Seen on Campus

Chris Colombo, Dean for Student Life

There’s a saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. If that’s true, there’s a poem going on at MIT right now.

W1 First Floor Plan

W1 First Floor Plan

The first line happened nearly a century ago when MIT planned its shift across the river from Boston to Cambridge. In 1912, George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, made the move possible with a $2.5 million donation to fund the construction of the main academic complex.

It was a marvelous, historic gift—but Eastman declined to take public credit for it. Instead, because Eastman insisted on anonymity, MIT President Richard Maclaurin identified the donor only as “Smith” or “Mr. Smith.”

Not even the members of the Corporation knew the source of the millions. For years, no one was in on the secret except President Maclaurin, his wife, and his secretary.

Indeed, Mr. Smith was the subject of national speculation. According to a 1932 article in The Tech, two other New York millionaires, each of whom suspected the other, had a dinner in which they cagily danced around the issue, “but separated without having discovered any secrets and with enlarged respect for the bluffing power of each other.”

And the need for secrecy created awkward moments for President Maclaurin. In 1916, an ambassador from MIT boarded a train to upstate New York to ask Eastman for money to support the Department of Chemistry. An embarrassed Maclaurin sent a hasty note. “I have just heard by accident that Mr. A. D. Little, a member of the Corporation of the Institute, is going to Rochester today … I could not dissuade him from his project without revealing your identity as a benefactor,” he wrote to Eastman.

Eastman did meet with Little and agreed to donate $300,000 although, perhaps to obscure his role as Mr. Smith, he made the gift public. Ultimately, Eastman gave substantial sums of his fortune to higher education, with the University of Rochester as the largest benefactor. MIT received nearly $20 million—most of it anonymously as Mr. Smith.

So why is history rhyming at MIT? Because similarly modest donors continue to shape our campus today.

The grande dame of the dormitory system, Old Ashdown House, presides over the gateway to MIT at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Memorial Drive. We have a new Ashdown House now: NW35, which houses graduate students in the northwest corner of campus.

W1, as we now call the majestic residence, has been gutted and is in the midst of a complete renovation. When the financial crisis threatened to bring work to a halt two years ago, anonymous gifts ensured that the project moved forward. To date, unnamed benefactors have given $20 million—crucial funding at a critical moment.

Eastman’s generosity laid the foundation for MIT’s academic buildings at the start of the last century. We may not know the identities of the current set of “Smiths,” but we can be certain that they are helping to set the cornerstone for residential life for the next century.

Whoever they are, every Mr. or Ms. Smith has our thanks.

A giant statue of the Greek goddess Athena appeared in MIT's Killian Court on the first day of final exams 2009.

A giant statue of the Greek goddess Athena appeared in MIT's Killian Court on the first day of final exams 2009.

Hacks, clever student stunts that enliven campus life and do no harm, are an MIT tradition. Now the MIT Press and the MIT Museum are revising Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT in time for the pending 150th Institute anniversary in 2011. They need new material—and they are hoping that alumni will come forward to share stories and information.

The deadline looms! In fact, writer Eric Bender needs to hear from you by Friday, March 26. See ways to contact him below—and you can remain anonymous.

“In particular, I’m writing an essay about hacks from 2001 to today,” Bender says. “I’d love to hear from alums who have special knowledge of hacks in that period.”

Bender is particularly interested in these hacks:

  • Caltech cannon abduction
  • Apollo lunar module on the Dome
  • Solar-powered subway on the Dome
  • “In case of zombie attack, break glass”
  • Board games hack
  • Fire truck on the Dome (5th anniversary of 9/11)
  • Marriage proposal banner drop
  • Yellow cranks
  • Wright Flyer on the Dome
  • One Ring to Rule the Dome

Ready to share a tale or two?  You can email Bender with a comment or set up a time to chat at Or leave voicemail at his day job, 617-732-2418.

Meanwhile feel free to visit Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People: the MIT Gallery of Hacks.


Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Will likes to see stuff at MIT whenever he is in town. This time I took him to see robots in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wearable computing in the Media Lab, and miscellaneous cool stuff in the Precision Engineering Research Group. It wasn’t hard to find people to help out.

We walked around for three hours. Then, he was off to do soundchecks. A few hours after he learned about energy-storing inverse lakes, he and his Black Eyed Peas played to a sold-out crowd at the TD Banknorth Garden.

I always like amazing people, like Will, who is highly creative, does interesting things, and is interested in the future. MIT attracts amazing, highly creative, interesting, interested people like honey attracts bears.

And on top of all that, Will is a fan of my field, Artificial Intelligence.   Check out the Peas homepage, click on Playlist, and run the first of the Imma Be Rocking That videos.

Anyway, when Will and his entourage were about to leave, and all the obligatory pictures were taken, he asked, as he generally does, if I could use a few tickets for the show. “Hey, that would be great,” I said. I like the Peas, and besides, I hadn’t been to a good concert since the Rolling Stones were in town in ’06.

Alas, my daughter seized the tickets. “You’re nowhere near cool enough to go,” she said, “and I have some friends.” Maybe I should find a new place to buy clothes.


Guest blogger: Bob Ferrara ’67, senior director for strategic planning, communications and alumni relations, MIT Division of Student Life

MIT students (really!) surround President Susan Hockfield at year’s Division III sectional finals.

MIT students (really!) surround President Susan Hockfield at last year’s Division III sectional finals.

**Scroll down for updates from Feb. 22; March 1—NCAA tourney, here we come!; and March 8**

And we thought MIT Men’s Basketball fans could relax after the thrills of last season’s unforgettable journey. No way. This year’s team—with only two seniors—was to have a rebuilding year but instead is well on the way to becoming the winningest team in our program’s 109-year history! Their record is currently an astounding 21-2. With two regular-season games left, MIT is ranked—number 11 in Division III nationally and number one in the NEWMAC conference standing. Coach Larry Anderson has just passed the 200 career victories mark, an achievement unmatched by any of the other great Institute coaches before him.

So get ready for the home stretch and our own version of March Madness! The last two games are away, the first is Wednesday, Feb. 17, at Wheaton College at 5:30 p.m., and the final is at Springfield College on Saturday, Feb. 20, at 1:00 p.m. After this, the Conference Championships and, we hope, a bid to the Division III tournament. Just as our students, alumni, and friends rallied last year to such great effect, we need to be there to support these terrific young teams.

If MIT holds onto first place, the conference championships would be held at Rockwell Cage in Cambridge on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 27 and 28. You can follow the team at the MIT Athletics site or the brand new MIT basketball blog, Tech Hoops. The blog is purely volunteer effort, the work of former Assistant Coach Baris Polat, now an MIT grad student, and former MIT Sports Information Director James Kramer, who now lives in Austin, Texas.

Mike Oglo ’48 raises the banner in Providence. Our MIT fans turned this into a home game.

Mike Oglo ’48 raises the banner in Providence. Our MIT fans turned this into a home game.

The team and coaching staff were quite overwhelmed by the support at the Harvard game this past December, when we had close to 1,000 fans and outnumbered the Crimson supporters in their own gym. And alumni support really was crucial in last year’s run, as those who witnessed the Rhode Island College miracle know. Hopefully, Mike Oglo ’48 still has his pennant from last year. As Mike says, he has waited a long to time to wave it; here we go again.

Update, Feb. 22
Our guys did it! Our guys did it! Today at Springfield College, the Men’s Basketball Team accomplished what no others have done in the 109-year history of our program. In a down-to-the-wire battle, they prevailed 66-62 over a very talented Springfield squad in the last game of the regular season. With this victory, this remarkable group set at least three major MIT records—most wins in a season (22), first ever NEWMAC regular season championship, and best regular season winning percentage (.880).

The team has followed their dream in the usual MIT sports manner—with lots of hard work and dedication but in relative obscurity with little fan support. We can completely change that for the postseason that awaits us, especially since our team has home-court advantage by virtue of winning the NEWMAC regular season.

MIT will play in the first conference championship semifinal game on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 1:00 p.m. The finals will be Sunday, Feb. 28, at noon. All these games will take place right in our own backyard in Rockwell Cage.

Alumni support really was a key ingredient in last year’s run. Let’s be there for them again in force.

Find more team info and see the whole NEWMAC playoff picture.

Team Makes it into NCAA Division III Tournament!

Fans at the MIT game.

Rockwell Cage was packed with cheering fans—extra stands had to be brought in to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Despite losing to a red-hot Clark University squad in the NEWMAC Conference semifinals, the MIT team received the last bid in the 61-team post-season championship. MIT will play DeSales at William Patterson University in Wayne, NJ—about 20 miles from NYC—on Friday, March 5, at 6:00 p.m. The second round will be played March 6. It would be great to have local alumni there to support our team! For those not living nearby, the games will be available to watch live online, thanks to

View the entire Division III playoff picture (pdf).

MIT men's basketball team in action against Clark University

MIT men's basketball team in action against Clark University. The Logarhythms sang the national anthem and even serenaded the hot dog dispensers. An impromptu band picked the musical pace, while cheerleaders and students kept the crowd engaged. You wouldn’t have known you were at MIT! Photo here and above: Robert Krawitz ’87.


Update, March 8
Our guys lost a tough overtime match to DeSales University of Allentown, Pennsylvania in first-round NCAA play. Read details. This season was positively remarkable in so many ways. The team compiled the most wins ever and Larry Anderson became the winningest head coach in our 109-year history as well. The Institute also had the highest number of scholar-athletes of any school on the winter Academic All-Conference Team in our NEWMAC Conference. Of the 25 MIT students selected for this honor, four were basketball players. Congrats to each of them and the entire team and coaching staff for a truly magical ride this past year.

It doesn’t get much cooler than this. Well done, sophomores! 🙂

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Dramashop just performed R.U.R, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which helps us understand what it will be like when the robots take over, and pretty much wipe out us humans, which I suppose serves us right, inasmuch as we have proved so proficient at wiping out other species and each other.

One night, I was asked to comment on the play afterward, because AI is my field. It took quite a while to think up three minutes of content, because it had to build to a reasonably good joke at the end.

Rossum’s robots are smart and look like people, which is convenient, because they are played by human actors.

The play invites speculation on whether we humans could ever build smart robots that look like people. My answer is yes, because arguments to the contrary mostly boil down to the unthinkability fallacy: “I cannot think how that could be done; therefore, it can’t be done.” Also, the biologists are doing pretty well on their side of the table, what with artificial organs and the like, and we computationally oriented types are making progress, too.

Of course, when we get close to really building such creatures, we better do a lot of simulation, because, as the play teaches, the unintended consequences of a mistake could be horrible beyond description.

In a fit of neosolipsism, it occurred to me that I and my environment might be just a simulation experiment, run by some cautious computer scientist in the sky, with a particularly twisted mind, trying out a few ideas before going physical. I don’t know how I could ever tell. That Pascal idea—I think, therefore I am—doesn’t seem to help.

If I am a simulation, let the record show that I resent it. And judging by the stuff I read in the papers, the experiment doesn’t seem to be going too well.

Such is the wild speculation encouraged by an MIT-filled audience, a late night, and a superbly done play.

Bioengineering hack on Feb. 7.

Bioengineering hack on Feb. 7. Photo: Eric Schmiedl ’09

Hack aficionado and photographer Eric Schmiedl ’09 captured a Feb. 7 hack in photos and this on-the-scene description:

Satirizing MIT’s newest major (Biological Engineering), hackers representing “Stepford Labs” at the MIT Department of Biological Engineering installed a display case full of “enhanced” simulated body parts in MIT’s Infinite Corridor on 2/7/10. The body parts included: a head with a functional video camera replacing an eye, a leg with a power socket, feet with rolling wheels, an “Avatar”-style head, a face with LEDs in the eyes (transmitting “IHTFP” in Morse code), a head with a “Matrix”-style socket in the neck, a neck featuring a jack for “IP over Voice” as well as analog audio, and a hand with a USB “thumb drive.”

See a slide show of the hack photos.

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