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Unleashing the Joy of MIT

The MIT150 celebrations spread the Institute’s enthusiasm for innovation to thousands.
August 23, 2011

For three years, when my colleagues heard that I was chairing the MIT150 Steering Committee, some would ask, “How did they ever get you to take on that burden?” In fact, it was anything but a burden. President Hockfield had asked me to help make the MIT150 a celebration of MIT’s past, present, and future. As an engineer and a historian of technology, how could I say no to that?

I like building machines, and I like studying them. I’ve explored shipwrecks in the deep ocean with robots that I helped build, and I’ve written books about ironclad warships, computers and control systems, and the Apollo program. I was happy to delve into MIT’s history, present it anew to the world, and imagine the next 150 years.

Starting in 2008, the steering committee of faculty, students, staff, and alumni began working with the Institute events staff to conjure an intellectually engaging mix of celebration and community outreach. It was a creative, if sometimes stressful, task. Who would get excited about MIT’s birthday? How could we match the outlandish celebrations for the new campus on what’s now known as Killian Court in 1916, or Winston Churchill’s speech at the 1949 mid-century convocation?

Then came the global financial crisis of the fall of 2008. Should we celebrate at such a critical moment? No one knew whether the spring of 2011 would bring depression, recovery, or something in between.

But everyone agreed that MIT owed it to itself and to its people to commemorate the moment. We made a policy decision that turned out to be a source of the 150’s success: in a time of financial uncertainty, we would focus all of our resources on campus, supporting anniversary programs and events initiated and run by faculty, students, and staff. Boy, did people rise to that challenge.

Our 150 days of celebrating began on January 7, with the opening of the “150 Objects” exhibit at the MIT museum. It was a freezing evening, at a time of year when many students and faculty were still at home enjoying their holidays or away doing research. Amazingly, 800 people showed up; the exhibit itself communicated such energy and creativity that the atmosphere was simply electric. Our celebration had started with a bang.

MIT150 brought many more pleasant surprises. We were surprised by how many people turned out for events (20,000 people for the open house, nearly 8,000 for the convocation, 10,000 for the FAST Light event); surprised by how excited everyone was; surprised by the depth of MIT pride, often latent but eagerly expressed at the right moments.

Among countless remarkable MIT150 moments, images, and events, a few of my personal highlights include hearing explorers discuss how to build autonomous robots to explore the buried seas on Jupiter’s moon Europa; bringing my three-year-old daughter, and her entire preschool class from the Stata Center, to meet Buzz Aldrin and other MIT astronauts at the Exploration Symposium; listening to Nancy Hopkins’s personal account of the MIT Women in Science report; hearing Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the Web; helping to edit the U.S. Senate resolution commemorating MIT’s birthday and, the same week, providing a few of the words for the birthday message read by MIT’s alumni astronauts aboard the space station; being asked by student leaders at the convocation if they could have copies of the MIT Charter we rededicated at the ceremony; seeing the line of school buses that brought some of the 30 school and community groups to the open house from all over New England; and, of course, seeing the fireworks over the Charles River, with “MIT 150” spelled out in lights on the Prudential Center in the background.

The 150 days of celebration highlighted the depth of MIT’s common purpose and enthusiasm. A headline in the Tech on June 10 summed it up nicely: “MIT150: Explosive Success.” To describe what we have unleashed, President Hockfield rightly uses the word “joy”—a remarkable sentiment in these troubled times, especially for such an apparently serious place. Sharing and spreading that joy—the joy of education, research, and innovation—is MIT’s responsibility in the world. How to maintain the momentum is the question before us now.

David Mindell, PhD ‘96, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, just stepped down as chair of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

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