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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Relativity Special (and vice versa) by Yan Z. '12

I took a test today that relied on practically everything I have ever learned from Sesame Street, which is mostly just one thing.

Today, I felt: angry and heartbroken.

Because: the first question on my Special Relativity test required me to add (and subtract!) numbers with 5 significant figures, and the professor did not manage to include a free copy of Matlab on the formula sheet. No kidding. I opened the test book, glanced at the first page, and felt my face melt into a puddle of inconsolable horror at the sight of more Arabic numerals than I’ve seen since the SAT II’s, which was like 29483 years ago. Unable to bear it any longer, I turned the page, and went on, shuddering in a rising tide of despair. With the precious rind of spare time remaining after I finished the next three problems, I took out my extra pen and whittled an abacus out of the armrest of my chair, with which I hoped to compute the difference between .02932 and .39328.

A wise person once said that arithmetic is like arthritis: it cripples your dreams and contains the letters a, r, t, h, and two i’s*. Or is it three? I can’t add, remember?

*Cross-curriculum insight of the day: Homophones are the limit of consonance as consonance approaches infinity. Someday, I plan to teach a literature class that has a math prerequisite.

It wasn’t until 6:30 pm that I discovered that I had scored 40 points higher on the exam than predicted. (Or was it 50? I can’t subtract either.) I’m like the Dow Jones of test grades these days. Also, I’d like to thank the proud sponsors of Sesame Street for their generous contribution to my math education. Never will I forget that seven always comes after Big Bird.

Additional thanks goes to the Physics department library and the irreproachable views of Killian Court glowingly spread outside each window, watching over the study desks like guardians of sanity. Waves and vibrations, sunsets refracting through Windex’ed glass panes, provided the counterpoint to a dry, overbaked textbook with too many pictures. By pictures, I mean “diagrams.” By “diagram,” I mean “a sine wave with an arrow pointing at it.”

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It’s now 1:46 AM, and I’ve exceeded bedtime by a couple of hours. To first order, I’m sleeping as I type this. (Definition of MIT, #129: The ability to Taylor expand your states of consciousness around an equilibrium point, usually to convince yourself that you’ve slept recently.)

18 responses to “Relativity Special (and vice versa)”

  1. Yan says:

    @ First / Second:

    I might not be able to add, but I can count ordinals. Just sayin’.

  2. Sean says:

    Somewhat related:

    Can you take a course in how to use an abacus at MIT?

  3. Alireza'14 says:


  4. JF('14?) says:

    First! andd I’m definitely relating to definition #129.

  5. JF('14?) says:

    ok second…(this computer sucks)

  6. That doesn’t seem so bad to me. It’s worse than that at my high school!
    It would actually be pretty cool to be able to Taylor expand my states of consciousness…

  7. Anon says:

    Wow! 40 pts more . . . What was your final score?

  8. Yan says:

    @ Sean:

    Not that I know of! You could start one during IAP though.

    @ Anon:

    It was a 97, which is impressive until you realize that the median grade was a 93. Apparently lots of people can add.

  9. Nate ('14?) says:

    Enjoyed reading the post! smile
    Yeah first thing I’m gonna do when I hit college is try Taylor expanding my state of consciousness.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Lol, I have to say Taylor expansion, multipole expansion, ($insert name$) expansion is the most common theme I have about physics at MIT so far…

    One of the 1st problems in 8.022 was like: Compute the Taylor expansion of a dipole field in cartesian coordinate; ended up taking more than a page of work. I quickly learnt instead to write: “According to mathematica…”

  11. sepideh says:

    this is not fair, I’m a freshman but I’m studying exact the same things…in the same order. yet I’m not even at MIT…

  12. tree says:

    And Taylor expanding one’s state of consciousness should be an evolutionary skill for future human beings:)

  13. Yan says:

    @ Anon:

    You’re now the second 8.022’er who’s complained to me about that problem. I think this deserves a “Dang, that’s rough.” Dang. That’s rough.

    I sort of like living on a dipole though.

  14. I stop at the first couple of terms nowadays because the higher-order terms don’t matter anymore. They shrink to infinitesimal magnitudes relative to what people care about.

  15. NathanArce says:


    Using an abacus is ridiculously uncomplicated, and people who know how could teach a class like that in a maximum of seventeen minutes. Even having it exist as an IAP class would be somewhat…. I mean, the class would quickly degenerate into a more lame spinoff of a “who can solve a Rubik’s cube the fastest” competition =.=”

  16. Ding says:

    Hi~ swallow,I’m a chinese
    That day I was leaning MIT opencourse and murmuring…MIT…
    May I Try?
    So I decide to apply for MIT
    Can you help me with a few puzzles?
    My station: I have graduated from high school for a year and haven’t attended any university(China’s University disappoint me)
    As SAT2 is not available in china’s mainland,I want to mail all the MIT opencourse assignments I have done instead SAT is that reasonable?

  17. zohair says:

    well miss Yan Z ,

    i m a bit worse than you . i get into semiconscious state on realizing that i have do the arithematic stuff .. well a number of times i have left quite a lot numericals because of boredom and “arithmophobia ” …..:D