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MIT student blogger Jessie L. '07

Mind and hand by Jessie L. '07

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”.

11 responses to “Mind and hand”

  1. Dan says:

    That sounds pretty sweet…

  2. Yeah, totally. I think we’ve all gotta be well-rounded, isn’t it? That’s probably what MIT will do for scientists and engineers.

  3. Phil says:

    Scientist or Engineer, both still use words like “large-ish.” And this is why I want to go to MIT.

  4. If there were one thing I liked most about this school I think it would have to be the fact that the majority of the population is always willing to help someone eager to learn do just that. I’m always eager to learn, and always eager to teach someone something I know. And it’s awesome that I can do that here.

    Of course, the fact that I can use words like “large-ish” doesn’t hurt either.

  5. Mridul says:

    Hi Jessie,
    I too believe that doing something new feels great, whether you do it in childhood or in old age.
    It happens with me too. And I guess it happens with everybody. Right?

  6. kinan t says:

    I must agree. The motto is very meaningful, although I’d say it is missing something escentiall in life today: the heart. I dont know but mind, hand and heart really do the job these days. You may have the mind and the hand and yet accomplish nothing else for the rest of the world, whereas it takes someone with a heart to reach out and focus their work and lives helping others. As an enginner, it takes a heart to decide wether to work on the next military project or to work on the next technology that could reduce poverty (Just as an example).

  7. kinan t says:

    unless of course the hand means lending out your hand to the rest…

  8. Well, aren’t we missing something very important? I knew that everything is science whether applied or not. And this ‘science’ is a system, & was eventually created by mankind to serve some bigger purpose. I think that’s the ‘reason of being’. And we all are serving that question to bring an ultimate result. So, in my opinion, there’s actually no dispute to be an enginner or a scientist or a economist. All the same thing, different 2D outlooks of the same cube. Because we all are the modules of a big program, created for some reason & we’re serving that. So, being every part of this system is being a module, by the colour of a scientist, an engineer or whatever.
    But I do support that motto thing.
    Mind & Hand.
    mind= gamezone (place of logical wars)
    hand= output (way of serving results)
    thatz all

  9. Edward says:

    Wow, this is a great post.
    Thank you.

  10. Jess says:

    that was a great post. smile as a prefrosh with absolutely no idea what she wants, i’m hoping i’ll find a little more direction at MIT. do you think naturally people are just funnelled (sp?) into where they’re meant to be, or there’s a lot of good advising available to helping people figure out what they want? or do people generally just know?

  11. Hey Jessie!

    I really enjoyed that blog. It was a really nice read. It reminds me of the essay I wrote for my MIT application.

    In a nutshell, I wrote about the beach and how the shore is the medium of transition that balances extremes of high and low; dry and wet. I then applied the concept of the beach to theoretical abstract teachings, application, and engineering.

    I hope you’re satisfied with the balance you have acquired through your experience at MIT! smile

    Thanks again for the good read.

    -Fatemah Boukhadour