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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

Like a Polaroid Picture by Sam M. '07

My alleged lack of football fandom triggers an epiphany.

DID YOU KNOW? Frank Zappa played The Pope on an episode of Ren and Stimpy.

To begin with, a World Cup fan with the fortuitous name of “Go argentina!” observed yesterday:

Emmm… Sam I don’t think you are much of a football (soccer) fan eh? Your comments sounds like a girl’s who is trying to sound interested in a game that her boyfriend plays :}}

Well, the answer is, no, I’ve never really watched soccer before in my life, but the nature of my comments comes not so much from a lack of enthusiasm as a lack of knowledge of the game. I’ve been watching a full game almost every night, sometimes alone and sometimes with 40,000 English fans in K√ґln, and I have to say that just watching the game is way more exciting than just about any American sport I’ve ever watched (including four years of service in high school marching band). I mean, it just never stops, does it? And, yes, I probably don’t appreciate the intricacies of passing the ball and I don’t really understand how offsides works yet, but I figured that somebody getting a bloody nose in USA-Italy just meant it was eve more action-packed than usual. Schadenfreude.

And beyond just watching the games, as an MIT student I’m naturally fascinated with the scoring system and advancement of teams to the round of 16… how France are almost assured to advance if they defeat Togo by more than two goals, and how Argentina scored 5 more goals than the Netherlands, so they are in first place, or how Tunisia will advance if they defeat Ukraine and Saudia Arabia fail to defeat Spain. So I went to Wikipedia and looked all that up. And then I found the statistics! For example, out of the group of 7 countries that have won the World Cup, none of them have lost when playing in their home country, EXCEPT Brazil in the so-called “maracanazo.”

And that statistic is why I am so giddy with anticipation that we have booked train tickets to Berlin for the weekend of the Finale.

So, I realized that I hadn’t done an entry on MIT in a while, and these two things–reading World Cup statistics and making train, plane, and hostel reservations online–got me to thinking about what, exactly, I’ve gotten out of MIT’s chemical engineering program so far. I figure you can go look at pictures of the French Riviera in a book or a travel guide or something if I don’t get around to posting them until next week.

I’m not an economics major or anything, but MIT’s engineering program does have you actually thinking about money sometimes. A lot of problem sets in junior-level classes made me not only determine apparent degradation constants, fluid mechanical parameters, and non-ideal gas law relations, but also made me take these answers and apply them to real-world situations. If a company were to use a smaller diameter for a pipe, how much more heat would they need to add to the system to operate at the necessary temperature? And how much product would be produced? So if heat costs 10 cents per kilojoule and product costs 20 dollars per gram, and taking apart the system will take 1 month, would you suggest that the company should go with this system? But wait, would the system explode and kill everybody if you operated at that temperature? Better assess the stability of the eigenvalues.

The classes taken in senior year, Integrated Chemical Engineering (affectionately called ICE and ICE-T) feature suggested by industry representatives and consultants who faced similar challenges in their careers. Even in 10.10: Introduction to Chemical Engineering, the final project involved a fictional corporation trying to evaluate the profitability of its process under a variety of conditions. For example, would it be better to hire ships to cart away toxic waste or to retrofit the entire plant to meet new environmental standards? We modelled the process, almost down to the molecular level, using MATLAB, and changed various parameters in the code as necessary to model certain elements of the process. At the time, I thought it was a tremendously stupid and poorly-implemented project.

(it did end up that it was far better to retrofit the plant to deal with the toxic gas, bringing an overall message of environmentalism and sustainability to the project)

The curriculum doesn’t work this way just for engineering classes. I can fondly recall my 7.06: Cell Biology final exam, where one of the problems involved a dog which, due to something unfortunate happening in its stem cells, could recognize only one smell. I think the goal of the problem was ultimately to design a series of tests to figure out the exact nature of the mutation. Although most tests in 7.06 worked on a similar design-your-own-experiment basis (with open notes), it’s still one of my favorite test questions ever. Instead of asking what the endoplasmic reticulum connects to, Professor Lodish had us figure out what to do with a sad little dog that can only smell one thing.

Today I was booking a flight to London for Ling ’07 and myself, and at the last moment I discovered that there was a hidden service charge of 10 вВђ because I was using a Visa card. Now, the tickets we were buying were relatively cheap, so I totally wanted to barf out when I saw that. The only way to avoid the service charge was to transfer money out of my German bank account to buy the ticket. However, I had insufficient funds, and there are flat and percentage fees associated with depositing a check from my American bank into the account, or having money wired over. I thought about it for just a minute or two… so would it really be cheaper for me to use my German bank account? How much money would be the best amount to transfer? Would that be more than 10 вВђ? Can I even make it to the bank on time? Could I wait until Monday? Did it look like tickets would be higher in price by Monday? How much extra would that be? Are there other websites to look at?

And then I realized that all these questions and all the “engineering approximations” I was making to answer them in my head were just like that stupid 10.10 project I did almost two years ago. And it doesn’t just work that way with plane tickets… Ling and I have done the same thing when we’re figuring out timings for train reservations, or booking hostels for 9 people in Berlin, or trying to visit four cities in Italy by train in four and a half days. I do it when I’m grocery shopping or planning my day after work. Situations that you could never encounter in an MIT class, but where you just have to take the things you know and the resources you have available, sit down, and work it all out in your head before the deadline.

I already forgot how the Leimgruber-Batcho synthesis of indole works, although I still like bringing it up in conversation. And maybe someday I won’t remember how to take a 1H-NMR. But I think problem set after problem set has taught me a different way to look at situations in the world. This summer has shown me that even if I have a problem in a totally foreign environment, whether it’s a spectroscopy lab or a German supermarket, I can figure out what questions to ask, get the answers, and find a solution… as long as there is only one, and it is numerical.

And I think that’s what I got out of MIT so far.

NEXT UP: Okay, I’m going to Munich this weekend, but I will not abide another entry without pictures.

3 responses to “Like a Polaroid Picture”

  1. Mike says:

    Hey Sam! So I think I’m like a prospective student or something now. My advisor is pushing me towards MIT for grad school. I’m not so confident in my ability to get in, but it’s worth looking into I suppose. So who has the coolest molecular biology or geneticsy-type graduate labs?

  2. kash says:

    Hey sam, I am planning to go to MIT when I graduate from high school, and I am a sophomore in high school now. I had some questions, like, what is the average cummulative GPA in high school of people who are now in MIT? I plan to Major in Chemical engineering and minor in french, is that a good idea, or would my schedule be crazy? Thanks

  3. Ruth says:

    So what does an MIT student eat while in Germany?

    As Iron Chef College, do you still cook?