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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

Making it work. by Sam M. '07

In which I just carry on. Where's Andrae when I need him?

DID YOU KNOW? …about the legend of RB Woodward?

RB Woodward, MIT SB ’36, PhD ’37, basically came up with the idea of using spectroscopy to determine the structure of organic compounds. This is about as significant as coming up with the idea of using a spoon to eat soup.

Back in 1936, MIT was not quite as awesome as it is now, so it wasn’t very easy to get a UROP and do research as an undergraduate. Margaret MacVicar wouldn’t found the program until 1969. RB, however, was undeterred–sneaking into labs well after their closing times, RB used NMR, UV, and IR spectroscopy to characterize hundreds of molecules. He began to notice patterns in the spectra of these compounds which would allow organic chemists to figure out the molecular structure of unknown comounds through spectroscopy. Unfortunately, while he was doing all of this groundbreaking research, he forgot to go to classes and stuff, so he was expelled at the end of his sophomore year in 1935. Luckily for the history of organic chemistry, he was readmitted in 1936.

Now, at MIT, passing a typical class earns you 12 units of credit, because it’s expected that you spend about 12 hours per week attending lectures, doing readings, and working on problems sets specifically for that class. RB was entering his last semester at MIT when he discovered that he still needed 186 units of credit left to graduate. This was particularly unfortunate because there are only 176 hours in the standard week. Undaunted, RB enrolled in the requisite 15 and one-half classes. Not only did he have to skip most of his lectures and problem sets in order to pass all of these classes, RB had overlapping tests, so he had to calculate which tests he could skip and. Had RB lived in modern times, of course, he could have simply talked to the Committee on Academic Performance to ask for the tests to be rescheduled .

Upon his graduation in Spring 1936, MIT said, “Good job RB. Hey, it looks like you invented modern spectroscopy. Would you like admission to our graduate school?” Now, Course 5: Chemistry no longer accepts MIT undergrads to their graduate school (did you learn nothing from RB?!) but a lot of other departments do; including virtually every engineering discipline. Less than a year later, RB had completed his thesis earned and a doctorate in Chemistry. If you’re coming to MIT grad school now, don’t expect to get out with a PhD in less than 5 years.

He also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, solo, in 1965, for coming up with organic syntheses that other people had never even thought about doing before.

And why was I thinking about RB Woodward today?

Well, I was walking around MIT this afternoon and I passed an campus tour. There, I heard two interesting questions and even more interesting answers.

Question: Can you take classes at Harvard?

Supplied Answer: Oh, totally. It’s not much trouble at all to get up the river, and you’re allowed to take as many as you want as long as you take at least half of your units at MIT.

My Answer: …but you probably won’t. Harvard is a great resource for a number of reasons, including their library facilities and the social environment of Harvard Square. They’ve got great classes too, which you are allowed to cross-register in, but it’s not as easy as you might think to actually get up there and take them.

I’d say that most people who take classes at Harvard use it to get experience in language classes that aren’t offered by MIT–we offer only French, Spanish, German, Japanese, and two programs in Chinese. I do know two people who have taken classes there in their senior years. However, any other time during your MIT experience, you’re more than likely going to be too busy with trying to fit all your major requirements in to worry about cross-registering too.

Think of it this way: you have to take an hour class in Harvard, and it will take you at least half an hour to get there and half an hour to get back comfortably. So for a one-hour class, you have to budget two hours of your day. If you’re taking a language class, you have to commit to two semesters of it in a row. That means that you have to plan for a two-hour block on your schedule the next term before MIT schedules are even posted. Of course, I’m sure there are many, many great classes at Harvard in every department that don’t have reasonable MIT equivalents. It’s not impossible to take them, but it’s also not easy, and most people who came in expecting to take all their humanities classes at Harvard probably won’t find it necessary once they find out that MIT really does have a relatively deep humanities department.

Question: Can you double and triple-major at MIT?

Supplied Answer: Yes, something like 20% of all MIT students declare a second major! You just need 270 units above your credit limit to get it, which might require taking 5 classes some terms or taking classes for credit over IAP.

My Answer: …but you will probably find that one major is sufficient. A lot of people come in wanting to double major, and almost every naive freshman will sit down Freshman year and make up a four-year plan for the possibility of double-majoring. My first year here, my floor had 7 freshmen, and I saw schedules for 5/18, 7/10, 6/18, 6/17, 7/14, 11/14, and 14/18. As far as I know, these people are now 10, 7, 18, 11, 14, 14, and 14/18, respectively. Well, that’s about 14%.

It’s definitely possible to get degrees in two courses at MIT in just your undergrad years, as Mollie has demonstrated. However, I’d say that you should only do it if you’re really committed to two areas of study enough that you don’t really want to take too many classes in other areas. Due to my youthful indiscretion, I’m actually only three classes away from a degree in chemistry; however, I decided this semester that I’d rather learn about cell biology, sustainable energy, statistical mechanics, and circuits and electronics than spend twelve hours a week doing organic syntheses in 5.33: Advanced Chemical Experimentation and Instrumentation Laboratory. It’s certainly possible, but there are so many other opportunities at MIT and so little time in a week that I’m not really worried about getting a second undergraduate degree anymore.

Now, if you want to major in say, computer science and the only other classes you’re interested in taking are in biology, then, hey, a double major might just work out for you. That’s totally cool. Just don’t take project lab and digital death lab in the same semester.

MORAL OF THE ENTRY: Remember, even Nobel Prize- winner RB Woodward had to take 15 and a half classes in one semester just to get one degree from MIT. I bet none of them were at Harvard.

15 responses to “Making it work.”

  1. Melike says:

    Ugh. I’m double majoring in 10 and music. I’m happy with my choices, but I’m taking 7.5 classes this term, hoping that starting next year, I’ll be able to take other random classes I want to take, like linguistics and linear algebra. But we’ll see. Haha, probably not! It’s okay, though. I adore the entire music department to pieces.

  2. Anonymous says:

    But Woodward did end up at Harvard and established Harvard as the best place to do organic chemistry.

  3. Ajy says:

    Yeah, Woodward was Great Organic Chemist.

    He is popular for the synthesis of vitamin B12.

    I think he first synthesised the Metal-Carbon bond compound.(Cd-C)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hey Sam, I was just wondering…what extracurricular activities do you participate in? Thanks!

  5. Sam says:

    Wenhao — As far as I know, you can get 2 minors regardless of the number of majors you undertake. I mean, you can do as many minors as you want, but you can only get two put on your diploma. As far as taking classes outside of your major…

    Chemical engineering has the most required classes of any undergraduate major (tied with a few like physics and aero/astro). In addition to my major classes, I have taken real analysis, organic chemistry II and III, inorganic chemistry, cell biology, electronic circuits, and German (outside of the HASS requirement). This is just in my first 3 years at MIT. Next year I only have 2 major classes left to take, so I’m hoping to take signals/systems, quantum physics, sustainable energy, and some more music composition classes.

    bhsf Shana — No, I couldn’t have you wasting water on me in a developing country, but if you just think of me really hard, I’m sure I’ll get the message.

  6. Hey Sam, thanks for your post. I want to ask something. If one wants to take triple major (mathematics, computer science & physics), How much unit he should take per term??

  7. Sam says:

    Melike: You are crazy, but you have a class with PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING JOHN HARBISON, so who am I to judge?

    Anonymous Harvard Affiliate (IP Address — No doubt it is a testament to Woodward’s MIT education that he was able to transform Harvard’s department into one of the greatest in the nation!

    Ajy — I read that he also helped characterize the structure of ferrocene for the first time. I love ferrocene.

    Anonymous — I am in concert choir, marching band, and Tau Beta Pi (the engineering honor society). I also am the floor chair for Conner 2 and I am training for the Boston Marathon this spring.

    Anonymous — Haha! Did you SEE Wednesday’s episode? I’m really worried for Daniel V now! And let’s not even talk about Chloe…

    Mohammed Naeem Hasan — It’s actually not possible to triple-major. MIT doesn’t allow it, and I don’t really think that anybody could do it even if they wanted to. Especially for those three majors; you would probably have to be taking a minimum of six classes per term. Even if you are smart enough, the sheer amount of work required to do all those p-sets for six semesters in a row would probably end up discouraging you.

  8. Jenna says:

    What instrument do you play in the marching band? Is it a lot of fun? How much of a time commitment is it? Thanks!

  9. Wenhao Sun says:

    What about minors? And how do they stack to a major? 2 minors to 1 major? 1.5 minors to a major?

    Another thing I was wondering about is how comprehensive are the majors? Say someone wanted to major in Physics, how much mathematics or chemistry or anything else (beyond the General Requirements) would they be have to/be allowed to learn? Thanks!

  10. Ruth Miller says:

    I’ve been told its impossible to take 3 majors (ie: they just won’t let you).

    But this might be rumor.

  11. bhsf Shana says:

    Sam, you’re training to run a marathon? That is ridiculous! I can’t even run the 3 mile loop by my house (but that’s also cause I don’t like being jeered at by neighborhood children [and adults, though the children are worse]). Well, good luck–maybe the day of I’ll throw a celebratory Dixie cup full of water or Fanta in the air in your honor and think of you. Love,

  12. Anonymous says:

    I am loving the Project Runway reference!

  13. Sam says:

    Jenna — I play the mellophone in marching band. I played the trumpet for a while, much to my chagrin, the time commitment is one hour a week practice and then 3-4 hours on Saturday for some sort of performance, but you don’t have to show up all the time or anything. We’re in a rebuilding year! But it’s still a ton of fun. Search in my past entries for “Marching Band” to see just how much fun it is.

    Ruth Miller — This is, in fact, not urban legend. No matter how many courses you complete, MIT will not award you three degrees. According to an MIT news office article from 2002,

    “Alex Wissner-Gross is one of the most remarkable students at MIT,” said Hobbs. “He is the last student to perform a triple major, an option that was discontinued because only the most exceptional students were able to complete it. He is clearly endowed with superabundant intelligence and no small measure of organizational skill and stamina.”

  14. Sam! That was AN AWESOME post!

    Keep ’em coming!


    Prashant Malani

  15. Nabeel says:

    Sam I was just wondering whether the “Physics and Electrical Engineering” is considered as 1 or 2 majors. And, if it’s 1 major then maybe mathematics can be taken as a 2nd major.