CAMBRIDGE — The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is known the world over for life-changing scientific breakthroughs and research that have earned major awards and honors: 77 MacArthur grants, 203 Guggenheim fellowships, a half-dozen Pulitzers.
And then there’s “the Milk.”
On MIT’s list of accolades, you won’t find any reference to the rancid and discolored carton of dairy that for 25 years has festered and rotted in the school’s Random Hall residence. But like mold, the Milk’s legendary status has grown over the years, curdling into campus culture and unifying generations of students.
“Not everyone can go and win the Nobel Prize,” said Justin O. Cave, class of ’98 and the originator of the Milk. But the MIT community has won 95 of those. There’s only one Milk.
The story of the Milk begins, of course, at the supermarket: In 1994, around the start of his freshman year at MIT, Cave purchased a quart of milk in Central Square, intent on making macaroni and cheese. After realizing he forgot a key ingredient for his meal — either the butter or the boxed mac and cheese, depending on whom you ask — he stuck the milk into his dorm’s shared fridge, where it sat unopened.
About 10 months later, students were cleaning out the fridge when a friend told Cave that he’d saved his milk, which had an expiration date of Oct. 20 — but not the year, Cave said — and put it back into the refrigerator, thinking it was still good for another few months.
“ ‘I don’t own milk,’ ” Cave, 43, a software consultant who lives in Michigan, recalled saying at first. “At that point it clicked to me. ‘I remember that milk. I remember buying it. I never used it.’ ”
It made perfect sense — to some of America’s brightest college students, anyway — to keep the milk around until October, and properly celebrate its one-year expiration “birthday.”
“It was more interesting and more fun than working on your quantum physics homework,” Cave said. Somewhere along the way, the old carton of milk became “the Milk.”
To understand the Milk, you must first understand Random Hall, MIT’s smallest dormitory — as well as its residents past and present.
“It’s a quirky place,” said Nina Davis-Millis, director of community building and engagement programs at MIT Libraries, who was head of house at Random Hall for 21 years of the Milk’s life on a shelf. “It’s a very tight knit group and kind of a zany group, in a fun way.”
In keeping with that reputation, shortly after its first birthday, the students at Random Hall decided to enter the carton of milk, labeled “Purity,” into the school’s “Ugliest Manifestation on Campus” contest, an annual charity fund-raiser usually reserved for human applicants only — not putrid, curdling liquids.
There were some misgivings about the Milk’s eligibility. But finally, the Milk was allowed in on one condition: “ ‘Keep your milk away, we don’t want to see it. We accept it, we believe you, we just don’t want to see it,’ ” Davis-Millis said.
The lovable monstrosity went on to win that year, launching it and the dormitory into a whole new level of greatness, Davis-Millis said. (It won in 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2003, too.)
But the Milk was not satisfied. In 2014, it applied to MIT. Students filled out a 22-page admissions form as if written by the Milk itself, complete with information about its cultural background (white and homogenous), work and educational experience, scholastic distinctions, and hobbies.
“My friends say that I exude an air of maturity that can dominate a room,” one section of the pun-filled application reads. “Some might say that my independence has made me spoiled, but they don’t really know me.”
Even as its fame grew, the Milk was showing obvious signs of age. Its cardboard trappings grew swollen and distorted as the Milk ate through its packaging. At some point, it had to be sealed inside a plastic cylinder, where it remains more than two decades later, slapped with a “Flammable Liquid” warning sticker — a joke, probably, but better safe than sorry.
Today, the Milk’s makeshift time capsule is coated with a gritty substance that obscures the visibility of the old cardboard label. The carton itself sits in a puddle of brownish liquid that looks like watered-down iced coffee.
“It’s changed colors a number of times — it’s really quite nasty,” Davis-Millis said. “It’s repulsive. It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen.”
To answer the pressing question you’re probably asking yourself by now: No, no one has ever taken a sip of the Milk. Not even Cave.
“Oh, heavens no,” he said.
“No. No, no,” Davis-Millis added. “What a terrible thought.”
But Ray Hua Wu, 24, an alum who lived with the Milk, said it has been exposed to people’s olfactory senses.
For a time, the plastic container that housed the carton would fill up with gas and would need to be “burped,” a responsibility that would sometimes fall on the shoulders of people in Random Hall who didn’t do their dishes.
Mercifully, the Milk has settled in its old age.
“We presume there’s no longer gas-producing activity in there,” Wu said. In other words, it’s probably chemically inert.
Its worst days now behind it, the Milk has solidified a spot in the ranks of other quirky MIT cultural contributions — like the “Smoot” markings across the Harvard Bridge, but on a much smaller, grosser scale. Each year, new students moving into Random Hall are introduced to the Milk, which has its own cupboard on the fourth floor, marked “Milk, Themilk,” the name used on its college admissions application. And each year, it comes out for its birthday.
Cami Mejia, 17, learned about the Milk when she toured Random Hall in April. She became more formally acquainted with it when she moved into the dorm in August.
“I laughed and was like, ‘That’s my dorm,’ ” she said. “It just seemed on par with sort of what Random Hall was and is.”
Reached by phone Monday, a day after the Milk’s 25th birthday party, Cave said he’s pleased that it has continued to bring people amusement.
“How many people kind of feel like they still have a connection to their college dorm?” he said.
But there’s one piece of the Milk’s origin story that still befuddles Betsie Cave, Justin’s mother: Why did her son bother buying it in the first place?
“He is allergic to milk,” she said, recalling a time when she tried to throw it out while visiting. “He never had a glass of milk in his life.”