Strength in Numbers

“I have 18. 02 due at 4:00 P. M. on 11/14/00 in 16-135. Then I have to go to 8. 01 in 26-100 at 5:00 P. M. and get at least a 65 on Exam 3. Do you remember the Athena cluster combination? Oh, yeah, it’s 43169*. ” To an average person, this jargon sounds like a computer code or a series of misunderstandings. However, every MIT student has probably said and heard something like this to describe his or her schedule in a small part of the day. Numbers are the language at MIT, and they specify all sorts of places, classes, work, time, and even the students themselves.

This powerful yet simple system of communication has completely engulfed this school and made organization much easier because of the clarity of numbers and the obscurity of language. Even before I considered applying to MIT, I thought of this school as a center of mathematics and science. Of course the name suggests this fact, but not until I visited the campus during the summer before my senior year of high school did I realize the truth of that statement. My visit began with directions to “Lobby 7” where I would meet with a tour guide.

Coming from a high school where all the buildings were named and clearly labeled outside, I expected a giant number seven on the front edifice of a building to designate it from the others, but I had no such luck. Instead, I scanned the map of the campus several times before finding Building 7 on Massachusetts Avenue. I did not find this designation for the building anywhere outside until I went in and saw one of the doors inside surrounding the massive lobby. When my tour began, the guide led us through a myriad of identical halls and corridors until we finally went outside.

She began to describe the numbering system across campus and explained that many of the buildings we walked through were distinguished on the outside only by numbers on the doors, which I had not understood quite yet. Then she listed some of the required freshman courses including multiple semesters of Calculus and the three main natural sciences. Following the tour was an information session for prospective students and their parents to ask questions about the admissions process.

I had visited several colleges before MIT and went to their information sessions following the tours, but none of them could compare to the description I heard that day. A man, possibly a senior or graduate student whom I had not seen on the tour, came into the room, picked up a piece of chalk, and began to describe the different criteria necessary to gain admission at MIT. He first discussed SAT scores and the many possible permutations of scores that would be competitive in the application pool and then derived a formula for the total necessary score.

Next, he talked in depth about academic grades from subjects in high school and gave several examples of grade reports that would be attractive to the admissions board and would complement the previously described SAT scores. At this point, I had taken several notes on the rough numbers I would need to gain admission at MIT, and then the man discussed how extracurricular activities would affect a student’s chances of admission.

I thought this topic was more concrete and could not involve numbers, but he drew a graph with axes labeled “Academics” and “Extracurriculars,” subdivided the graph region into equal sections, and described a student’s chances of admission based upon placement on the graph. One of the parents in the audience asked what many, including myself, were thinking: “Is this a joke? ” The man shook his head and went on with his explanation. Everything is numbered at MIT, and that is not an understatement.

The map I used to get around campus before and after my tour was sprinkled with numbers on each building, many of which were connected in long, uniform hallways. I now realize that the numbers I saw on one of the doors in Lobby 7 described the building, floor, and room number respectively and were similar in buildings all over campus. During orientation, someone asked me what I intended to major in, and I replied, “Civil or Chemical Engineering. ” He gave me strange look as if that was not the response he had expected, so I returned the question.

He said he would major in “Courses 6 and 18,” and I nodded to hide my confusion. I had not learned that majors and courses of study at MIT are also numbered according to their chronological development. I soon learned that I was deciding between Courses 1 and 10, although the numbers themselves meant nothing to me. Each class within an area of study is also numbered according to its progression in the desired major. For example, 8. 01 is the first class taken by freshman in the physics department, Course 8, and later classes have higher numbers after the decimal point, such as 8. 02, 8. 03, etc.

It should not be a surprise that the students themselves are numbered even before they arrive on campus. When I decided to enroll at MIT, the first packet of information I received contained my identification number and told me not to lose it or tell it to anyone. Each enrolled student receives a nine-digit identification number to gain access to some buildings and his or her own personal MIT information. Basically, these numbers are the data needed for computers to compile student records and distinguish students from each other. Now, having studied at MIT for a few months, I have been programmed to think and talk in this numeric language.

I no longer refer to my courses by subject matter, and I seek out classrooms according to building and floor numbers. Maybe some day I will even stop remembering people’s names and just refer to them by the last four digits of their identification numbers! On a serious note, I honestly think that this system is more efficient and makes organization easier because words can be confusing. At my high school, I had several classes in buildings named after alumni, but some of the names, such as “Wallace,” “Davis,” and “Ball,” sounded similar and confused me when I was a freshman trying to find the right rooms for my classes.

The rooms were also not explicitly numbered, and I spent a lot of time looking for them on the wrong floors. The names of many courses, especially in science, do not distinctly designate one course from another; for example, biochemistry could be classified in two categories depending on what material is concentrated on, but at MIT, such a course would be numbered in the Chemistry (5) or Biology (7) department. Names can also be confusing when they are long and contain silent letters and when they are translated into another language.

People can often misconceive the usefulness of numbers in lieu of words. While at first numbers look confusing in long combinations because the digits are so similar, they are quite simple and easy to understand and recognize since they do not carry different pronunciations and meanings. Words, on the other hand, are commonplace in everyday life because we speak them naturally without breaking down each letter, but many words can deceive people by the difference between their appearance and meaning.

For example, two words that look and sound alike, such as “there” and “their,” have different meanings and are used entirely differently in sentences. The words “be” and “exist” look and sound almost nothing alike but share the exact same meaning. Verbal language has shortcomings all over the world, and mathematical numbers could be the way to correct many misunderstandings. In a diverse cultural setting such as MIT, people of the community speak many different languages and often have difficulty communicating through a common yet foreign language such as English.

Perhaps the advent of numbers can bridge some of the gaps that have been created by cultural diversity. Computers, crucial to the development of technology at MIT, read programs in binary and other number-based systems rather than a written language specific to a certain culture or group of people. Mathematics is also somewhat easier to teach students than foreign languages because of the use of concrete numbers rather than a specific vocabulary of words with new sounds and meanings.

As its name would suggest, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology embraces science and mathematics for their fundamental importance in the students’ education. Numbers play an especially large role at this institute, since many facets of organization and information such as majors and rooms follow a numerical system. The diversity of culture between different student groups can cause miscommunications and misunderstandings, but the use of numbers at MIT provides a clear method of organization that everyone can comprehend and use to his or her advantage.


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