Nov 12, 2015
I Was Sitting Where You’re Sitting
Friday, August 28. Two MIT students sit at the top of the partly-built rollercoaster, one tapping hand on knee to the beat of Galantis (“visualize it”). Five are on the drop, drilling: two on the slide itself, two behind it, setting the flat panel of the track, and a fifth, with dyed red hair, passing power tools up to the others.
This year’s East Campus rollercoaster is the steepest wooden rollercoaster on Earth: it starts with an eight-foot vertical drop at a neat 90-degree incline, compared to the previous record of 85 degrees. 12 wheels grip plywood from three directions, binding car to track, and a racing car seat and harness attach rider to car. Following 2011’s attempt at a railroad permit, this is the second year of the rollercoaster’s boundary-pushing (last year’s rollercoaster track was 150 feet long), educational, and completely legal return.
Across the courtyard eight students lift one side of a giant cross-shaped trebuchet. There are 600- to 800-pound weights on the ballast (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they go down”) and one transitory person-weight, climbing on and through the beams. Additional science projects fill the courtyard: a fort with rope bridges, 3d twister, and a wrestling pit filled with hair gel thickening agent.
I’ve been at MIT for a while: this is my sixth REX, and this time, I am on assignment with MIT Technology Review. Together with photographer PJ I’m covering Residence EXploration, a multiple-day party before term starts when frosh find their home(s) at MIT, in every sense of the word. (I’ve heard that if CPW is like a tangerine, REX is like an orange.) My goals this REX are special and new: I’ve already built my home; what I need is a snapshot of yours.
As I find my way from EC to BC someone whizzes past on a three-wheeled electric skateboard, the wheels reverberating loudly against the rocky west campus sidewalk. I hear: “Oh! Going down!” as something sails out a window onto the roof below—I know I must be in the right place.
The first floor of Burton-Conner: potted plants on windowsills and a Dalek at the end of the hall. Upstairs, Burton 5 is actualizing models from The World Record Paper Airplane Book (none of which, they tell me, have yet made it past the roof). On the table airplane cookies are dotted, striped, and outlined in blue frosting. Burton 5 sits on couches and windowsills, leaning against walls and the space where the window glass would be, discussing and testing the limits of paper folding and the aerodynamics of folded paper. A cool breeze blows in through the window, carrying planes back toward the building: tiny airplane corpses markered with secret messages speckle the roof below and the trees (“Into the tree!”), white paper on green leaves and swaying branches. The conversation shifts to Myth Busters as a real helicopter flies over Simmons, crossing striated clouds in the grey-white sky. Outside in Briggs Field birds swoop, land in batting nets, and pick back up again across the lawn.
On the other side of the field, chains of Spongifarians spin in circles and weave through each other, parents yelling from cars to their Scottish dancing freshmen. A few hours later we are inside, the dark grid of windows a stark contrast to the talk and laughter indoors. The theme is giant stuff: giant Connect Four, giant foam swords, and a game with giant cards circled around torso-sized inflatable bowling pins. I kneel down to ask about the bowling pins; instead of answering the frosh open the circle and we divvy up the cards for a game of BS. (Later they tell me that they had been playing spoons with giant bowling pins instead of spoons.) BS with giant cards is a challenge: it’s hard to lie when your lies are 8.25 by 11.75 inches. Jack Johnson plays in the background and a pink-cheeked, natural-hair-colored girl builds on a person-height octagonal prism that is soon to be a waterfall of wooden blocks.
Meanwhile in Random Hall, Catan settlers build cardboard roads across the carpet, tossing box-sized dice and trying not to eat their resources: graham-cracker bricks, pretzel wheat, Oreo iron, and marshmallow sheep (“Oreos run out fast”). Back at EC the rollercoaster, whirring power tools, and punks in hard hats are lit up by yellow lamps. Multicolored walls glow through warm windows. Two poi spinners practice and a giant Tesla coil quacks to the music, which switches from “We Can’t Stop” to “Lay Down Sally.” Behind the caution tape two people are having a heart-to-heart in the dip of the rollercoaster. The moon flashes between the branches. The green of the trees is washed into tinted grey by the yellow lights.
PJ and I come back on Tuesday and catch the New House paint war; B^3 (brownies, Belgian chocolate, brown sugar), salty caramel, and Belgian chocolate ice cream and mango sorbet at McCormick*; Burton-Conner wrestling in scintillating orange jello**; almond and green tea ice cream at Random Hall, excess liquid nitrogen surging across the carpet***; and, at EC, a girl with red, purple, and blue hair painting white paste bleach into a new convert’s hair. I get to ride the Big Flipper at Next House and sharpie my name onto the survivor board (“better survival rate than life”****). The flipper mechanism itself is between 200 and 300 pounds (with a 45-pound dorm weightroom weight as a counterweight): it is dropped, not pushed; thanks to conservation of energy you can’t go full circle. We get to watch preparations for the campus-wide water war: water balloons and white PVC pipe water guns being tested, water clashing against shields; and at Simmons a chariot with flags and a huge Trojan duck with angry eyebrows, inscribed: “DO U EVEN LIFT.”
** My notes say that the pool was highlighter-color (pink, yellow, and green), and that the bright orange jello scintillated like jewels in the light that filtered through the trees, spilling out onto the pale tapestry and the two mattresses beneath it.
*** My notes say that the LN2 rushing across the carpet was like the flood released by Elrond on the Ford (“white horses with shining white riders”) on page 218 of Hayden’s green hardcover 1994 copy of the Lord of the Rings (which you cannot check out right now because I have it).
**** Quite possibly the most terrifying moment of my life (I’m very scared of both heights and speed) followed by calm swinging. No joke: you climb up to the platform like you’re climbing up to a diving board; then they strap you in and cover your arms and legs with a black drape like you get at a barbershop (or the hangman). The whole thing took one week to build and was up for another week after that, and the students who designed it had been designing it since spring.
Killian is clear blue sky and unsuspecting tourists. It’s warm in the shade, and a cool wind is blowing in from the Charles. The Simmons chariot drags across the grass, flags waving, cheers and screams. Water shoots out of the Trojan duck. The east assembles under building 2 (inscribed Lavoisier and Newton); the west mans an art sculpture beneath building 1 (Darwin). Battle cries issue from across construction and grow to an approaching roar: “West is best!” East Campus gives a retaliatory cry, marching along the pedestrian passageway through the construction, and assembles at the opposite end of the lawn.
The two opposing lines exchange their opposing battle cries and rush into each other. Bikinis and swim trunks mix with normal clothes and polka dot onsies; red hair dots the sea of people. I catch a helmet with horns, someone carrying backup water on their back, and the Simmons Trojan duck spreading its wings, shielding its beloved creators. Finally the east side cheers: “MIT!” The west joins the chant and the music abruptly shifts to “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” The action calms and the two sides merge one more time to high-five and expend remaining supplies. The east side chants “Bexley!” as the lawn empties.
In the silence I notice that the west side’s art fort is titled: “Three-piece reclining figure, draped”; alternately: “Please do not climb on sculpture.” Its base is wet; nothing remains of the water war except two PVC pipe guns left at perpendicular angles leaning against the sculpture. The top of the Green Building weather balloon blinks as the first early autumn leaves drift from the trees.
PJ and I chill at Killian and eventually head back to East Campus. It’s hard to balance data collection and socializing—because I spent most of my real on-campus MIT social life on the east side, East Campus is full of familiar and friendly faces, some of which I haven’t seen in a while. The rollercoaster is almost done; in-between the third and fourth human trials the dorm president delivers the first strike against the wall of high school accomplishments, which the new freshmen had been adding to over the past few days. “High school is over!” she calls, and somehow connects it to fighting the administration (“Tear down the wall!”). She puts on a white hard hat and thwacks it, leaving a dent (“Destroy!”).
My friends all seem to disappear as soon as PJ leaves; it’s nighttime and suddenly I’m no longer surrounded by people. Someone is helping their baby climb the curved transient rock wall, and someone else is lighting cups on fire over embers on the grill. I don’t know any of these people. A song is playing that I will forever associate with being a freshman (though somehow I can’t identify the memory I pulled the song from). Most of the party has retreated, quietly, into lounges and dorm rooms I don’t live in.
I pull out a chair and sit alone, alternating between trying to look busy and wistfully looking around. I wonder if it would be weird to mingle with frosh who said they follow my blog and then decide that it probably would, so I check up on celebrity gossip and the code I’m running for lab.
People run up and down the wall opposite from where the baby was, and I finally resolve to get up. Behind me on the fort a string of lights has either appeared or been turned on while I wasn’t paying attention. The XX is playing, then Broken Bells (“I've got nothing left, it's kind of wonderful / ‘Cause there's nothing they can take away”).
Writing for Technology Review was truly epic. This was my first time writing for print, my first time (at least since college apps) working under a strict word limit, and my first time working with a real, actual editor.
Even more, this article is significant to me because MIT Technology Review was what started me on the path to MIT, well over a decade ago, when I was small, reading everything I could get my hands on, and bored visiting family friends who just happened to be parents of an MIT alumnus (and got that alumnus’s copies of MIT Technology Review). Before that road trip it was my dad’s Popular Science; afterward it was secondhand copies of Technology Review when I could get them and finally the admissions blogs, which became my homepage until the semester I applied five years later. The blogs (which at that point were very new) got me really hooked, and showed me that I could actually imagine myself at MIT; before that, Technology Review showed me that science and engineering are epic, that I wanted to do something like that when I grew up, and that MIT was a place where it happened and the place I wanted to be (and, apparently, a school with students and an application process, which took me a while to realize (in part because I’m not sure I knew what college was)).
I had no idea how many drafts (six, though it depends on how you count it) and evenings (lots) go into an article, or how much work goes into planning and editing it and by how many people (also lots). I worked on it in the gap between my summer sublet ending and the new lease starting (which just happened to also be the first week of classes (excellent)), from my friend Paula J. ‘14’s apartment in Alewife. I got to work with Alice Dragoon, senior editor of MIT News, who was and continues to be incredibly kind to and patient with me (I am an appallingly slow writer). I think in the end, the final product was as much hers as mine, though the blending is seamless. I’m in love with how the piece evolved and ended up. The process of editing (really editing, not just looking over my work a second time, which is what I used to call editing) was a new kind of challenge that I hadn’t tried before, even as a writing minor. You can get a bit of a peek at the method: this blog post is a clumping of the first and second drafts, most of which didn’t make it (my notes alone were more than twice the wordcount), and a bit of new material, like this sentence. Go check out the final version, online or on pages 16 through 18 of the MIT News section of the November/December issue, with photographs by PJ of lots of the cool things I listed (see if you can match them up!), and please comment there too when you comment here. And a special bonus: please write in to Alice ASAP (this week or this weekend) at MITNews [at] technologyreview [dot] com with thoughts or feelings about REX or about this piece or with your own REX stories to add your own voice to the next Technology Review.
At that, my last REX ends where the 2019s’ MIT journey began, with the words of freshman convocation speakers, Drs. Emanuel: “I was sitting where you’re sitting, feeling that interesting combination of fear and excitement”; Bhatia: “All of you are writing your own MIT story, starting today”; and, most of all, Reif: “Keep your mind open to new possibilities, and explore paths that you may not have expected.”