of us up there.

TT: The first manned mission to Mars...

Magnanti: Deans in Space.

TT: Tell me the truth... is there life after deanship?

Magnanti: This is a darn good question... Yeah. I’m gonna profess.

TT: Ah, so there is life after deanship.

Magnanti: I’m sure hoping so.

TT: Obviously you’ve done a lot, so what would you want to teach in?

Magnanti: My area is optimization. So I’d like to teach some optimization. I’ve got a couple of books I’d like to write... ya know... the old man books. Sort of late in your career, you get to write these books, looking back on the field...

TT: Why don’t young guys get to write books?

Magnanti: They do. I actually wrote a book when I was very young.

TT: You ever go to the Library of Congress and go through the stacks to find your book?

Magnanti: No, not the Library of Congress, but sometimes I’ll be in a bookstore, and I’ll look, if they’ve got technical books, I see if my book’s there... Every once in a while it is. Not often, but every once in a while.

TT: Do you point out to people... “Hey, they’ve got my book!”

Magnanti: I don’t think I’ve done it at a bookstore, but I’ve done it other places.

TT: You were a major part of MIT/industry research relationship, so tell me the truth... is everything here one big sociological experiment? Like part of some master plan that we don’t know about? If you tell me are you going to have to burn the tape and all that sort of good stuff? If so, we can just skip to the next question.

Magnanti: Well, I guess the question is not whether we’ve orchestrated, but whether the Martians have orchestrated some large experiment and if we’re all on earth part of this large experiment. That’s actually the more interesting question.

TT: Any broad social statements you’d like to make? Any advice you’d like to give out?

Magnanti: I remember when I got married and my brother was the best man. He had imbibed a bit, he got to make the toast, and he said, “Be happy just be happy.” So that’s my advice.

TT: Fantastic. That’s all folks.

Magnanti: That’s all folks... I’ll tell you a story about “that’s all folks.”

There’s a very famous man by the name of Edwards Deming. He sort of revolutionized manufacturing in terms of specific portions of manufacturing. He came to MIT to give a talk and I was his host. I think he was 93 at the time. We had lunch with him and during lunch he was sort of fading in and out. Now we’re having a talk in Kresge Auditorium and so I develop this deathly fear that this 93 year old fellow might not be too with it for the talk.

So we get there for the talk and he’s absolutely marvelous. He sits down in front of the projector and gives this marvelous talk, but he goes on for a long time. Then someone asks the first question, and he starts to answer, and gives a long answer. Now someone asks the second question and he goes into another monologue... gives another lecture.

I’m really sweating, I’ve got to figure out someway to get him to stop. At one point he goes down for a glass of water, in the middle of his monologue, so I jump in, put my arm around him, and say “Dr. Deming thank you, thank you for this wonderful talk”. He looks up and he yells out... “It’s over? You mean it’s over?” And I say, “Yeah. Its over.” So sometimes we have to be told it’s over.