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MIT student blogger Gabe B. '13

Reading, Thinking and Igniting Innovation by Gabe B. '13

Rational optimism about MIT and the future

I can`t wait to start writing more about life at MIT, but since I`m not back there yet (Boston next Monday!), I have trouble writing about it! So I`ll share what`s on my mind.


I guess this is a book report, kind of. I`m almost 300 pages through Matt Ridley`s “The Rational Optimist” and I love it. I picked it up soon after returning from my 4 month hike. I was in a strange mood. I`m a student at one of the most innovative and progressive universities in the world and I always have loved the pace of life, the thirst for knowledge and the search for new ideas. But after hiking for 4 months and having little contact with progress, change or technology, and being content (for the most part), I`m still struggling with the juxtaposition between complex and simple, fast and slow, progressive and contentedness. Sometimes the increasing complexity and pace of life seems depressing. What`s the point, I wonder. Especially if I can be happy with a move towards self-sufficiency in the woods, away from the noise, pollution and confusion that frequently accompanies `progress`.* So I saw this book that promised to inspire me, to reignite my passion for progress, and to wake my then-dormant optimism about our future. Ridley proposes that innovation and commerce thrust our standard of living up and up (and he gives lots of evidence- I`m not going to tackle this point here—read the book if you disagree). Innovation and commerce (of ideas) are some of MIT`s tenets, so I bought the book. And now I`m buying into it.

Ridley starts a chapter titled `The invention of invention: increasing returns after 1800` with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

In this chapter, Ridley proclaims that while the world of `things’ is often subject to diminishing returns, the world of ideas is not. “The more knowledge you generate, the more you can generate.” While reading this, I reflected on MIT`s mission and on my journey through the Institute. I could reach for many generalities here, like we`re trying to make the world a better place yada yada… but I`ll go with something specific– the GIRs. General Institute Requirements. When entering into the world of GIRs my freshman fall, I saw them as obstacles. I had to get through them to reach the creamy filling– the good stuff of my MIT education. Honestly, the largest obstacle so far has just been understanding the HASS (humanities, arts and social sciences) requirements, and how to fulfill them. Having passed by most of the GIRs now (and still with no idea if I`m conforming to the HASS requirements…), I reflect on just how cream-filled these classes are. Until beyond multivariable calculus, you`re learning the language of science and the principles of physics, biology and chemistry that underlie all upper level classes. Ridley`s notion that knowledge begets more knowledge rings true here. My education hasn`t provided answers to nearly any of my questions. But the GIRs provide the tools to understand the questions. Questions MIT students ask often don`t have answers yet. But we`re being equipped with the tools, both in `mind and hand` (MIT`s motto– had to stick that in somewhere) to ask the right questions and to be creative and innovative in seeking our answers.

Without the knowledge gained in 8.02 (Physics II– Electricity and Magnetism), I would have had trouble analyzing my brother`s comment on how we should ionize water (give it a negative charge) and channel it through magnets to propel canoes and kayaks (think about it). Without 5.111 (Principles of Chemistry), I couldn`t have fielded questions after my Splash class (subject: Quantum Mechanics) about whether orbital frequency has an effect on intermolecular attraction. And without 7.012 (Biology I), I simply never would have met Dr. Eric Lander. He`s amazing.**

So with this foundation of GIR knowledge, MIT students are ready to tackle the more rigorous and challenging upper level classes. But as I hopefully showed above, the GIRs prepared me for more then just more classes. They help me to take a more informed and creative approach to questions and problems– this is innovation.

Ridley argues that innovation follows a pattern akin to a bushfire– innovation is largely unpredictable and occurs at random places and at bizarre times. In a historical context, Ridley is quite right– 50,000 years ago, west Asians innovated ovens and bows and arrows, 5,000 years ago Mesopotamians were at the pinnacle of metallurgy and urban living, 500 years ago Italians invented book-keeping methods still in use today, 200 years ago Englishmen harnessed steam to replace animal and human labor and 50 years ago the concept of credit cards emerged in California. In the last 150 years, `innovation randomness` has both increased and decreased, depending on your perspective. Due to a blossoming population and an even faster growing literate (not just with regards to reading, but scientifically, socially, politically, economically literate…) community, more people are innovating in more places than ever before. In reality, technological progress follows complex patterns, responding to differing demographic demands, fertile political and social undertones, a fair amount of pure luck and championed by hard working teams in the right place at the right time.

But we have a node here, at MIT. A node where the bushfire ignites more often than almost anywhere else. I thought about posting links here to some amazing and awe-inspiring innovations and ideas spilling from our Institute. But just go to our homepage– MIT.edu. You`ll find amazing things, updated every single day. There`s a fire raging in Cambridge (on one side of Cambridge, at least), and it`s been igniting minds and releasing shocking amounts innovation for over 150 years.

Look, now I`ve gotten all riled up. This is why, I`ve reminded myself, I want fast paced. I want progress. I want to be in the thick of things. I needed the GIRs to build and grow. I can only be content in the woods for so long. I want to contribute. Not MIT, nor science, nor progress has an end goal in mind. But it`s the journey that counts (and it`s fun to understand, to blow things up, and to have others admire what you do). And that`s why Ridley`s book, “The Rational Optimist” has got me excited about classes (which start on September 7th!) and about rejoining the MIT community in its relentless pursuit of the future. I`ll be sure to make time to slow down, but being creative and solving cool worldly problems is just too good to hike around.


*It`s worth taking a moment here to state that while I moved in the direction of self sufficiency during my hike, I didn`t even come close to reaching it. I stopped at supermarkets to resupply with various foods (most flown or driven hundreds, even thousands of miles to supply my needs), I relied on strangers to pick me up and give me rides, the vast majority of my (technologically advanced) equipment was made by global companies. If I was seriously injured or fell ill I likely could have made it to a hospital ER in a matter of hours and had amazing care.

**Short anecdote– One day, I attended a7.012 lecture where Dr. Lander was speaking on the subject of gene regulation (similar to this opencourseware lecture). Dr. Lander was talking about sequencing genomes. We all knew he was quite influential in the HGP (human genome project), but at one point he paused, looked up at us with a slight smile and said, “And I suspect, gentlemen, that the horse genome will be sequenced quite soon.” That`s because after this lecture, he would retreat to the Broad Institute (part of MIT) and work on sequencing the horse genome. Published a few weeks later. What a baller.

5 responses to “Reading, Thinking and Igniting Innovation”

  1. sindy says:

    Dear Sir :I am a high school student from China,i wan to apply for MIT 2012 fall, now i start prepare my application documents . but i come across a problom that i can’t find the topic of Essay. So can you help me , where can i find it ?

  2. Joe says:

    Oooooo taking a cheap shot at Harvard…..

  3. debatraya says:

    Dr. Lander is truly amazing..

  4. Sammy '15 says:

    Inspiring. Thank you for reminding me why I’m so excited and blessed to attend the Institvte, even if it means endless hours of psetting and more difficult work than I’ve ever faced in my life

  5. Yoni Miller says:

    I could not have explicated better this seeming paradox, between complex and simple… thank you very much for this wonderful piece!!