Math-Minded MIT Pupils Speak
A Secret Language of
By JOHN HECHINGER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- With its towering Ionic columns and giant
dome, the Richard Cockburn Maclaurin building is the centerpiece of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But ask an MIT student to
direct you to Maclaurin, and you are apt to draw a blank stare.
That's because the edifice, which honors the school's sixth
president, is known around here as "Building 10."
That may sound more like a prison block than a college landmark.
But at MIT, just about everything
is known by a number. Students attend lectures in Building 2,
congregate and chatter in the Lobby 7 entrance hall, and pray at
W15, the university chapel.
To the average campus visitor, who may have trouble remembering
an ATM password, MIT's numbering system can seem confusing -- or
just plain weird. But the university, famed for its engineers,
mathematicians and scientists, seems to have a cardinal rule: never
use a word when a number will do.
This fixation with figures applies to classes, departments and
majors as well as to lecture halls and laboratories. With some
self-mockery, it even creeps into music and sports: The university's
male a cappella group calls itself the Logarhythms. And then there's
the MIT "tech cheer," which
features this stirring refrain:
Cosine! Secant! Tangent!
"MIT is all about
hyperefficiency," says Matthew Cutler, a 1995 graduate and
co-founder of NetGenesis Corp., an Internet software company. "It's
about conveying massive amounts of information in minimum time."
The practice of identifying buildings by numbers dates from the
construction of the Cambridge campus, which opened in 1916.
Engineers used numerals for the original half-dozen buildings,
expecting the university to name them later, which it did in most
cases. But the numbers stuck.
As the campus spread along the banks of the Charles River, the
layout took on a kind of internal, if fuzzy, logic. Building 10
forms the university's heart, with odd-numbered buildings to the
west, even-numbered to the east. But exceptions multiplied as the
campus grew. Numbers aren't always sequential. Some are missing. If
a building is demolished, its number is retired, like a star
"Infinitely frustrating," complains Peter Rogers, a Harvard
professor of environmental engineering and city planning. He
remembers getting tripped up on a visit because Building 16 abuts
A few MIT staffers share his
confusion. "People say, 'Meet me at E23,' and I have no idea what
they're talking about," says Patti Richards, communications director
for the MIT Laboratory for
Computer Science. "For anyone like me who hated math, it's a
The name David H. Koch graces the entrance of a sleek, modern
biology building on campus. Mr. Koch, whose family controls closely
held energy concern Koch Industries of Wichita, Kan., pledged $25
million to MIT last year for
cancer research. But students invariably call the biology center
Mr. Koch would prefer to hear more surnames on campus, including
his own. "Proper names are warmer and nicer than numbers," he says.
"I sure feel that way."
So does Barbara Stowe, an MIT
fund-raiser. People in her field have traditionally traded naming
rights for big donations. Ms. Stowe says the numbering custom hasn't
hurt MIT's fund-raising. But she is gently trying to change the
culture, so far with only limited success.
Some buildings do have handles that transcend their numbers: The
Kresge auditorium, named after the prominent retailing family, is
actually known by that title. "We want to celebrate members of the
community who have been generous to MIT," Ms. Stowe says.
But it's a hard sell, especially given that MIT geek-speak has some philosophical
roots. Diana Dorinson, a 1996 graduate, says MIT students don't like to glorify
individuals -- unless they happen to discover an immutable law of
the universe. Figures with less stature than a Newton or an Einstein
don't cut it.
The Argot for Gates
Ms. Dorinson, an airport consultant in San Francisco, doesn't
think much of plans for a William H. Gates Building, the future home
of MIT's computer-science laboratory. Last year, MIT received $20 million from the
foundation set up by the Microsoft Corp. chairman. The building, now under
construction, is on the site of now-demolished Building 20, a
makeshift structure where scientists helped refine radar during
World War II.
Students and alumni are "never going to call it the Bill Gates
Building," Ms. Dorinson predicts. In MIT's argot, it will likely be
known as the computer lab in Building 32, a multistructure complex.
A spokesman for Mr. Gates says the software mogul doesn't mind.
In a cavernous gym at freshman orientation late last month,
scores of students milled around tables, advertising possible
majors. At one, a dozen red balloons festoon the chairs. They are
emblazoned with "Course 22" in bold white letters -- MIT vernacular for the Nuclear Engineering
"I'm taking 8.04 and 8.07," Victoria Anderson, a junior from
Detroit, tells a friend near the table, referring to Quantum Physics
I and Electromagnetism II.
"It's like a secret language," Ms. Anderson says later.
"Sometimes, I slip into it with my parents. And they'll say, 'Stop.
Please. In English.' "
'I'm 6 and 18'
At lunchtime, two dozen freshmen sit in a circle on a lawn
outside, eating pizza, hot dogs and watermelon. "I'm Sebastian, and
I'm course 7 and 15," says Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, from Columbia,
Md. Translation: He plans to major in biology and management.
"I'm Akshay, and I'm 6 and 18," says Akshay Patil, of Palos
Verdes Estates, Calif. That's computer science and math.
On the first day of classes, James Hardison flips open his Palm
Pilot, where his schedule takes up only three lines:
"9:30: 6.046 (2-190)
12:00: 21F.703 (16-628)
As would be crystal-clear to fellow students, the junior from
Upper Marlboro, Md., can look forward to Introduction to Algorithms
at 9:30 a.m. in Building 2, room 190; Spanish 3 at noon in Building
16, room 628; and Computability Theory at 1 p.m. in Building 38,
Alumni tend to keep with the program. Hugo Barra used to love
arguing about technology at his favorite MIT building. So when he and four other
MIT graduates founded a consulting
firm for the wireless industry, only one name seemed right: Lobby7
Inc. Who cares if the title means nothing to the general public?
"It's mysterious, enigmatic, just cool," says Mr. Barra.
Edward Crawley, head of MIT's Aeronautics and Astronautics
Department -- better known as Course 16 -- gave a talk last spring
to about 50 alumni in Washington. He broached what would be a touchy
subject at most universities: Changing the name of the department to
something more au courant, such as Aerospace Systems.
"Call the department anything you want," one graduate responded.
"But don't change the number."
Write to John Hechinger at firstname.lastname@example.org