As some of you probably know, MIT’s motto is “Mens et manus”, which is Latin for “Mind and hand”. Now, in most cases, a school motto isn’t particularly meaningful. It’s a slogan that sounds cute. In the case of MIT, I feel that it’s still a slogan that sounds cute, but it’s also meaningful. It reflects something I consider to be an important component of MIT culture.
At some point in the past, someone on this blog asked me whether, as a science major, I felt overshadowed by MIT’s engineers. And I answered that question at that time, but this is sort of a more extensive answer.
Most MIT students come in with a strong bias towards either science or engineering. Then you get some who don’t care so much about either and are primarily interested in business, or architecture, or political science, or whatever, but for purposes of this post let’s assume there’s a science/engineering dichotomy among frosh. And there are extremes. At the science extreme, you get brillant people who live in the theoretical worlds in their heads, and love to know why things work the way they do, but couldn’t build anything if their life depended on it. They don’t really know how to apply knowledge. At the engineering extreme, you get the kids who have been writing code or machining parts or building circuits in their spare time since they were in middle school. They don’t really care about the theory behind anything; they want to know how things work. They get frustrated in theoretical classes because they feel like the material is “not useful”.
Notice that I talked about a frosh dichotomy. This is because, as these students go through MIT, most of the scientists become more like engineers, and the engineers like scientists.
When I came here, I was pretty far along the science extreme. I’d done plenty of sports, but never done anything physical, other than lab experiments, that involved the application of academic knowledge. I was thought of as a klutzy person and nobody would have ever entrusted me with anything more dangerous or complicated than a screwdriver, so I didn’t know how to use power tools or anything like that. The most engineering-like thing I’d ever done was AP Computer Science.
Two and a half years later, I’m still a scientist, but I’m also something of an engineer, and I’ve learned to be one both in and out of the classroom. In addition to all my neuroscience and bio classes, I’ve taken 18.03 (Differential Equations), 6.001 (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs), 6.004 (Computation Structures) and 6.186 (Mobile Autonomous Systems Laboratory, the robotics competition from my last entry). Next term, I’ll be taking 6.002 (Circuits and Electronics) and maybe another engineering class. But more important than the classes I’ve taken, is what I can do. I can code, if not terribly well, in Scheme, Java, C, or Assembly. I can wire some simple circuits (I bet I’ll be better at that after 6.002) and solder. I can use a drill press, a hacksaw, a bandsaw, a scroll saw, and a lathe, and perform minor repairs on some of them. I can use wood and metal files. I can re-key the pins in a lock, and take measurements for a new key. I can tie knots. I can design a large-ish engineering project. I can machine parts, and put things together. I helped build a robot. The competition’s today, and we’ll see how it does.
For some people, this is old hat. For me, it’s really exciting, because it’s so new. Last term there was a group of students trying to get a bladesmithing club together. They wanted to use a blacksmith’s forge to make knife and sword blades, and do metalworking in general. I eagerly joined with them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough funding for the club to get off the ground, but maybe in the future…
So I am a scientist who has also become an engineer. As the engineers become scienists. We all stretch our comfort zones a little, under the influence of the people surrounding us. I feel more competent and confidence as a result of what I can do. The engineers slowly come to realize that theoretical knowledge isn’t such a dumb idea after all. The boundaries collapse, and everyone wins.
That, my friends, is “Mind and hand”.