Accompanied by a pair of "men in black" as well as images and music from the movie 2001, President Charles M. Vest welcomed the new students to MIT, while Nobel laureate Professor Samuel C.C. Ting explained how a few basic personal principles can lead to great success.
"Welcome to the dawning of a new age -- and to Cambridge, Massachusetts," Dr. Vest began at the Presidents' Convocation in Kresge Auditorium last Thursday as an outer-space sequence from 2001 played on the screen behind him. His welcome opened with other elements of performance art, including an appearance by MIT's beaver-suited mascot, two students dressed in dark suits and sunglasses like characters from the movie Men in Black escorting President Vest onstage, and a brief skit spoofing Harvard students.
In his speech, Dr. Vest echoed a bit of advice by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, author of a column incorrectly believed by some to be penned by Kurt Vonnegut as MIT's 1997 Commencement address. "Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth," Dr. Vest said.
"I would add the further exhortation that you also enjoy the youthful power and beauty of your minds. You are about to set forth on an extraordinary adventure. The first part of that adventure will be to acquire all the tools and skills provided by an MIT education. The next will be to take those tools with you into the world of a new millennium and make a better future not only for yourselves but for your planet."
Dr. Vest acknowledged that "there will be times when you wonder whether you made the right choice in coming to MIT: whether you can juggle all the activities in your schedule, whether you can handle one more problem set, or whether you will every sleep again! Let me assure you that you can and you will. We know that we have made the right choice in you. Each and every one of you is a member of the MIT Class of 2001 because we know that you have the intellectual capacity, the energy, the imagination and the personal will to succeed here."
Dr. Vest told freshmen what to expect at MIT: hard work, thinking about "big" subjects and basic research questions, and devotion to learning in all its forms. "You have already made this commitment to learning, or you wouldn't be here. As MIT students, and as graduates, you must renew it every day for the rest of your lives," he said.
He also urged the new students to seek help from each other as well as faculty and research staff. Faculty members often cite the students -- "bright, interesting, creative, challenging and fun to work with" -- as the reason for being at MIT, he said.
Like the upperclassmen, the freshmen are also a diverse group, he added. The class hails from 49 states and 41 foreign countries; 38 percent are women, "and you come from an extraordinary array of ethnic, racial, economic, cultural and religious backgroundsï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ You have a remarkable opportunity to get to know -- and learn with -- others whose experience and outlook are very different from your own. If you seize this opportunity, you will be much better prepared to help build the national and world communities of the next century."
ADVICE FROM TING
Professor Ting, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Physics and a 1976 Nobel laureate, offered the new students an idea of the kind of ground-breaking research performed at MIT as well as a few simple guidelines to follow. In 1964, a group of eminent scientists did an experiment showing that the electron has a small but measurable mass. Professor Ting replicated the experiment and showed that actually, in accordance with earlier theories, the electron has no mass. The lesson? "Do not always follow the opinion of experts."
Professor Ting also summarized his discovery of a new family of quarks despite much initial resistance to the experiment ("Always keep faith in yourself and do what you think is right"), his discovery of gluons ("Be prepared for surprises") and his current work in searching for an anti-matter universe with a magnetic detector aboard the planned International Space Station. "Be curious, enjoy what you're doing and work hard to achieve your goal," he said.
Rosalind Williams, dean of students and undergraduate education, and Dedric Carter, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science and president of the Undergraduate Association, also offered some words of advice and encouragement. In an allusion to the oft-quoted observation that obtaining an MIT education is like trying to drink from a fire hose, Mr. Cater said that as a freshman, "I braced myself as the firehose began to spew out water, and I'm still hereï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ MIT is a fountain of possibilities. I urge you to drink heartily from it and catch the excess in your hands."
Kip Hodges, dean for undergraduate curriculum, rounded out the Convocation with a multi-media introduction to MIT traditions and contributions, some observations about the power of the Web and other information technology, as well as some demonstrations and questions for his audience. He invited the freshmen to refute the thesis of John Horgan's The End of Science by writing a 10-page essay on what they think will be the nature of science in the new millennium. The five best essays will win $500. Quoting William Butler Yeates, Dean Hodges said, "'Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire' -- and I am personally a first-rate pyromaniac."
OTHER R/O ACTIVITIES
As a change of pace from the many campus tours, tests and introductions during the rest of R/O (Residence/Orientation), freshmen can interact with students even younger than themselves on Friday, Aug. 29 during CityDays, the sixth annual festival that brings together MIT students and 450 local children in grades 3-6. Activities on campus will include arts and crafts (origami, kite-making and Rice Krispies sculpturing), sports, and science activities such as a tour of the Media Lab and the Edgerton Center. Cambridge Mayor Sheila Russell and President Vest will make opening remarks.
CityDays serves as a springboard for many community service events sponsored by the MIT Public Service Center throughout the year. Many of the MIT volunteers also participate in the LINKS program, in which they work alongside science teachers with elementary school youngsters.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 27, 1997.