The Scholar and the Red Sox
The morning after Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, MIT linguistics professor Morris Halle mentioned that while he was working late the night before, he had been suddenly interrupted by an uproar of joy in his household as family members watched Carlton Fisk’s home run on television. In his scholarly way, he seemed momentarily bemused by the Red Sox win, then rose to get on with the work of the day.
Your story on Halle and Noam Chomsky (“The Office Next Door,” November/December 2011) gives a good sense of their long friendship. Building 20 may be gone, but their personal example and their contributions in linguistics and beyond are timeless.
William E. Cooper, PhD ‘76
A Lesson that Led to MIT
I have just read “The Show Must Go On” (November/December 2011), and seeing the name of Paul Lappé ‘34 brought back many fond memories. You see, his wife, Jeanette (always Mrs. Lappé to me), was my eighth-grade teacher at Bragaw Avenue school in Newark, New Jersey, in 1939.
Mrs. Lappé was a favorite of the students, and we all felt very fortunate to be assigned to her class. She had a teaching style that was somewhat informal for the time but always thought-provoking and innovative. One of her assignments was, for me, life-defining and unforgettable. She asked the class to think of a career that interested them, identify an individual who was successful in that field, and arrange to personally interview him. Even at age 13 I was convinced I wanted to become an engineer, so I chose to write to the chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who agreed to see me at his office at New York’s Penn Station. With much apprehension, I met with him, and he was very kind and supportive of my choice of career. He gave freely of his time, answered all my queries, and showed me around the drafting room and other facilities. As I was leaving, he presented me with a detailed map of the Pennsy’s rail empire.
The rest is history. I attended MIT in Course II, graduating in 1949, and enjoyed a satisfying 40-plus-year career with Foster Wheeler.
Mrs. L was an inspiration, and the guidance of her unusual assignment was invaluable.
Cliff Noll ‘49
Estes Park, Colorado
It was interesting to read the humorous anecdotes about Professor Norbert Wiener and his days at MIT (“The Original Absent-Minded Professor,” July/August 2011, and Alumni Letters, November/December 2011). Lest we remember him only as a genius and an eccentric, though, I think it is important to recall that he was a principled and eloquent critic of the societal implications of research after World War II, presaging by almost two decades similar debates at MIT and elsewhere. His actions resulted in extensive attention from the FBI, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies, none of which were ever able to show that he was disloyal. Interested readers can learn more from the 2005 book Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.
Joel Weisberg ‘72
My favorite Norbert Wiener story is almost certainly false, but I love it because it so wonderfully captures the professor’s reputation.
When I lived in Senior House in 1958–’60, we were next door to the “100 Mem Drive” apartment complex where Professor Wiener had lived. On the day that he moved to a home in the suburbs, he still went to his office and classes and had a normal workday at the Institute. At day’s end he remembered that the family had moved, but he couldn’t remember where, so he decided to return to 100 Mem Drive to see if he could find out. As he approached the building, he saw a little girl playing outside and went to her saying, “Hi, little girl. I’m Norbert Wiener and I used to live here. I moved, but I can’t remember where. Can you help me?” She looked up at him, stuck out her hand, and said, “Come on, Daddy. Momma knew you’d forget.”
Len Lyon ‘62, SM ‘69
Here is another Wiener story, told to me in the late 1950s by a fellow graduate student who was in one of the professor’s graduate courses. After Dr. Wiener had completed a complicated and confusing proof on the blackboard, a student asked, cynically and rhetorically, if there wasn’t another way to prove the proposition. Dr. Wiener walked over to a window and stared out, thoughtfully stroking his beard, then slowly turned back to face the class and said, “Yes, but it gives the same answer.”
George Pearsall, ScD ‘61
Durham, North Carolina
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