CAMBRIDGE — The most moving part of our walking tour of MIT came at the end, when we entered the Gates Atrium at the Stata Center. Suspended beneath the skylight there: an unbroken column of white paper cranes, more than 5,000 of them, folded and hung in memory of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was shot and killed by the Boston Marathon bombers while on duty. The cranes were created by MIT students, alums, faculty, and friends, and installed in 2014.
On a walking tour of MIT, run by Trademark Tours, a private company not affiliated with the university (they also offer tours of Harvard), the public can get a peek into the school’s unique culture — and what’s behind those infamous hacks. Tours are run by current students and by recent graduates, so you get an insider’s perspective. Before this, only prospective students and their parents toured the campus. So, at $12 a pop (the annual tab for an MIT undergrad, including housing and meals, runs about $60,000), you can get a look at what goes on in the hallowed, nerdy halls of MIT. Tours last about an hour.
Guides (ours was Emma DeSoto, a rising junior from Seattle who’s studying mechanical engineering) hit some scripted copy points as they go, but add their own impressions, and field questions from guests. This being MIT, numbers play a starring role. Among the most memorable numbers: The school was founded as Boston Tech, a research institution, in 1861 and originally located across the river; the school has produced 12 Nobel laureates in physics; and it is home to the second-largest tunnel system in the world (the Pentagon has the largest). Four out of 12 of the astronauts who walked on the moon came from MIT.
“I got taught by two Nobel laureates in my freshman year,” DeSoto said. Harvard has tried to annex MIT several times, most recently in 1914. Guests were polite enough not to ask about numbers associated with MIT’s defense contracts.
A bit of rivalry with another Cambridge campus inevitably rears its head. “Why is it called the Harvard Bridge, when it’s right by MIT, and we’re clearly the superior institution?” DeSoto mused as we walked past the bridge. While students are not required to take physical education classes or play sports, they must pass a swimming test, “lest we fall off the ‘Harvard’ [air quotes] Bridge,” she explained.
The tour takes in points of interest like the Great Dome, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, and the Dr. Seuss-like building called the Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry. “Icicles formed on the building and dripped into classrooms, so MIT sued the architect,” DeSoto said. Then there’s the Green Building, a tower conceived by I.M. Pei. “He designed it to be the tallest building in Cambridge, so he put it on stilts,” the guide told us. Since zoning has changed, the 295-foot building will always be the tallest building in the city. It is also the site of numerous weird feats of engineering. Students have illuminated a Tetris game on the windows, and dropped gourds from the top during the Halloween Pumpkin Drop. Given that this is MIT, the pumpkins are dipped in liquid nitrogen, so they shatter.
“There’s a strong building culture here, so students build things like roller coasters,” DeSoto noted. Or they pull off a hack like putting a police car atop the Great Dome — just because they can. “The rules are, don’t do it under the influence, don’t destroy anything, and don’t get caught,” she explained.
“The overall culture of campus is, people are very passionate about something really niche,” DeSoto said.
Stories of famous hacks revealed the lighter side of MIT’s culture, but our guide didn’t shy away from the harsher realities. “The imposter syndrome [feelings of inadequacy by high-achieving individuals] is very real at MIT,” DeSoto said, something that student groups work hard to address. Even though honors like magna- and summa cum laude don’t exist here — “graduation is impressive enough,” DeSoto says — it’s a competitive academic environment. “One past president said that going to MIT is like drinking from a fire hose,” she said. To help reduce the stress, students do things like hand out “TMAYD” (Tell Me About Your Day) bracelets. The idea? If you’re having a bad day, you should tell someone about it. Then there’s the Puppy Lab. “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we have service dogs on campus. Students can cuddle with the dogs as a stress reducer,” a very popular concept, DeSoto said.
For most MIT students, this rarefied environment, where the person sitting next to you in class might discover a cancer cure, is pretty amazing, DeSoto says. “I’ve never been around so many people who inspire me.”
A PUBLIC WALKING TOUR OF MIT, Saturday and Sunday through Aug. 31. Tour times vary based on student schedules. $12 per person. Meets at the Kendall Square/MIT subway station; reserve or walk in. For tour times, visit www.trademarktours.com. 855-455-8747.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@