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MIT student blogger Natanya K. '14

On Mens et Manus by Natanya K. '14

The realizations one has whilst building improvised flotation devices.

Name the first thing that comes to mind when you think “MIT” and “hands-on”.

Before I got here I would’ve listed, off the top of my head: FIRST Robotics (or any sort of robotic shenanigans, really). Rocket-building. Taking apart and reconstructing various household appliances. Screwing around with computers, and circuits, and microchips (oh my!). Yeah, I’d totally rock an MIT-themed Family Feud episode.

What do all of those have in common? Well, first, they’re all what people traditionally take “mens et manus” to refer to—and second, I never did any of them. Nor was I ever particularly interested in doing so, with the exception of my fleeting fifth-grade dreams of being a mechanical engineer. When I was being interviewed by my Educational Counselor, he asked me if I liked to do things with my hands. I knew MIT’s motto, and the sort of activity he meant, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember a time when that had been my thing. So I took a moment, thought, and told him the first of my pursuits that came to mind and seemed to fit. Cooking, I said. Gardening.

“Do those count?” I asked, a little sheepishly. He laughed and assured me that they did, and so I recounted my experiences learning how to cook and bake, and gardening as a child, and why I loved both and how they’d shaped me. And so that’s my first point—that you can get into MIT without being an inventor par excellence complete with multiple patents or whatnot. I did, and I was about as far removed from that sort of thing as possible.

With that in mind, credit for the revelation that I maybe was that sort of person, when it suited me, goes to the intensely frustrating physics class I was at the cusp of finishing, and my much-more-mechanically-inclined boyfriend, Daniel M. ’14. For us, physics was always a collaborative experience—sometimes one of us would need an extra pair of hands or a fresh brain that hadn’t been pickled by an especially-awful problem set yet. And since my mad biology skills weren’t quite up to engineering a couple of spare parts for myself, helping each other out seemed like the next best option. So it makes sense that my excursion into self-discovery territory would involve him. It went a little like this:

We were kneeling on the dried straw covering his backyard, tinkering with the vertical slingshot he’d built for our AP Physics final. Burrs and sharp-edged seed pods clung to our pants and shoelaces as we finished measuring off the rubber tubing connecting the three upright wooden supports to the plastic launching cup to ensure all of the pieces were of equal length. I looked up to see Daniel prepping the rubber duck I’d christened Walden for his flight into the dusky afternoon sky, and was hit suddenly and thoroughly by a surreal thought.

“My god,” I uttered, bewilderedly and lustily. “I want to build a treehouse.” Or, in normal-person-speak: hey, I kind of like this. Let’s build more stuff.

That drive-by epiphany couldn’t have come at a better time. Four days from the start of final presentations, I hadn’t even begun constructing my own project, partially because I had a sort of hilarious, passive-aggressive antipathy towards the class, and partially because I function in a perpetual state of procrastination.

“But Natanya,” those who’ve never experienced my approach to school before might say, “Surely you properly assessed your limits and time constraints and chose a reasonable, easily-planned final project that wouldn’t conflict too much with your other finals and graduation prep.”

To them I say: ahahahaha. Hah. I appreciate the credit, but no. The list of recommended final projects was handed out in the middle of AP testing, so by the time the list hit my desk (with me actually sitting in it), the only options left were a) lame, and/or b) magnetism-based and thus out of the question. (I loathe, loathe, loathe magnetism, fiercely and with the force of a wayward asteroid impact.)

That day, I looked at the list. I looked at my teacher. I looked back at the list.

“Screw it,” I declared, turning toward a mildly incredulous Daniel, who occupied the seat next to me and who’d already decided on his own project. “I’m building a raft.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re not serious.”

I slapped my hand down on my busted physics textbook and stared him squarely in the eye. “Heck yes I am. It’ll be like Mythbusters. There’ll be a yacht party gone tragically wrong, and the guests will have to build something out of party wreckage to avoid being eaten by sharks. It’ll be epic.”

The introduction to my final presentation.

And it was, because I am exactly the right combination of flighty and stubborn to stick to something like that. I ended up using concepts from the fluid mechanics unit we’d briefly covered to design a raft that would support my (cough) human test-subject and keep him fully above-water (and comfy). And you can bet your sweet self it worked.

So, my second point is this: even if you don’t think you’re into the traditional “mens et manus”-y activities, go ahead, try them out. Spoiler alert: you might even like ’em.

5 responses to “On Mens et Manus”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Somebody really really likes 7-Up.

  2. Hah, that’d be the entirety of my physics class. I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to have enough bottles, so I asked the class for any spares they had.

  3. Real_Madrid says:

    why d’you hate magnetism? Sticky subject?

  4. You rock, Natanya. I’m so proud of you (and your mad MacGyvering skills)!!! and your mad blogging skills. Guess it all really runs in the family wink. I hope you are having an absolute blast.