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.