MIT in popular culture

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a teaching and research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 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.

MIT as metaphor[edit]

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[edit]

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.

The Star Trek episode "Bread and Circuses" uses a brief establishing shot of the Great Dome to depict a generic building on a planet dominated by ancient Roman culture.[citation needed]

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 TV show Numb3rs 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..."[5] 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),[6][7] 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,[8] the film still makes several geographical errors about MIT and Boston in general.[9] 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 even 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 (film) can be seen wearing an MIT shirt in multiple shots.[10]

In the TV 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.

Individual characters in single episodes of TV shows are often announced as MIT graduates. For example, in the 1992 episode "The Corporate Veil" of the TV series Law & Order, both mother and son protagonists are said to be electrical engineering graduates of MIT.[11] MIT was also mentioned in the pilot episode of 'Gilmore Girls'.

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).

Radio[edit]

Dr. Thomas Louis Magliozzi and his younger brother Ray are "Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers," the hosts of National Public Radio's comedy car advice show Car Talk. Both are MIT alumni — Tom has a degree in chemical engineering (1958), and Ray has a degree in humanities and general science (1972) — and they regularly use 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.[12]

Written works[edit]

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.

On the fiction side, 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 coyly 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. Rand might have considered it prudent to use a fictional name, as the fictional Institute is depicted in a highly unflattering way in her book.

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

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.[13][14][15][16][17]

Kurt Vonnegut[edit]

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:[18]

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.[18]

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[edit]

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.[19]

Joe Haldeman[edit]

Since 1983, science fiction writer Joe Haldeman has been an Adjunct Professor teaching writing at MIT,[20][21] 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[edit]

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[edit]

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) and Metal Gear Solid (1998).

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.

Music[edit]

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." 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.[22]

"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.

Over the years, 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![23]

Students have also written their own songs during their tenures at the Institute. This tradition, which goes back at least to The Doormat Singers[24] of the 1960s, continues with several present-day groups.

List of fictional characters[edit]

List of fictional characters in movies[edit]

List of fictional characters in TV shows[edit]

List of fictional characters -- other[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kenneth Kesner, "Could UAH become the MIT of the South?" Huntsville Times 2003-03-09
  2. ^ Georgia Tech[dead link]
  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 [3]
    Carnegie Mellon University the MIT of Pennsylvania [4]
    Montana State University the MIT of the Midwest [5]
    California Institute of Technology the MIT of the West [6]
    University of Waterloo the MIT of Canada [7]
    University College of Dublin the MIT of Ireland [8]
    Middle East Technical University the MIT of the Middle East [9]
    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 [10]
    "
  4. ^ The Phantom Planet (1961), available in the public domain from the Internet Archive.
  5. ^ Jillian Berry, "TV Interview: ...Numb3rs... Continues to Make Math Chic," The Tech 2006-09-22
  6. ^ JiHye Kim, "MIT Alumni Inspire New Movie Hollywood Movie to Depict Blackjack Team's Las Vegas Escapades," The Tech 2007-04-27
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ Eva Moy, "Movie Filmed in Killian Court," The Tech 1993-08-26
  9. ^ Goofs for Blown Away at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ http://www.imdb.com/media/rm4235891712/ch0028885
  11. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0629454/
  12. ^ "1999 commencement exercise". Cartalk.com. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 
  13. ^ Pearl, Matthew (2012). The technologists : a novel (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 9781400066575. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ LaValle, Victor (March 1, 2012). "‘The Technologists,’ by Matthew Pearl". The Washington Post. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ a b The Tech Vol. XLVII No. 47, 1927-06-07.
  19. ^ "Corpse-Reanimation Technology Still 10 Years Off, Say MIT Mad Scientists," The Onion (2001-01-17). See also "MIT Scientists Perfect $30 Million Love Tester," The Onion (1996-09-18), "MIT Researchers Discover Each Other," The Onion (1999-11-10), "MIT Physicists Split the Smithereen," The Onion (2000-05-31), "Nerd's Parents Afraid Son Will Fall In With Popular Crowd," The Onion (2002-05-29), "Actual Expert Too Boring for TV," The Onion (2005-05-04; the expert is an MIT professor), and "MIT Fraternity Accused of Robot Hazing," The Onion (2006-04-12)
  20. ^ "Faculty". Writing and Humanistic Studies. MIT. Retrieved 2013-11-26. 
  21. ^ Haldeman, Joe. "[homepage]". Joe Haldeman [website]. Retrieved 2013-11-26. 
  22. ^ MC Hawking MP3 and lyrics page
  23. ^ Video of Tom Lehrer performing five math-related songs for Irving Kaplansky's birthday celebration, available via the Internet Archive
  24. ^ The Doormat Singers.
  25. ^ "Jack Florey". Hacks.mit.edu. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 
  26. ^ "Margin Call: A Realistic Wall Street Movie". Retrieved 2012-12-31.