The Lighter Side of Going to MIT

  • I’m not sure I was meant for engineering.  I never really fit in at MIT.  Case in point: at MIT “I’m bilingual” means “I speak English and Klingon.”  And I always thought, man, if you’re going to go to the trouble of learning a foreign language, don’t learn Klingon.  That’s stupid.  Learn Vulcan.  They’re a much nobler, more intelligent race.
  • Plus MIT is full of introverts and I was more of an extrovert.  With engineers it can be hard to tell the difference, but there is a way.  An introverted engineer stares at his shoes while he talks to you.  An extroverted engineer stares at your shoes.  That’s how you can tell he’s outgoing.
  • Did you know MIT has a football team?  They do pretty well today, but when I was a student we weren’t exactly an athletic powerhouse.  We were a Division 84 team.  We played some Canadian Junior High Schools.  Came in 90th place.But we loved to talk trash to our opponents.  We’d chant:

E to the u, du dx!  E to the x, dx!
Cosine, hypotenuse, tangent, sine!  Pi is three point one four one five nine!
Radical, integral, u dv!  Calculus, geometry, MIT!
We’re not rough!  We’re not tough!
But we do know quite a bit of math!

  • That would strike fear in the hearts of our opponents.  We had cheerleaders, too.  But, being engineers, they were very precise in their chants.  They’d shout, “Repel them!  Repel them!  Compel them to relinquish the prolate spheroid!”
  • Like many kids, my childhood dream was to become an astronaut.  And not just for the bureaucratic red-tape and potential for a fiery death. It’s because “Rocketman” is a great song. That “Ground Control to Major Tom” song is pretty great too.  Plus you get to push a lot of buttons.  What could go wrong?  Wait, don’t answer that.
  • When I graduated I discovered there’s a downside to being an aerospace engineer.  Besides the crippled social life.  Basically, every time you do something stupid, somebody will say, “And you’re a rocket scientist?”  Leave a six-pack of Bud in the freezer so long the bottles explode, and they say, “And you’re a rocket scientist?”  Ask your brother how to connect the jumper cables, and hear, “And you’re a rocket scientist?”But I left engineering the day I realized two things:  (1) Engineering is a no-nonsense profession.  (2) I’m all nonsense.  Plus, after your third rocket blows up… people start talking.  Suddenly it might not just be the drinking.  Nobody really wants to work with the “clown prince of rocket science.”
  • Looking back, I’m glad I left.  Doesn’t it seem like NASA has its priorities all screwed up?  I mean, I don’t blame scientists for wanting to find life on other planets.  That’s what geeks do.  They figure: “The women on Earth won’t have sex with me… maybe the ones on Rigel 7 will.” But you gotta wonder about some of these other things.  NASA spent $400 million on last month’s Mars probe… and its mission is to look for ice.  “Hey, NASA, put down the slide rule for a sec and listen.  We’ve already got ice.  It’s at a place called 7-11.”  If I ran NASA, you know what I’d spend the entire budget on?  Jetpacks.  I can’t believe it’s 2011 and no one has jetpacks.  When you were a kid, didn’t you think we’d all have jetpacks by now?  Wasn’t the planet supposed to be a fully automated, germ-free, atom-powered Utopia by now?  A place where a grown man could wear a spandex jumpsuit and not be laughed at.  NASA, I ask you… where are the ray guns, the flying cars, and most of all… the jetpacks?  Get on it, Poindexter.
  • So I left engineering for the security of a career in the arts.  Good plan.  Eventually became a writer.  Which is ironic because when I graduated college, writing was the last occupation I would have imagined for myself.  I was more interested in careers that got people rich.  And trust me, the answer never came back, “Essays, Steve. Yep, see that man getting off the Learjet over there, he amassed a huge fortune in essays. He’s that essay tycoon from Texas.”
  • Consider my four freshman-year college roommates.  One is an astronaut.  One is the CEO of an NYSE-listed regional telecom.  One is a Navy SEAL commander turned hedge fund manager.  And the fourth guy sold his company to Qualcomm for $200 million.  That’s why I never read my alumni newsletter.  It’s too damaging to the ego.
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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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