MIT and the Importance of Innovation

An objective of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to advance the fields of engineering, mathematics, the physical sciences, and computing through innovation and invention. MIT researchers have recently added a less than sublime achievement to the Institution’s many accomplishments. Before his death, the renowned physicist Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics, sought help in determining why dry spaghetti noodles don’t snap in two pieces and instead break into several fragments. Feynman facetiously asked that this vexing phenomenon be researched and explained.

In July, two mathematicians at MIT proved that it’s possible to overcome the “snap-back effect” and break the noodles into only two pieces. Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil created an apparatus that bends and twists the dry noodles with exactly the right amount of force and torque to break them cleanly into two pieces.

Can the people of MIT do any better than this, you ask? Certainly — and to prove it they hold91 Nobel laureates, have 25 Turing Award winners and boast 8 Fields medalists affiliated with the school as alumni, faculty, or researchers. In addition, MIT has had 52 National Medal of Science recipients, 65 Marshall Scholars, 45 Rhodes Scholars,38 MacArthur Fellows, 34 astronauts and 16 Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force. As an outcome of MIT’sfostering of innovation and invention, the Institute has given rise to a strong entrepreneurial spirit. The aggregated revenue of companies founded by MIT alumni is$1.9 trillion per year.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded in 1861 to reflect the German research university model, emphasizing an independent faculty engaged in research, as well as instruction oriented around seminars and laboratories. Initially located in Boston’s Back Bay, the Institute was relocated to a larger neoclassical campus in Cambridge in 1916. George Eastman, the industrialist who invented methods of film processing and founded Eastman Kodak Corporation, provided the funding for the move across the Charles.

One would never mistake MIT for a glorified vocational school with all of a student’s classes in their STEM major. All undergraduates must complete a core curriculum called the General Institute Requirements. The Science Requirement, completed during freshman year as a prerequisite for more advanced classes in science and engineering, comprises two semesters of physics, two semesters of calculus, one semester of chemistry, and one semester of biology. An appropriate low-level class in the student’s major usually satisfies the Laboratory Requirement. The Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Requirement consists of eight semesters of classes in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, including at least one semester in each department. Under the Communication Requirement, four classes must include “substantial instruction and practice in oral presentation”. Students are even required to take two semesters of physical education(unless they’re varsity athletes) and pass a swimming test.

In recent years, MIT’s commitment to innovation has been channeled through a formal structure —the MIT Innovation Initiative. This Initiative involves the collaboration of all five of MIT’s schools (Engineering, Science, Architecture, Management, and Humanities). Its purpose is to enhance the culture and programming of innovation and entrepreneurship. This reflects the administration’s desire to mesh all of the widely varied disciplines in the undergraduate universe. The Institute strives to equip the MIT community with all of the tools needed to transform ideas into reality.

The MIT Innovation Initiative oversees the interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship and Innovation Minor. According to the catalog, “This minor is designed to prepare MIT undergraduates to serve as leaders in the innovation economy with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to develop, scale, and deliver breakthrough solutions to real-world problems.” In addition, the Initiative coordinates efforts to improve MIT’s ability to provide students with hands-on opportunities to learn about making, prototyping, and manufacturing products.

At the root of capitalism are advances in basic science and the production-increasing inventions that arise from them. Many of the contributions of MIT to the common good of society and the economy have come about as a result of the centrality of innovation to the school’s core mission. Below is a list of what one observer, Gregory Gomer, considers the top 10 MIT inventions that “Changed the World”.

  1. Campbell’s Soup – John Dorrance, 1895
  2. Global Positioning System (GPS) – Ivan Getting, 1933
  3. Spacewar (first computer game) – Steve Russell, 1960
  4. Doppler Radar – Bernard Gordon, 1948
  5. World Wide Web – Tim Berners-Lee, 1994
  6. Microprocessor Spreadsheets (VisiCalc) – Daniel Bricklin, 1973
  7. Disposable-blade safety razors – William Nickerson, 1876
  8. Fax machine – Shintaro Asano, 1961
  9. Voice recognition technology – Ray Kurzweil, 1970
  10. Credit card holograms – Stephen Benton, 1963

A few additional technologies that the people of MIT have introduced include Electronic Ink (check processing), Public-Key Cryptography, the Flight Recorder (black box), Lithium Ion Batteries, and Radar.

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