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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

If man is five by Sam M. '07

Then most people are six, and if most people are six then pre-meds are seven.

DID YOU KNOW? Polish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot’s last name means “almond bread” in German.

I got to see Mandelbrot speak on Thursday! It was for like 30 seconds, for a variety of reasons, but it was cool just to be in the same room for a minute and catch a glimpse of his well-preserved 82-year-old form. Especially because I really thought he was dead. But no! He’s not dead! He’s still alive and quipping things like, “So I said ‘when you look at dirt, realize that it’s not really dirt.'” That’s about all I remember. Battle on, Mandelbrot.

My friend and labmate Steph ’07 spoke at the Class of 2010 choice of major fair on Monday. I wanted to go myself to reveal the wonders of Chemical Engineering to excited freshmen and score lots of free food, but I had a class taught by Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer John Harbison to attend. Oh well.

Anyway, according to Steph, the most frequently asked question, besides “Turkeys into oil?! Do you know Sam Maurer? I read his blog!” was something along the lines of “What is the difference between Chemistry and Chemical Engineering?”

It’s funny, because I remember going to a choice of major fair in April 2004 and asking that very same question myself, and not really listening to the answer, like, at all. And I ended up kind of majoring in both of them until last fall, when I decided that I’d probably rather be eaten by thermodynamics than quantum chemistry. So I pretty much know what’s going on with both of these majors. For the edification of frosh and prefrosh alike, the correct answer to that question is…

“There is actually nothing similar about those two majors. At all.”

So if you’re a chemistry major (Course 5), you’re going to learn about molecules. What they look like, how they react with each other, what their orbitals are doing at the quantum level, whether they’ll kill you or not and WHY WHY WHY WHY they have these properties. You’ll spend three semesters in organic chemistry, one or two each in inorganic, biological, and quantum chemistry, and one in kinetics. Because of the way the courses are structured (no conflicting times and few prerequisites), it’s actually not too difficult to squeeze the whole major into three years, leaving you free your senior year to work on a double major, pursue other interests, or, if you’re like most chemistry majors I know, TAKE EVEN MORE CHEMISTRY CLASSES!

If you’re a chemical engineer (Course 10), you don’t care about molecules. At all. No, really. What you’re going to do is take some reaction or some process that a chemist has given you already, look at it, and say “Hmm, HOW HOW HOW HOW can I make this bigger/smaller/faster/better?”. You still have to take a few chemistry classes–kinetics, organic chemistry, an introductory lab, and for some strange reason biochem–but you’re not really going to use any of those in your engineering courses. These courses–thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, and chemical kinetics–are the heart and soul of chemical engineering. They treat compounds and reaction not so much as things to be studied for they work, but rather as elements of a problem that have specific properties for you to minimize and maximize depending on what your professor asked you to do.

Either way, you’re going to have to take three lab courses that will make you cry. But if you’re Chem it’s going to be because your molybdenum tris-anilide compounds aren’t splitting molecular dinitrogen, and if you’re Chem E it’s because your professor wants you to take all your data and make 50 more spreadsheets out of it with 100 more charts before your group meeting on Tuesday.

If you’re ever torn between these two majors, as I was earlier in my MIT career, my recommendation would be to get a UROP or two and see what you’re more interested in–the WHY of chemistry or the HOW of chemical engineering. That’s actually my recommendation for most problems at MIT. “I don’t know what to do with my life.” “Get a UROP!” “I need some money.” “Get a UROP!” “My boyfriend is cheating on me.” “Get a UROP!” “It hurts when I pee.” “Get a UROP!” But in this case, it might actually help you. I had a really, outstandingly bad summer UROP in chemistry that ended up with my arm in a splint and a professor not speaking to me anymore. Two months later I had a UROP in chemical engineering that involved saving the world by turning turkeys into usable fuel. The rest is history.

I am also really sad that Jack Palance died, because I used to watch reruns of the 1980’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not all the time when I was a kid.

15 responses to “If man is five”

  1. Melissa Hunt says:

    I’m so excited to get involved in research as an undergrad! I’m torn between biochem and aeronautical engineering.

  2. Adam says:

    I’m torn between course 8, 6, 16, and 2, roughly in that order. I’m sure I’d be happy in any of them, but I’m having a hard time deciding. If I am accepted, of course. grin

    Besides that, UROP OWNS! It’s amazing that you can do actual research, even outside of your major!

    And Mandelbrot! (He’s not dead? Well, I suppose fractals are somewhat new.) I wish I could have seen him… Was the talk videotaped? I would really like to watch it if it was. Do you happen to have a link?

  3. I thought noam chomsky was dead until I listened to an interview taken by Rage against the machine guitarist. I always thought he was some early 1900’s Russian philospher… hehe… Then I went ahead and downloaded all his books, his whole website and started researching.
    Better still he was at MIT. Adds one more reason to come there.

  4. Christianna says:

    The UROP program looks like a dream come true for me!! I do well in classes, but the hands-on projects and research are where I excel. Also, I’m not 100% sure of what to major in yet. My favorite subject is Physics but I also like what Environmental and Biological Engineering can do for the world and my community. Hopefully I can combine these two?? I guess only time will tell!

  5. Kelly says:

    I’m torn between 5, 7, 9, and 10. Isn’t there a biological-chemical engineering option?

    Oh, and Prasanna, I *love* Morello. smile

  6. Kelly says:

    oh, yeah, and course 6. wink

  7. Keri says:

    And the devil is six, then God is seven!

    This monkey’s gone to heaven.

    Also, the WHY WHY WHY is so much fun.

  8. Andrew says:

    Hey, I’ve been lurking around the blog feeds, but this is the first time for commenting. Great post smile

  9. Bobby Liu says:


    Excellent advice about choosing between courses 5 and 10. I never did choose between the two, but taking 5 lab classes in total has been a chore I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else.

  10. Justin Kim says:

    Great post! I myself am interested in Chem E. Speaking of Mandelbrot though, I’ve been tinkering with a program that shows which numbers of the complex plane will point to which root for specific functions( in this case X^4 – 1 ) by using Newton’s Method (forgive me if the link doesnt work – my html is a little rusty). But anyways I thought I’d share:


    (the complex axis – vertical goes from -4 to 4 and the real axis does likewise.) Each color represents the point gravitating towards a certain root.

    I did this program for a class I’m taking called Non-linear dynamics which deals a lot with chaos/fractal patterns and showing them through code – vb + java. Are there similar programs at MIT that one could take?

  11. Jess says:

    Ahhh Pixies ahhhhhhhhhhh

  12. kanika says:

    im a studentfrom india still pursuing high school i want to attend MIT nxt year which by all means i understand is not a childs play…i will graduate frm high school in may ’07 but the application deadline is january 1st and i cannot take the SAT subject tests until i go through the entire course….wat i mean to ask was dat can i appear for the SAT tests in may be march or april wen i get over with my class 12th examinations bcuz ill be fresh with the course at that time ….will it affect my chances of admission
    reply asap
    thanx a ton

  13. glareflair17 says:

    If ever I am admitted to MIT UROP is my first destination!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What an amazing opportunity! I love the fact that UROP can solve any proble, even those urinary tract problems! Thanks Sam!!!

  14. Susan says:

    Here’s a link to a Mandelbrot talk from 2001.