Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Getting Smarter - and Arrogant - at MIT

WHEN Pepper White starts his masters degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he's well-intentioned and somewhat naive. Three years later he's "quicker, smarter, arrogant, impatient, directed, inhumane.The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT" explains how he got that way.In this diary-style account of life as a graduate student, White describes his metamorphosis from a "fluff engineer into a real one" with some not-so-desirable side effects. The book focuses on White's development into a mature thinker, but draws in its wake other important issues. In the author's words, it "explores the conflicts that result when engineers must suppress (or at least put on the back burner) their human, social sides in order to survive in the objective world of science and engineering." "The Idea Factory" is filled with refreshing ambivalence. White has obvious problems with the dehumanization he says the MIT environment fostered. Fortunately, he doesn't take the easy, moralizing route to address this. After all, he's an engineer, he's practical. Instead, he just tells us what he did for three years and how he felt about what he did. For example, after hearing of a friend's suicide via carbon monoxide from her car, White initially starts calculating the details of her death as if it were an engineering problem. When he realizes what he is doing, he thinks, "That's it. I'm done. They've got me." After regaining his senses, he starts to wonder whether or not it might have been his own fault. Yet White never depreciates what MIT did for him as a professional. "I spent some time in the company of greatness. And MIT really did make me smarter - which means that anyone can become smarter, by learning how to think," he writes. Pepper's first trials involve securing a research assistantship that will pay for tuition, earning a respectable grade in "Thermodynamics," and mustering up some self-esteem at a school where many of his peers are geniuses. Later, White takes on a highly competitive design project, a thesis, and a job interview. His experiences underscore the fact that this kind of education demands lonely hours of devoted concentration. There are no shortcuts, and that makes the study of science respectable. While the reader is privy to Pepper's pain, sarcasm, insecurity, and competitiveness, other characters are initially realistic but ultimately flat. They keep knocking at his door, but he rarely has time for them. But maybe flat is realistic in a place where "close" relationships are maintained for two years through "ten-minute hall chats every three or four months." "The Idea Factory" will give those planning to attend schools like MIT an emotional and educational head start. Readers who are easily intimidated by the sciences will also benefit from the book since White describes in a fluid and exhilarating style how he learned to tackle complex engineering problems that at first glance he found unapproachable. For example, he shows how he solved a balloon-inflation problem by conceptualizing simpler physical phenomena that essentially did the same thing and then adding in new factors one at a time. Even a skimming of these more detailed sections will help demystify the techie. For those who have been through this baptism of fire themselves, at MIT or elsewhere, White's book will no doubt bring back some funny and some painful experiences. In all, the institute comes across as a place of brilliant light, but little heat: "That midnight, the last Saturday before Tuesday's exams, the MIT Symphony played a Mozart clarinet concerto in Lobby 7. Hundreds of us huddled on the floor - huddled masses, seeking comfort, seeking refuge from the cold and lonely study of science." I wonder what Thomas Jefferson, architect and engineer, would say.