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MIT student blogger Chris M. '12

Tale of the Midnight Tool! by Chris M. '12

Simulcast in 1337 for our viewers at home!

As some of you may have noticed, the world didn’t end on Wednesday like I thought it would (for the rest of you, look outside, yup it’s still there). Which means my nights spent shirking responsibility and being annoying to those around me under the guise of it having no repercussions turned out to bite me in the proverbial butt. Thus is the beginning for the tale of the midnight tool:

Having taken BC Calc AP in high school, (though not getting credit for it like I should’ve…) I figured 18.01 would be a walk in the park, I took one look at the p-set and saw that it had only like, 10 questions and blew it off all week. Now I’m claiming that part of this is the LHC’s fault for not destroying the world, but come Thursday night I didn’t feel comfortable betting on it (or betting against it really…..kind of a lose lose…) so I sat down and started the pset at 9:30p.m. What follows, friends is what is known as a rude awakening.

18.01 is much harder than BC Calc. Much much harder in fact. But what makes it so hard? it’s just maths right? Sort of.

Here at MIT, rather than work on your ability to recognize problems you already know (which, admit it, is what most high school homework is), the problems are concerned with teaching you how to think, making you understand the material presented. A handy example actually comes from my pset:

A) What I was expecting:
Chris, what is the derivative of x^2? How about x^3 + 2? Be clever! Pat yourself on the back if you got it right! You’re so smart! That girl you have a crush on thinks your ability to derive is sexy, go ahead, ask her out, she’ll say yes! Whoa hey, is that $20 lying on the floor?

B) Reality:
Calculate the (p+q)th derivative of y=x^p(x-1)^q (or something like that) using Leibniz rule. Btw, she’ll never go out with you.


First off, in my entire course of BC Calc, never did I ever see Leibniz rule, and I’m positive it was never mentioned in lecture.

His rules for calculus are much more effective than his rules for picking up women

Doodling away at a billion different ways to solve it, I finally stumbled upon something key (that’s the “infinite monkeys, infinite typewriters” approach). Without getting way too mathy, the pth derivative of x^p is p!, thus, the p+q derivative is 0, because at p it’s a constant! That one idea let me clear out huge swaths of terms like some strange hybrid of Stephen Hawking and Rambo (note to self: that would be an awesome movie). I was probably a little too excited to finally figure it out, but that’s the point. I didn’t explicitly know how to solve it.
I figured it out.

MIT taught me how to think.

Unfortunately that was but 1 problem in the whole set, hence why at 6:30 a.m. this is what my work area looked like:

From for blog

I finished at about 7:00 a.m. which is an unpleasant feeling. I did learn some MIT vernacular though (there’s so much slang here that it could be considered it’s own language, like Klingon. Also like Klingon, it does not impress women.)

Tool- 1. v. To work tirelessly on p-sets or other tedious things.
2. n. One who works tirelessly on p-sets or other tedious things.

In summation, this place is hard, really hard. No matter how smart you think you are, it’s probably going to be different than you imagine until you finally get here. But it’s a good different, there’s a sense of achievement and fulfillment in figuring out a hard problem, and working hard is only one aspect of the popular mantra on balance here: “Work hard, play hard”.

41 responses to “Tale of the Midnight Tool!”

  1. Shannon says:

    Gee, that table looks awfully familiar.

  2. hithink says:

    Whoa…I’ve never been FIRST!

  3. hithink says:

    Damn, thought I was. Anyway, great blog.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Nice post. I feel silly working on delta-epsilon proofs while your are doing EPIC PSETS.

    P.S. You are so lucky you’re not in southern Texas right now.

  5. Yan Z. says:

    Yeah, I think you summed up most of my first week too.

    Excellent post, Chris! You deserve a Leibniz cookie:

  6. Chris '12 says:


    I know, my family has sent me pictures of our house and neighborhood. yeesh.

  7. Totally random, but do you know when CPW is?

  8. Cruft says:

    Hartley Rogers used to give out Leibniz cookies and Fig Newtons to the top students in 18.022

  9. anonymous says:


    CPW 2009 is April 16 – 19. You can find the dates to most anything on the academic calendar link on the opening website. If you are accepted, CPW is not to be missed!!!!

  10. Another 2012 says:

    Totally agree on the making you think part!
    Each problem is different on the pset… different as in REALLY different. Each of them sorta challenges us to see if we understood everything in class and know how to apply them in many man different ways.
    They aren’t going to waste their time making us do like nearly identical problems…
    But I am loving it, so far!

    Every day is so different and exciting!

  11. Chris '12 says:

    @ anon

    Good point!
    For those who aren’t aware, 18.01A is an accelerated course meant for those who have some calc background, and it would’ve been better to take that. I was unable to take the exam which placed me into the class, thus i’m in 18.01. Plus 18.01A goes on through IAP, and I don’t know that I want to do it through IAP. I’m currently studying 18.02 on my own, and plan to place out with the exam in January so I’ll do 18.03 next sememster.

  12. Anonymous says:

    What do you know about 18.022? Some say it’s the most challenging of all the available physics courses.

  13. Anonymous says:


    Well, 18.022 is actually an advanced Multi-variable Calculus class, but if you meant 8.022, that’s an advanced E&M class.

    8.012 has a reputation as being known as “physics for masochists”, and 8.022 is essentially the follow-up. I imagine it’s challenging if you’re not good with numbers or calculus, or if you really don’t like E&M. A ton of people sign up for 8.012 and then drop it, whereas I think most people learn their lesson and don’t sign up for 8.022, which is why it’s probably not as infamous.

    In short, if you meant 8.022, I would agree that it’s probably one of the more challenging undergraduate physics courses available.

  14. Anonymous says:

    so.. (this has nothing to do with this post) do you know what the MIT fight song is? my science teacher said it once, but it was complicated..
    sounded really cool/nerdy though (err.. how oxymoronic)

  15. Shannon says:

    @Anonymous asking about 18.022- The other anonymous is right in that 18.022 is actually just 18.02 on a nearly lethal dose of steroids. I was in the class for a week before deciding 18.02 was more appropriate for my mathematical background. If you have experience in a) lots of pure math or b) the equivalent of 18.02 but want to take it in a harder setting, it’s a good class. If not… 18.02 is still plenty challenging.

  16. Chris '12 says:

    whoops, shannon pointed out I left my name off of my response. That anonymous reply about 18.022 is mine.

    @anon about fight song

    Yes! I both know and love the MIT fight song, though to confess I know several “fight” songs about MIT, but I don’t know which one is official. My favorite though is called “We Are the Engineers”, though this one is funny too:

    I’m a beaver, you’re a beaver, we are beavers all
    When we get together, we do the beaver call
    Cosine Secant Tangent Sine
    3.14159 (say “point” when sounding it out)
    Integral Radical u/dv
    Slapstick Sliderule MIT!

  17. Anonymous says:

    Pass/no record frosh.

  18. '11 says:

    Last year’s 18.022 professor made the class worth the extra trouble. And that comes from someone who actually -dislikes- math (and isn’t good at it, either).

  19. Banerjee says:

    Nice post, by the way.

  20. Barack Obama says:


  21. sidd'13? says:

    Hey! i m dying to be out dere… the atmosphere of feeling challenged actually fascinates me a looooooo…t(actually the fascination is also for MIT)….

  22. Sindu'13 says:

    That was a really enjoyable post!!
    Keep it up.
    And good luck on upcoming p-sets.

  23. Anonymous says:

    @ Chris
    You forgot the part of the song that comes after “we do the beaver call” and changed a “mu” to a “u.” It goes:

    I’m a beaver, you’re a beaver, we are beavers all
    And when we get together, we do the beaver call
    e^u du/dx, e^x dx
    Cosine Secant Tangent Sine
    Integral Radical mu, dv
    Slapstick Sliderule MIT!
    Go TECH!!!!

    Let’s just say I did FLP and we were pretty much obsessed with the beaver call and did it between 6-8 times daily during the program.

  24. Mgccl says:

    Oh, I see math…
    so 18.01 is hard compare to AP calc BC.
    that’s what I’m expecting smile

  25. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure the girl you have a crush on does not find your inability to use the correct ‘your’ sexy.

  26. Chris '12 says:


    Whoops, guess I missed one! Thanks for pointing that out, it’s been corrected.

  27. Anonymous says:

    hahaha the beaver call?? how corny…
    this is still my top choice though :-D

  28. deng says:

    wow I’m a hs senior right now.. and I’m only taking calc AB…. do you think that’ll hurt my chances of getting in to mit?

  29. anon says:

    If you dont mind my asking, why did you enroll in 18.01 when you had completed AP Calc BC? At minimum, wouldnt you be better off in 18.01A?

  30. Danielle says:

    Hrm… I hope AP Calc my senior year will help prepare me for THAT. I must NOT procrastinate. Foundations of Calc is this year… And Physics and AP Java. Never procrastinate. You leanr that if you take college courses every year starting in high school.

  31. Lainers says:

    If I had seen the example in this post a year ago, I’m not sure I would have applied…I mean, 18.01 is pretty much as “easy” as you can start in calculus at MIT, and that looks and seems impossible…and I never had BC!

    But I did apply, and I’m here, and I’m in 18.01A, and the psets are really, really, hard for me. Harder than any other subject. But there seem to be quite a few other people who are having just as hard a time as I am, which was very nice to discover – misery does love company.

    I guess I’m just saying to the prospectives: don’t let this stuff scare you too much. Just a little.

  32. deng says:

    mm… on average, how many times a week do you not sleep…?? haha
    because I’ve only pulled an all nighter once in my life.. and that was watching an asian drama over the summer >.mm… on average, how many times a week do you not sleep…?? haha
    because I’ve only pulled an all nighter once in my life.. and that was watching an asian drama over the summer >.<

  33. Mikey says:

    Hahahaha…I lol’d at least 3 times while reading this – you’re such a funny writer. So sorry about your tooling experiences – don’t worry, they get better (at least if you decide to switch to bio, haha)! Optional problem sets and open-book/open-note exams, anyone?

    Regardless, as one of the Anonymous’s mentioned, the most important math equation of freshman fall term is:
    A = B = C = P

    Don’t forget it.

    P.S. Your insight on the differences between doing homework at MIT vs in high school is one of the best I’ve ever read. Been trying to figure out the most precise way to describe it for a while. I especially like your analogies on your other blog about “knowledge vs understanding” and drawing horses. It all makes sense now…

  34. Chris '12 says:

    It entirely depends on work ethic (or lack of). I wouldn’t say that “not sleeping” is a common occurence, but I generally average about 5 or 6 hours a night, which is less than I used to sleep. But I recognize that’s just because I spend a lot of time doing things other than psets, I know people who do their homework and get 8-10 every night. The bottom line is, if you’re against staying up all night, you probably won’t have TOO many occasions where you have to, and even then, it’s not that bad.

  35. Liz says:

    Chris ’12 you rock!!
    I especially enjoyed the link to the ‘Look Around’ vid and the astute summary of what you were expecting prior to working on your incredibly fun pset. smile

  36. Vicky '12 says:

    THAT’S MY CUP!!!!!

  37. Anonymous says:

    Oh man, that maths video was epically. . .terrible, haha. LOL. Terrible in a good way.

    Oh man, are psets really as scary as I’m imagining they are?

  38. Chris '12 says:


    they are and they aren’t. The first one will probably freak you out a little, but you’ll get it quick and it becomes just like regular homework. That’s not to say though that there won’t be rogue problems or days where you truly hate them, but as a whole they aren’t life threatening or anything.

  39. deng says:

    @ chris ’12

    awesome. because the only person I know who goes there says there’s at least one night per week when he doesn’t sleep.. that was a bit O_Oish

  40. April '12 says:

    I did the same thing.
    You know, I didn’t really believe that no one sleeps at MIT, until the first psets of the term were due.
    Picture: nine macs, about twelve psets, three orders of takeout food, and ten students tooling away in one 15’x25′ lounge at four in the morning.

    pure awesome