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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Numbers are names too by Mollie B. '06

What, you don't speak entirely in numbers at your school?

In my last entry, Jonathan Foley asked an interesting set of questions:

What is up with the whole abstract course nomenclature? Im sure this is great for MITers, but it seems rather arcane to the outside world. Why not call Course 9 ‘Biology’? Why not go the full distance and dispell with names, each student can be RFID tagged?

I know he was mostly kidding, but since we do have a lot of numbering systems at MIT, and since they make no sense to anyone who’s not here, I decided to ramble at some length about them today.

Confession: I am actually talking about the numbering system because Campus Preview Weekend is coming up soon. I love CPW, and this year I signed up both to host a prefrosh (it could be you! …if you’re a girl) and to lead a tour of my UROP lab. But the one thing I really don’t like about CPW is that I suddenly have to convert to telling people my major in words instead of numbers, and I always say the words too fast and people can’t understand me and I have to repeat myself and I don’t like it. (You try saying “biology and brain and cognitive sciences” five times fast.) So I’m going to teach you the numbering system, and you’re going to come to CPW and already know the numbers, and I won’t have to look like an idiot. Everybody wins!

Course numbers.
Every major at MIT is assigned a unique identifier. Most commonly, this is a number, but a few departments have letter names or letter modifiers. Students at MIT almost exclusively refer to their majors by number unless they are talking to someone whom they suspect does not know the numbering system.

I made a super-handy chart listing all the department numbers and all the sub-department majors, including the number of people who were awarded a degree in that major/sub-major in 2005. (Yes, I made it in Word. Yes, I do know how to write HTML, more or less, but I didn’t feel like it.) FYI, “undesignated” sort of means “same degree, fewer classes” — many people, for example, pick up an undesignated major as a second major.

The actual number assigned to each department is a matter of historical contingency, and doesn’t relate to the content of the department or the time period it was originally formed. In that sense, then, Jonathan’s right — biology could just as easily have been course 44 rather than course 7. The numbers are pretty arbitrary. I would note, however, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid — after all, the actual words given to nouns in spoken languages are also a matter of historical contingency and arbitrary assignment (we call it “biology” because the ancient Greeks used the root “bio” to refer to living things, but they could just as easily have used something else).

So, arbitrary, yes. But it’s the system we use, and it’s a pretty effective shibboleth, if I do say so myself.

Other Questions.

1. M commented, “4 classes per semester… It does not look strikingly difficult to me, but maybe because I haven’t had any experience with psets.”
It is a little harder than it looks. :) Each unit is supposed to be equivalent to one hour per week, so a typical 48-unit schedule is designed to take up almost 50 hours a week between class, lab, and homework.

2. M also asked,

Mollie, I’m doing the IB course with HL Math, Chem ang Bio. Say if I get admitted to MIT, I will probably have covered classes like introductory statistics. Can I get credit for those classes and ‘bypass’ them? My teacher says if I’m going to schools like MIT, I should probably not bypass any classes, especially if that class is lab-based. What do you think?

Julie answered for me:

And your teacher is right: unless the MIT class offers an advanced-standing exam and you pass out of it, it’s better that you take the class again at MIT. MIT usually does not offer credit for classes taken elsewhere, and for good reason: MIT classes are extremely demanding and often are not matched in rigor and content by other institutions.

I’ll add a few things. First, the classes you’d take in high school might not be equivalent in subject matter (not just difficulty, but actual subject matter — they’re different) to the courses at MIT. In my statistics class (9.07), we spent a lot of time on tests like ANOVAs, t-tests, and F-tests. In Adam’s statistics class (6.041), they spent a lot more time on really obscure probability and assumed strong familiarity with multivariable calculus. It’s unlikely that a high school course would cover both those ends of statistics with enough depth for you to test out. Second, advanced standing exams are usually available for a limited set of classes, so not all classes can be tested out of. You’ll get a better idea once you’re here, particularly if you speak to the undergraduate coordinator of your intended department.

3. Dan asked,

What’s the difference between organic chemistry, molecular biology, and biochemistry? They all sound so darn similar. I may sound dumb to some people for asking this, but who cares, right?

And Jonathan Foley answered,

They can be organized in terms of content and abstractness. Organic Chemistry deals with the chemistry of carbon containing molecules. While some focus on biologically relevant reactions, it principly the study of a class of chemistries rather than biology. Biochemistry deals with chemical processes ocuring in living things (i.e. catalyzed by enzymes) like the reactions of metabolism; biochemists break down biological pathways to chemistry that is actually occuring in a particular process (eg. what amino acid residues in the active site of an enzyme catalyze a given reaction). Molecular biology typically looks at biological pathways from the macromolecule level (proteins, DNA, RNA), typically central molecular processes such as transcription, translation, cell cycle…etc.

In other words: Organic chemistry is chemistry, biochemistry is chemistry that pertains to biolgy, molecular biology is molecular scale biology.

(Hey, do you guys want my paycheck for the week? What am I doing over here?) I’ll merely add that I’ll buy Jonathan’s description, and that it’s amazing how much detail it’s possible to use when learning material in upper-level courses. I went into 7.23 (Immunology) thinking, “Man, what is this class going to be about? I’ve learned about antibodies and B cells and T cells a zillion times in other biology classes. I just don’t know what else there is to learn!” And, um, whoa buddy, was I wrong. FYI: Immunology is really complicated.

4. Lizzy asked,

So you said you had two professors e-mail you back…how did you turn down the one whose lab you didn’t join? (I know my question sounds silly, but I’m first afraid that if I try to get a position, no one will want me…and second, that if I get any positions, I’ll get more than one and I won’t know how to respond to the labs I don’t join.)

Another question – are there UROPs at the other biomedical research places in Cambridge, such as Broad and Whitehead?

And finally, how does your boyfriend know the skiiers? (*is jealous that he does*)

First, yes, there are UROPs at Whitehead (none at Broad that I know of, because the new building isn’t done yet!). You just have to find an MIT faculty supervisor to get funding from the UROP office, and Whitehead faculty have appointments in the department of biology.

Second, professors are usually pretty relaxed about getting new UROPs — I don’t think anybody would be offended if you got two offers and picked the other guy. After all, most of the professors are pretty good friends with each other. Personally, I think I just emailed the other professor and said I had taken the job in Morgan’s lab. The other prof, Yasunori, is on the same floor as my lab, and he still says hi to me in the halls, so I don’t think he was too broken up over it!

Third, Adam knows most of the US ski team because he’s a nationally-ranked freestyle skiier, and he’s gone to camps and competitions with all of those guys since they were little. (He’s probably going to Nationals again this year, which is over our spring break! Yay!) I’m trying to twist his arm to get him to introduce me to the Flying Tomato, but so far no luck.

5. Wenhao Sun asked about the weather.

Seriously though, how cold is it really? I’ve heard people say it’s really really really cold, I’ve heard that it’s just cold enough to complain, and I’ve heard that it’s cool and breezy (but I heard that from a friend from Wisconsin, so… I’m going to take that with a grain of salt). I guess it’s a pretty opinionated response, so how about some numbers? Thanks!

It does get cold here — there’s usually a week or two in January where the wind chill gets down around -10F (-23C), although most of the winter is much warmer. Boston is a lot more moderate than cold places in the middle of the country (like Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up), because we have a giant ocean next to us which keeps the temperature in check.

I personally have very little sympathy for people who claim to not be able to live in Boston because of the weather (and, lord, those southern California kids love to complain). My prescription: a nice poofy jacket, an illegal space heater, and the Tech Shuttle. It also helps that most of the campus is connected either above ground or by underground tunnels. ;)

12 responses to “Numbers are names too”

  1. Yes numbers serve as a very efficient way to categorize things, people, ideas in useful and meaningful way. Numbers as language is an interesting topic; one could argue that numbers and math is in fact the most universal language. Numbers are a very natural language and serve as an important basis for modern thought.

    I was mostly taking issue with the non-canonical course nomenclature. I know MITspeak is something you guys are proud of and really 7.002 is really not any more meaningul than something like MCB100 (berkeley course numbering). It gets a little extreme with the whole building numbering though.

  2. Sam T says:

    I’ve been think, most of the UROPs I’ve read about are in biology, chemistry, or engineering of some sort. I haven’t heard about a lot of physics UROPs. How hard is it to get a UROP in physics? Since it’s more theoretical, do the professors require that you’ve taken certain courses before they give you a UROP.

  3. Sam C says:

    What’s with course 19- Hacking? Is it a joke, or have I found my major at MIT?

  4. M says:

    Thank you both, Mollie and Julie, for your answers. I’ve just read Ann’s latest blog on MIT’s courseload, and… oops, maybe 4 classes do sound like a lot.

    @ Jonathan: I recently read about MIT’s building numbering system on It doesn’t sound very extreme – eg 3-108 is room #8 on level 1 in building 3 – pretty logical don’t you think?

  5. Mushal says:

    Mollie…what if you’re a biology person who’s not very good at maths…would you get in? And suppose you do, could you survive here:)?

  6. I dont question the logic behind it, I question the human friendlyness of it. Naming buildings after people injects a certain amount of history into the buildings of an educational/research institution. It just seems a little cold and alien to refer to buildings strictly by a numerical system. The room numbering makes a lot of sense in that it facilitates easy navigation, but one could still retain that logic while giving the building itself a historically relevant name (or in the case of many universities a name of a large donor smile!).

  7. Sam C,

    There is no course 19. wink It is the “unofficial” course for “Applied Mechanical Engineering.”


  8. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps you’ve written an entry about it before (in which case you could direct me to the entry), but why are you interested in biology?

  9. M says:

    My 2 cents on the building numbering thing: I take your point on the human friendliness issue, but I still don’t think numbering building is extreme. As you said, history/culture is important to an educational institution. Giving the buildings a historically relevant name is a way to reflect that history/culture of the institution. In the case of MIT, numbers form a history/culture of itself, so numbering buildings is just another way to reflect the MIT culture, however odd it may seem to outsiders. Still I wish that MIT course numbering system could be less esoteric. For example, if I take course 9 and my friend takes course 2 and has no knowledge whatsoever of what course 9 is about, then maybe MCB100 would make sense quicker than 7.002

  10. Hartley says:

    1) I like the whole building-numbering thing. It’s just very logical and allows one to know where something is when they mention the numbers. It’s like at my high school: room numbers starting with A are in the new wing, the hundreds-digit is the floor level, and the tens- and ones-digits show where along the hallway the room is. And, yes, I’m sure that many other schools have similar numbering for hallways, but I feel special writing this, so deal with it.

    2) (all in good-nature) Where do people get the whole “numbers is a universal language” idea? I’m sorry, but it is just as hard to teach an alien or person from a different culture that “8*2/33^5” means that I politely want a chunk of cut-up and cooked cow meat with melted cheese on it as it is to teach them that “I would like to have a cheeseburger, please” means the same thing (mmm, i like food). Ok, just had to get that out because it’s been bothering me since 6th-grade.

    P.S. Yes, I like to use hyphens.

  11. Christina says:

    Hey there. I’m posting about my adventure to the AAAS convention this week, and I thought you might be interested in skimming through it. Just click on my name; you have to get a xanga screen name to get onto the site, but it only takes about 15 seconds. grin

    PS-I met a bio prof named Mandana Sassanfar (I’ll post my picture with her later in the week). Have you ever had her?

  12. MILLICENT says: