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MIT in popular culture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States, has been referenced by many works of cinema, television and the written word. MIT's overall reputation has greater influence on its role in popular culture than does any particular aspect of its history or student lifestyle. Because MIT is well known as a breeding ground for technology and technologists, the makers of modern media are able to use it to establish character in a way that mainstream audiences can understand. A smaller number of works use MIT directly as their scene of action.

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  • ✪ MIT Intelligence Quest Launch: Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Stupidity, and Financial Markets
  • ✪ The Heartbeat of Campus: MIT's Central Utilities Plant (CUP)
  • ✪ Scaffolding of the Galaxies
  • ✪ Bengt Holmström wins Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (full press conference)
  • ✪ 9 MIT Media Lab Innovations that Changed the Future


And now for something completely different. As a financial economist, I study financial markets and risk. And if you've been watching financial markets over the last few weeks, you've probably heard about the so-called fear index-- the VIX. This is an index that measures a forward-looking perspective on stock market volatility. And it's actually based on research that was done at MIT many years ago-- Black-Scholes-Merton option pricing formula, and inverting that to calculate what the market thinks volatility is going forward. That work was done by our former dean at Sloan, Dick Schmalensee, with a student, Robert Trippi. And if you've been watching the VIX, you'll notice something rather strange over the last few weeks. In particular, you'll notice that, for the most of 2017, the VIX was somewhere around 10%-- 10% market volatility. And then, over the course of the first few days of February, it shot up to about 37-- a really striking phenomenon that scared many, many people. And if you go back and look at what happened to the VIX, not just over the last year, but over the last decade since the financial crisis, you see something much more reminiscent of fear at the very heart of financial markets. In fact, for you Lord of the Rings fans, this should look a little bit like the landscape for the land of Mordor. All we're missing is the Eye of Sauron. And investors react to fear in the obvious way. If you look at the S&P 500, a measure of the stock market, you'll notice that, at the very beginning of this period of the financial crisis, the stock market dropped dramatically in response and in tandem with this increase in the fear index. In particular, if you were holding equities in the stock market early in 2007, you would have been right around 1,500, 1,600 at the S&P. And within a matter of a few months, your 401K would have become, roughly, a 201K. You would have lost half your wealth. And of course, investors reacted as we expect they might. They freaked out. And they pulled money out of the stock market, missing the rebound that took about four years to get you back to where you were. And investors took more money out and, ultimately, missed the great bull market that occurred since then. This roller coaster ride is a problem that investors, financial economists, practitioners have been working on for many, many years. And so we've been focusing on applying artificial intelligence methods to try to solve this problem about what an investor is supposed to do. So to begin, we have to ask the question, what do investors want? And I'm going to ask all of you to think about that in the very specific context of four financial investments that I'm going to show you. I'm not going to tell you what they are or over what time period they span. All I'm going to do is to show you what happens to a $1 investment during this investment period and ask you to pick one of these four investments. The green line is a very safe investment. It turns $1 into $2 over this unspecified investment period. The red line is quite a bit more risky. It turns $1 into about five. The blue line is even more risky, but it's more rewarding. And the yellow line is somewhere in the middle. And if you could pick one, and only one, of these investments for your retirement or for your kid's college education or for your grandparents' funds, which would you choose? By a show of hands, how many people would pick the green line? Nobody? Wow. OK, a couple of people. How about the red line? Anybody take the red line? Wow. I want you to remember this moment. Because after I tell you what that is, most of you are going to have some rethinking to do. How about the blue line? Anybody want it? There are the venture capitalists and the hedge fund managers. [LAUGHTER] And now, the yellow line-- how many people-- yeah-- by far the most popular, because it seems to have the best trade-off between risk and reward. Well, let me tell you what you picked. First of all, the time period is from 1990 to 2008. The green line is US treasury bills, the safest asset in the world-- not very interesting from a return perspective. And if you put it in 2008, you would have not done particularly well, but you wouldn't have lost much. The red line that most of you did not pick, well, that's the S&P 500. Most of you already have that in your portfolio, so you better rethink that decision given what you just said. If you put your money in the S&P in 2008, you would have done just fine. You would have done quite well. The blue line is the single pharmaceutical company Pfizer-- much more volatile, much more risky, but, also, quite a bit more rewarding, and you would have done well as well. What about the yellow line-- the one that most of you did pick-- the optimal trade-off between risk and reward? Well, the yellow line is the returns to the Fairfield Sentry Fund, which is a private fund that was the feeder fund for the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. [LAUGHTER] That's why I had to stop it at 2008. Now you know how the Ponzi scheme got as big as it did. It is absolutely innate human nature for us to be drawn to investments that are high-yielding, low risk investments. In the finance parlance, we call that high Sharpe ratio investments. And we do this, sometimes, to our great detriment. So that's what investors want. What do investors need? Well, it turns out that technology has played a role in what we offer to investors. A great revolution occurred in the 1970s with the advent of index funds. All sorts of indexes now exist that allow investors to put money in various different assets at relatively low cost to be able to capture the broad returns of the market portfolio. But over the course of the last few years-- particularly, the last few weeks-- we understand that that's not enough. The future of investment technology, thanks to AI and other forms of innovations, have given us the possibility to create what I call precision indexes, sort of like the personalized medicine that you hear about nowadays, being able to tailor a particular treatment to an individual. So instead of the Dow Jones 30 or the FTSE 100 or the S&P 500, imagine creating the Rafael Reif 30 or the Rebecca Sachs 100 or the Daniela Rus 500. And imagine using technology to tailor these indexes so that they take into account things like your tax bracket, your income level, your health, your age, your family-- all the various different hopes and dreams that you want to accomplish over the course of your life. And now imagine if you can automate all of that, stick it into a black box, and put it on an app. Well, that's fantastic. But it doesn't exist. And the question is, why not? What's missing? It turns out that it's not artificial intelligence. We've got plenty of AI to be able to do this. What's missing, in my view, is artificial stupidity. We need to be able to model algorithmically how investors actually behave, as opposed to how we think they should behave. And I think to call it artificial stupidity is a little bit unkind. I think it's really based on human nature. We're reacting to threats-- fear and greed. And so what we really need to do is to develop artificial humanity. And it turns out that the recent breakthroughs in AI have given us a hint on how to go about doing that. So let me give you one example that something that I suspect all of you have been involved in. A few years ago, I got interested in the biomedical field. And so I decided to purchase a book on the biotech industry. And the best book that I knew of, based on friends and families recommendation, was a book about Genentech, one of the most successful biotech companies in the history of the industry. So I did what most of you will do. I went to Amazon. I looked for Genentech, and I clicked Add to My Shopping Cart. And as soon as I did that, Amazon does this thing that I find incredibly annoying. And you know what that is. They tell me, well, people who bought your book bought these other five. And sure enough, I had to have two more of those books. [LAUGHTER] it's really nasty, nasty technology. This is part of the new AI. What Amazon does is something devilishly simple. They simply take a look at their database of all the individuals who purchase this book on Genentech, and maybe they do something even more sophisticated by stratifying based upon demographics and try to compare people with my demographic and then show me books that they bought. The algorithm is really simple. But the use of data is enormous. And that's actually a very different way of thinking about AI than we did in the 1970s and '80s. Because in the early days of AI, while we had expert systems, we had incredibly complicated algorithms and virtually no data. Because back then, storing data was a lot more expensive than it is today. And so the idea of focusing on using data and detecting patterns using relatively simple algorithms versus trying to figure out every possible use case you would encounter in an expert system, that's really what we do as humans. So the current approach to AI is much closer to human intelligence. And I want to give you an example of that. Because it's something that's really innate to us and makes us make those decisions that we will later regret. The example has to do with something that all of us can do instinctively, which is threat identification-- friend or foe. I'm going to give you an example that comes from a scene that I suspect many of you have participated in, which is a cocktail party. You're at a cocktail party. You're meeting lots of people. And you're trying to figure out who's a friend and who's a foe. And so at the course of the evening's conversation, you will talk about various different kinds of things and learn things about the other participants at this event. For example, you'll learn about an individual's gender, perhaps their sexual orientation. And if you think that there are two major genders and two major sexual orientations, that's four possible identities for that individual in that category. You might find out about their race, ethnicity, their age group, educational background, and so on and so forth. So over the course of the evening, you'll learn various things about the individual and put them into various buckets. So I want to tell you about two particular individuals that you might encounter at such a cocktail party. And then I'm going to ask you to make decisions about these individuals. So I want to introduce you to Jose and Susan. Jose is a gay Latino male. He's a young professional from California-- no religious affiliation, Democrat, middle class, with an MBA. That's Jose. Susan, on the other hand, is a middle-aged heterosexual white female from Texas-- Christian, Republican, affluent, and with a bachelor's-- no MBA. And so now that I've introduced you to Jose and Susan, I'm going to ask you three questions about them. And just tell me what you think in terms of how you would make the following decision. Imagine you're doing a startup, and you need to hire somebody to help you with that startup. Who would you rather hire-- Jose or Susan? How many people would hire Jose for the startup? OK, how about Susan? All right. Most of you would hire Jose for that startup. Fine. Second question-- you are organizing a fundraiser for breast cancer, and you need to hire somebody to help you plan that fundraiser. Who would you hire-- Jose or Susan? How many people would hire Jose? OK, how many people would hire Susan? OK, most of you would say Susan. Fine. Third question-- you're an auditor at the IRS, and you're looking to try to find who's cheating on his or her tax returns. But you can only audit one of these two individuals. Who would you audit-- Jose or Susan? How many people would audit Jose? OK, how about Susan? Most of you picked Susan. Wow. That's amazing. I can't believe how judgmental you people are. [LAUGHTER] Now, I know I asked you. I was the one who asked you. But you didn't hesitate to make a decision. And it's because all of us are wired to make these snap judgments. From an evolutionary perspective, that's what's kept us around for the last 100,000 years. It's part of our human cognitive faculties to make quick decisions. And we do it the way Amazon does it. This is machine learning via humans. What we're doing is looking back in our database of all sorts of experiences we've had in doing cancer fundraisers or in doing startups and asking the question, the people that were successful in those roles, did they look more like Jose or more like Susan? In fact, if you go through the different characteristics that I listed on this page and you calculated the number of different personality types that you would be able to come to, it turns out that there are about 350,000 unique categories if you just do the combinatorics. That's more pixels than in a 600 by 800 photograph. The problem, though, is that our data set is very, very sparse. Unlike Amazon's data set of people who bought books on Genentech, how many people here have met more than 345,600 people in their lifetimes? Show of hands. I actually met a marketing person who said yes, they did. [LAUGHTER] So most of our data is empty. We don't have observations on a lot of these things. And by the way, this is part of the problem with fake news. It doesn't take a lot for me to change the entries in your very sparse matrix of data that can completely change how you behave. And this is the challenge with financial decision making. We have very sparse data about experiences of bull and bear markets. And we're influenced by very small things, like stories about somebody who lost all their money because they invested in the wrong stock or somebody who made a ton of money because they happened to pick the right stock at the right time. And so what we're doing in the Laboratory for Financial Engineering is to try to come up with algorithms using large data sets that we've obtained from brokerage firms-- anonymized data sets of individual household accounts-- using machine learning to understand how people make mistakes, how they freak out at the wrong times, and what kinds of financial strategies and products and services can actually help them make better decisions, so that, ultimately, we are going to be able to have the algorithms to create precision indexes. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]


MIT as metaphor

The use of "MIT as metaphor" is relatively widespread, so much so that in popular culture, "the MIT of" is an idiom for "top science and engineering university," or "elite technical institution," like "Cadillac of" for "most luxurious," or "an Einstein" for "intelligent person." Similarly, any regionally prominent science or engineering school is likely to be called "the MIT of" that region. For example, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) touted the University of Alabama in Huntsville as a possible "MIT of the South."[1] The Georgia Institute of Technology has also been called "the MIT of the South".[2] Other examples,[3] make "X is the MIT of Y" an example of a snowclone (a family of formulaic clichés).

Films and television

Frequently, when a character in Hollywood cinema is required to have a science or engineering background, or in general possess an extremely high level of intelligence, the film establishes that he or she is an MIT graduate or associate. (MIT can also be a comparative or a metaphor for intellect in general: "Would they think of that at MIT?"). Numerous films and television series indulge in this technique, including:

In Iron Man, several close-ups of Terrence Howard clearly show his character ("Jim Rhodes") to be wearing a brass rat; Robert Downey, Jr.'s character ("Tony Stark") appears to wear one as well in the movie.

James Burke's television series The Day the Universe Changed (1985) employs the same technique for a more academic purpose. In the episode "Point of View," which describes the discovery of perspective geometry and its ramifications, Burke spends a little time in the Italian city of Padua. This city, which hosted the second-oldest Italian university after Bologna, boasted a large concentration of intellectuals. In Burke's phrase, Padua was "the MIT of the fifteenth century." An episode of his later series Connections 2 (1994) uses a similar shorthand to characterize the seventeenth-century Royal Society.

The television series Numbers has several different connections to MIT. The pilot episode was shot in Boston. Co-creator and Executive Producer Cheryl Heuton says, "We originally tried to choose MIT for the show. We originally set the show in Boston, and Charlie [Eppes, one of the main characters,] was going to be a professor at MIT. We contacted MIT, and their answer was they're not in the film and TV business..."[8] Multiple episodes of the show mention that Charlie studied at MIT. Dylan Bruno, the actor who plays Colby Granger, has earned a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from MIT.

Films set at MIT are less common than those that use the MIT name as metaphor. Nevertheless, MIT has been part of movie settings, in such films as Blown Away (1994), Good Will Hunting (1997), A Beautiful Mind (2001), 21 (2008),[9][10] and Knowing (which also features exteriors of the Haystack Observatory). Most of the scenes for these movies, especially indoor scenes, are in fact filmed elsewhere due to MIT's reluctance to give permission to film on campus. Although portions of Blown Away were shot on the Institute campus,[11] the film still makes several geographical errors about MIT and Boston in general.[12] An incidental scene in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) was shot on location outside of MIT Baker House. A scene in A Small Circle of Friends (1980) was shot in Walker Memorial, an MIT cafeteria and gymnasium. The movie setting portrays Harvard University, but Harvard declined to allow the filming on their campus.

Some cinematic references to MIT betray a mild anti-intellectualism, or at least a lack of respect for "book learning". For example, Space Cowboys features the seasoned hero (Clint Eastwood) trying to explain a piece of antiquated spacecraft technology to a rather whippersnapping youngster. When the young astronaut fails to comprehend Eastwood's explanation, he snaps that "I have two master's degrees from MIT", to which Eastwood replies, "Maybe you should get your money back". Similarly, Gus Van Sant's introduction to the published Good Will Hunting screenplay suggests that the lead character's animosity towards official MIT academia reflects a class struggle with ethnic undertones, in particular Will Hunting's Irish background versus the "English aristocracy" of the MIT faculty. Help!, The Beatles' second film, ties MIT to the mad scientist stereotype when Professor Foot (Victor Spinetti) declares, "MIT was after me, you know. Wanted me to rule the world for them!"

HBO's television miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998) contains segments set at MIT, most notably in the episode covering Apollo 14. The series portrays the Institute's denizens as very slightly eccentric engineers who do their part to keep the Apollo program running successfully.

"Inside" MIT references also appear in film without attribution. In Stir Crazy (1980), the opening close-up shot of Grossberger, played by Erland Van Lidth De Jeude (MIT Class of 1976, SB in Computer Science & Engineering), clearly reveals his actual "Brass Rat" class ring. In The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), a background image of Whassamatta U. is recognizable as a main MIT building.

MIT is referenced in some Japanese anime: the sci-fi series Neon Genesis Evangelion mentions MIT as the location of one of the replica MAGI supercomputers; the comedy series Pani Poni Dash! revolves around an 11-year-old student who graduated from MIT and travels to Japan to become a high school teacher. The CIA character "Ed Hoffman" in the film Body of Lies can be seen wearing an MIT shirt in multiple shots.[13]

In the television series Las Vegas (2003), Mike Cannon (played by James Lesure), one of the main characters, is a highly intelligent, and technically very gifted engineer and MIT graduate. The character Eli Wallace in the television series SGU Stargate Universe (2009-2011) is a genius MIT dropout.[14]

Individual characters in single episodes of television series are often announced as MIT graduates. For example, in the 1992 episode "The Corporate Veil" of the television series Law & Order, both mother and son protagonists are said to be electrical engineering graduates of MIT.[15] MIT was also mentioned in the pilot episode of Gilmore Girls.

On separate episodes of Da Ali G Show (2003-2004), Ali G (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) interviewed two MIT professors: Jerome Friedman, Institute Professor and Professor of Physics Emeritus, and Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus.[16]

Randal Pinkett, the winner of season 4 of The Apprentice, is an MIT alum, with an SM in Electrical Engineering (1998), an MBA from Sloan School of Management (1998), and a PhD in Media Arts & Sciences from the Media Lab (2001).

Two lead characters in the television series Fringe have MIT backgrounds: Walter Bishop earned a Ph.D. at MIT, and his son Peter Bishop falsified an MIT degree.[14]

The movie Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016) depicts its protagonist, Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis), pretending to be a scientist named Dr. Rascal Flatts, about whom his wife says, "He's very smart. MIT."[17]

An episode of the television series The Magicians (2016) introduces a character named Kira (Yaani King Mondschein),[18] who says, "I went to MIT, but I didn't study a lick of magic in school."[19]

In the television series Timeless (2016), a protagonist named Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) often mentions on the show that he is an alumnus of MIT. In one episode, Carlin time travels to 1893 and meets real-life MIT alumna Sophia Hayden (MIT Class of 1890), who assumes that Carlin must be Robert Robinson Taylor (MIT Class of 1892), the first African-American student at MIT.[20]

A story arc from Rocky and Bullwinkle, Goof Gas Attack, starts with a gas attack that induces stupidity at the "Double Dome Institute of Advanced Thinking". The MIT campus is noted for its 2 neoclassical domes.

In the 2018 animated series, Tenacious D in Post-Apocalypto, the protaganists meet a group of scientists who say, "Where are we from? MIT, where else? We are the top uttermost scientsts in all of the world, surviving."[21]


Tom Magliozzi and his younger brother Ray were "Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers", the hosts of National Public Radio's comedy car advice show Car Talk. Both were MIT alumni — Tom earned a degree in chemical engineering (1958), and Ray earned a degree in humanities and general science (1972) — and they regularly used that fact in their self-deprecating attempts to establish their credibility on technical matters. After campaigning on-air for years, they were finally invited to speak at MIT's 1999 commencement exercise.[22] Although Tom Magliozzi died in 2014, and their radio show had stopped new programming in 2012, past episodes continue to be aired nationally as The Best of Car Talk.

Written works

Also see References in the main article, and the bibliography maintained by MIT's Institute Archives & Special Collections

Nonfiction works have examined MIT, its history, and its various subcultures. In addition to books like Nightwork, which recount the Institute's hacking tradition, Benson Snyder's The Hidden Curriculum (1970) describes the state of MIT student and faculty psychology in the late 1960s. Noted physicist and raconteur Richard Feynman built up a collection of anecdotes about his MIT undergraduate years, several of which are retold in his loose memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Some of this material was incorporated into Matthew Broderick's film Infinity (1996), in addition to Feynman stories from Far Rockaway, Princeton University, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In fiction, the novel Now, Voyager (1941, by Olive Higgins Prouty) features a key character, Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance, who studied architecture at MIT.[23] The novel The Gadget Maker (1955, by Maxwell Griffith) traces the life of aeronautical engineer Stanley Brack, who performs his undergraduate studies at MIT. Ben Bova's novel The Weathermakers (1966) about scientists developing methods to prevent hurricanes from reaching land, is also set in part at MIT. Patricia Vasquez visits (or comes from) MIT in Greg Bear's Eon (1985). Neal Stephenson hints at MIT in Quicksilver (2004), and other books of The Baroque Cycle, by having Daniel Waterhouse found the "Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of the Technologickal Arts" in the 18th century.

Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead begins with architecture student Howard Roark being expelled from the fictional "Stanton Institute of Technology". As that institute is depicted as being located in a seashore suburb of Boston, it seems that MIT - specifically, its School of Architecture - was meant.

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake features a character, Ashoke, who received his PhD in Fiber Optics from MIT.

When the novel The Magicians by Lev Grossman was first published in 2009, the principal review of the book in The New York Times described the story's academic location, Brakebills College, as "kind of like the M.I.T. [sic] for magic."[24]

The 2012 historical fiction novel The Technologists, by Matthew Pearl, is set in the MIT of 1868, during its first decade of existence. The protagonists are some of the first students to enroll in the fledgling college, and include both fictional composite characters and real-life historical figures, such as Ellen Swallow Richards and Daniel Chester French. In response to a high-tech terrorist attack on the City of Boston, the students form a secret research laboratory to discover the perpetrator and to forestall further attacks. They interact closely with prominent historical figures, such as William Barton Rogers (the founder of MIT), Harvard professor Louis Agassiz (pioneer of modern geology and paleontology), and Charles William Eliot (then an MIT professor, and soon to become the longest-serving president of Harvard University). The author spent many hours doing background research in the MIT Archives while writing the novel, and weaves many historical details into his narrative of mystery and adventure.[25][26][27][28][29]

Geeks & Greeks (2016) is a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Steve Altes and Andy Fish, set at MIT. The story was inspired by MIT's hacking culture and Altes's experiences with fraternity hazing.[30][31]

In Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town", the Stage Manager mentions the gravestone of Joe Crowell, whom he describes as "awful bright – graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France. – All that education for nothing."

Kurt Vonnegut

MIT is a recurring motif in the works of Kurt Vonnegut, much like the planet Tralfamadore or the Vietnam War. In part, this recurrence may stem from Vonnegut family history: both his grandfather Bernard and his father Kurt, Sr. studied at MIT and received bachelor's degrees in architecture. His older brother, another Bernard, earned a bachelor's and a PhD in chemistry, also at MIT. Since so many of Vonnegut's stories are ambivalent or outright pessimistic with regard to technology's impact on humankind, it is hardly surprising that his references to the Institute express a mixed attitude.

In Hocus Pocus (1990), the Vietnam-veteran narrator Eugene Debs Hartke applies for graduate study in MIT's physics program, but his plans go awry when he tangles with a hippie at a Harvard Square Chinese restaurant. Hartke observes that men in uniform had become a ridiculous sight around colleges, even though both Harvard and MIT obtained much of their income from weapons research and development. ("I would have been dead if it weren't for that great gift to civilization from the Chemistry Department of Harvard, which was napalm, or sticky jellied gasoline.") Jailbird notes drily that MIT's eighth president was one of the three-man committee who upheld the Sacco and Vanzetti ruling, condemning the two men to death. As reported in The Tech, June 7, 1927:[32]

President Samuel W. Stratton has recently been appointed a member of a committee that will advise Governor Alvan T. Fuller in his course of action in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, it was announced a few days ago by the metropolitan press. The President is one of a committee of three appointed, the others being President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard and Judge Robert Grant. It was stated at Dr. Stratton's office that this appointment was very reluctantly accepted, for not only has the President not had experience with criminal law procedure, but he has not been following the case at all in the newspapers. It is thought by some that this very fact may result in an entirely unbiased review of the case, which might not be possible had he followed the case closely.[32]

Palm Sunday (1981), a loose collage of essays and other material, contains a markedly skeptical and humanist commencement address Vonnegut gave to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Speaking of the role religion plays in modern society, Vonnegut notes:

We no longer believe that God causes earthquakes and crop failures and plagues when He gets mad at us. We no longer imagine that He can be cooled off by sacrifices and festivals and gifts. I am so glad we don't have to think up presents for Him anymore. What's the perfect gift for someone who has everything?
The perfect gift for somebody who has everything, of course, is nothing. Any gifts we have should be given to creatures right on the surface of the planet, it seems to me. If God gets angry about that, we can call in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There's a very good chance they can calm Him down.

Isaac Asimov

Kurt Vonnegut was friends with fellow humanist and writer Isaac Asimov, who resided for many years in Newton, Massachusetts. During much of this time, Asimov chose the date for the MIT Science Fiction Society's annual picnic, citing a superstition that he always picked a day with good weather. In his copious autobiographical writings, Asimov reveals a mild predilection for the Institute's architecture, and an awareness of its aesthetic possibilities. For example, In Joy Still Felt (1980) describes a 1957 meeting with Catherine de Camp, who was checking out colleges for her teenage son. Asimov recalls:

I hadn't seen her for five years and she was forty-nine now, and I felt I would be distressed at seeing her beauty fade.
How wrong I was! I saw her coming down the long corridor at MIT and she looked almost as though it were still 1941, when I had first met her.

Asimov's work, too, trades on MIT's reputation for narrative effect, even touching upon an anti-academic theme. In the short story "The Dead Past" (1956), the scientist-hero Foster must overcome the attitudes his Institute physics training has entrenched in his mind, before he can make his critical breakthrough. Several jokes in Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor and its sequel Asimov Laughs Again hinge upon MIT, its reputation for scientific prowess, and the technocentric focus of its students. In a similar vein, the satirical newspaper The Onion published an article entitled "Corpse-Reanimation Technology Still 10 Years Off, Say MIT Mad Scientists," among many others in the same general tradition.[33]

Joe Haldeman

Since 1983, science fiction writer Joe Haldeman has been an Adjunct Professor teaching writing at MIT,[34][35] and knows the institution well. This is very evident in The Accidental Time Machine where MIT at various past and future times in its history plays a central role. The institution is described with considerable affection and much "insider" knowledge of the hidden corners in the MIT campus (as well as conspicuous parts of its geography such as the Green Building and the Infinite Corridor), of the relations between students and lecturers, and of various wild and rather illicit student practices.

The book begins with MIT student Matt Fuller accidentally discovering the time machine of the title. He jumps a decade forward to find that his professor has taken credit for his discovery and gotten a Nobel Prize for it; jumps centuries ahead and finds a theocracy where MIT is the Massachusetts Institute of Theology; and after more adventures winds up in the past, in the late 19th century when MIT was still in its original location on Boylston Street. In all time periods, under vastly differing circumstances, the protagonist becomes an MIT full professor.

Comic strips

Several comic strips make use of MIT. In Doonesbury, Kim Rosenthal almost earned her PhD in computer science, dropping out because it was "too easy." In the fall of 2006, Kim and Mike Doonesbury's daughter Alex entered MIT as a freshman. (The 3 October 2006 Doonesbury strip satirizes the "MIT of" snowclone; Zipper Harris declares the fictional Walden College to be "the MIT of southern Connecticut.") Dilbert received a degree from Course VI-1. Bill Amend's FoxTrot has also made MIT allusions, in keeping with the strip's genial satire of nerd subcultures. On Christmas Day 2005, the comic strip Baby Blues featured a character reading the instruction manual accompanying a gadget that he has given to his child as a Christmas present. The first volume of instructions begins, "Assembly InstructionsStep 1: Obtain a master's degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. Step 2: ..."

Computer and video games

Some genres of computer and video games have characterization requirements like those of movies. For example, a game involving a team of commandos might require a member who can break into computers, crack security systems, or work with explosives. This character's background would typically have to be established very quickly and efficiently, perhaps within one screen of introductory text. Stating that a commando or top-secret operative "graduated from MIT" is one way to accomplish this.

MIT is mentioned in the computer games Area 51 (1995), Half-Life (1998), Half-Life 2 (2005), Metal Gear Solid (1998), and in the Fallout series (1997–2015).

In the case of the Half-Life series, the main protagonist, Gordon Freeman, is an MIT graduate and has a PhD in Theoretical Physics.

The Infocom game The Lurking Horror (1987), written by MIT alumnus and interactive fiction pioneer Dave Lebling, is set on the campus of the George Underwood Edwards Institute of Technology, which strongly resembles MIT. Its fictional culture also parodies the MIT culture. For instance, G.U.E. Tech's class ring is known as the "brass hyrax", parodying MIT's Brass Rat.

In the Fallout games, MIT is known as the "Commonwealth Institute of Technology." As nuclear war began, researchers from the university hid below the main building and continued with their research without making contact with other survivors. Eventually after many years, they took on the title of simply "The Institute," and became well known as a shady organization with extraordinary technology and the ability to create androids. The Institute is featured as a major faction in the 2015 title, Fallout 4. In Fallout: New Vegas, one of the main characters in the story is Edwin Robert House, also called Mr. House is a graduate of The Institute, as stated in his obituary.


In the Broadway musical Rent (1996–2008), a major character, Tom Collins, is expelled from teaching at MIT, "for [his] theory of actual reality."

The song "Etoh" by the electronic music group The Avalanches describes MIT as "the home of complicated computers, which speak a mechanical language all their own." This lyric can be taken literally, or it can be read metaphorically as a description of MIT student culture. Allan Sherman's paean to initialisms, "Harvey and Sheila," notes that Harvey "works for IBM; he went to MIT, got his PhD."[36] Rhythm and blues group Tony! Toni! Toné! mentions MIT in the song "Born Not To Know," from their 1988 debut album Who? In the song, a pretentious individual rattles off a long list of his impressive academic credentials—culminating with a "Ph. D from MIT"—only to then ask, "so, can I get a job?" Tony! Toni! Toné! responds with a resounding "No!"

"Nerdcore" rap artist MC Hawking's song "All My Shootin's Be Drive-bys" (1997) takes tropes associated with gangsta rap and plays them out in a more academic setting. He speaks of taking revenge for the death of a friend, part of his Cambridge, UK crew:

I saw Little Pookie just the other day.
Pookie was my boy we shared Kool-Aid in the park,
now some punks took his life in the dark.
I ask Doomsday who the motherfuckers be,
"some punk ass bitches from MIT."

When the narrator learns the identity of Pookie's killers, he decides to "give a Newtonian demonstration, of a bullet its mass and its acceleration," leaving six MIT students dead in the street.[37]

"Weird Al" Yankovic's "White & Nerdy" (2006) riffs upon MIT, along with a plenitude of other geek culture references — Star Wars Holiday Special, pocket protectors and editing Wikipedia, to name a few. Yankovic claims that he graduated "first in [his] class here at MIT"; however, the Institute does not assign class rankings or confer traditional Latin honors upon its graduates.

The students and faculty of MIT have produced their own share of musical material. For example, the mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer taught for a time in MIT's political science department, lecturing on quantitative methods and statistics. This experience led him to write a song called "Sociology," played to the tune of Irving Berlin's "Choreography." The lyrics conclude,

They consult, sounding occult,
Talking like a mathematics Ph.D.
They can snow all their clients,
By calling it "science"—
Although it's only sociology![38]

Students have also written their own songs during their tenures at the Institute. This tradition, which goes back at least to The Doormat Singers[39] of the 1960s, continues with several present-day groups.

List of fictional characters

List of fictional characters in movies

List of fictional characters in TV shows

List of fictional characters -- other


  1. ^ Kenneth Kesner, "Could UAH become the MIT of the South?" Huntsville Times 2003-03-09
  2. ^ Georgia Tech Archived May 17, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ See also the proposed "European MIT.
    "MIT of" examples:
    University MIT of Reference
    Case Western Reserve University the MIT of the Midwest [1]
    Indian Institute of Science the MIT of the East [2]
    University of Texas at Dallas the next MIT of the South "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2005-12-04.
    Montana State University the MIT of the Midwest "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-12-12. Retrieved 2005-12-04.
    California Institute of Technology the MIT of the West [3][permanent dead link]
    University of Waterloo the MIT of Canada [4]
    University College of Dublin the MIT of Ireland [5]
    Middle East Technical University the MIT of the Middle East [6]
    Mapúa Institute of Technology the MIT of the Philippines Mapúa Institute of Technology
    Indian Institutes of Technology the MIT of the India Indian Institutes of Technology
    Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology the MIT of the Korea [7]
  4. ^ The Phantom Planet (1961), available in the public domain from the Internet Archive.
  5. ^ a b Smith, Nancy DuVergne (July 17, 2017). "Will Fictional Alum Save Earth on CBS's Salvation?". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Jenson, Jeff (July 31, 2017). "Twin Peaks recap: 'The Return: Part 12'". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved August 30, 2017.
  7. ^ a b Serwer, Adam (February 21, 2018). "The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger". The Atlantic. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  8. ^ Jillian Berry, "TV Interview: ...Numb3rs... Continues to Make Math Chic," The Tech 2006-09-22
  9. ^ JiHye Kim, "MIT Alumni Inspire New Movie Hollywood Movie to Depict Blackjack Team's Las Vegas Escapades," The Tech 2007-04-27
  10. ^ Photos of the filming of "21" near the MIT campus: bridge 1, bridge 2, bridge 3, bridge 4, bridge 5, bridge 6, blackjack7. and blackjack 8
  11. ^ Eva Moy, "Movie Filmed in Killian Court," The Tech 1993-08-26
  12. ^ Goofs for Blown Away at the Internet Movie Database
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b c d e f Baildon, Michelle. "MIT in Popular Culture: TV Shows". Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Libraries. Retrieved March 14, 2017.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Farndale, Nigel (July 6, 2010). "Noam Chomsky Interview". The Telegraph. Retrieved May 2, 2017.
  17. ^ LeSieur, Michael (October 21, 2016). "Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016) Movie Script". Retrieved April 22, 2017.
  18. ^ "Season 1 Episode 9 Recap - The Writing Room". Syfy. Retrieved April 22, 2017.
  19. ^ a b "The Magicians Transcript: Season 1, Episode 9 - The Writing Room". Forever Dreaming. March 15, 2016. Retrieved March 13, 2017.
  20. ^ Coggan, Devan (January 17, 2017). "'Timeless' recap: 'The World's Columbian Exposition'". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  21. ^ Jack Black and Kyle Gass (October 11, 2018). Tenacious D - Post-Apocalypto - Chapter 3 (Space). YouTube. 2:19 minutes in. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  22. ^ "1999 commencement exercise". Retrieved 2011-12-08.
  23. ^ Higgins Prouty, Olive (1941). Now, Voyager. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Retrieved December 11, 2018.
  24. ^ Agger, Michael (September 8, 2009). "Abracadabra Angst". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  25. ^ Pearl, Matthew (2012). The technologists : a novel (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 9781400066575.
  26. ^ Parker, James (February 24, 2012). "Science Will Save Us; 'The Technologists,' Matthew Pearl's New Thriller". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  27. ^ LaValle, Victor (March 1, 2012). "'The Technologists,' by Matthew Pearl". The Washington Post. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  28. ^ Winstein, Keith J. (February 24, 2012). "BOOK REVIEW: Mystery at the Institute; Matthew Pearl's latest historical thriller explores the early years of MIT". The Tech. The Tech. Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  29. ^ Maslin, Janet (February 22, 2012). "Underwater Underdog Fights Ignorance and Harvard; 'The Technologists,' by Matthew Pearl, Is Set in 1868". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  30. ^ Hickey, Patrick (2016-08-25). "Review Fix Exclusive: Steve Altes Talks Geeks & Greeks". Review Fix. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  31. ^ Moore, Karleigh (2016-04-08). "A Tale of Hazing and Hacking at MIT". The Tech. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  32. ^ a b The Tech Vol. XLVII No. 47, 1927-06-07.
  33. ^ "Corpse-Reanimation Technology Still 10 Years Off, Say MIT Mad Scientists Archived 2010-02-23 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (2001-01-17). See also "MIT Scientists Perfect $30 Million Love Tester Archived 2010-02-23 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (1996-09-18), "MIT Researchers Discover Each Other Archived 2010-02-19 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (1999-11-10), "MIT Physicists Split the Smithereen Archived 2010-03-05 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (2000-05-31), "Nerd's Parents Afraid Son Will Fall In With Popular Crowd Archived 2010-02-19 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (2002-05-29), "Actual Expert Too Boring for TV Archived 2010-03-07 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (2005-05-04; the expert is an MIT professor), and "MIT Fraternity Accused of Robot Hazing Archived 2010-02-19 at the Wayback Machine.," The Onion (2006-04-12)
  34. ^ "Faculty". Writing and Humanistic Studies. MIT. Retrieved 2013-11-26.
  35. ^ Haldeman, Joe. "[homepage]". Joe Haldeman [website]. Retrieved 2013-11-26.
  36. ^ a b Kantor, Michael; Maslon, Laurence (December 2, 2008). Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America. Twelve (Hachette Book Group). p. 121. ISBN 0446505315.
  37. ^ MC Hawking MP3 and lyrics page
  38. ^ Video of Tom Lehrer performing five math-related songs for Irving Kaplansky's birthday celebration, available via the Internet Archive
  39. ^ The Doormat Singers.
  40. ^ "Jack Florey". Retrieved 2011-12-08.
  41. ^ "Margin Call: A Realistic Wall Street Movie". Retrieved 2012-12-31.
  42. ^
  43. ^ Bona, Marc (October 10, 2016). "'Timeless' recap: Trying to stop an assassination - episode 2". Cleveland Plain Dealer. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  44. ^ Adams, Scott (May 25, 2015). "Robots Read News - About No News". Dilbert. Retrieved February 13, 2013. Dilbert’s cartoon degree is from MIT.
  45. ^ Wright, Sarah H. (May 26, 2006). "In comic relief, Doonesbury's coming to MIT". MIT News. Cambridge, Mass. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  46. ^ Abruzzi, Brad (2014). New Jersey's Famous Turnpike Witch. Amazon Digital Services. ASIN B007YXJHWI.
  47. ^ Richards, Douglas (2014). Mind's Eye. Paragon Press. ISBN 0-615-95394-8.
  48. ^ Richards, Douglas (2015). Split Second. Paragon Press. ISBN 1-517-15315-8.
  49. ^ Pirog, Nick (2015). 3:34 a.m. Amazon Digital Services. ASIN B00YID9WJ0.
  50. ^ Howey, Hugh (2016). Shift. Mariner Books. ISBN 0-544-83964-1.
  51. ^ Richards, Douglas (2016). MindWar. CreateSpace. ISBN 1-539-61691-6.
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