MIT in popular culture

MIT in popular culture

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an educational and research institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been referenced in many works of cinema, television and the written word. MIT's overall reputation has greater influence on its role in popular culture than does any particular aspect of its history or student lifestyle. Because the Institute is well-known as a breeding ground for technology and technologists, the makers of modern media are able to use it to establish character in a way that mainstream audiences can understand. A smaller number of works use MIT directly as their scene of action.

The use of "MIT as metaphor" is relatively widespread, so much so that in popular culture, "the MIT of" is an idiom for "top science and engineering university," or "elite technical institution," like "Cadillac of" for "most luxurious," or "an Einstein" for "intelligent person". Whether or not Einstein was truly the most intelligent human ever to have lived—or even if such a statement has no true meaning at all—Einstein remains an archetype of intelligence. Similarly, any regionally prominent science or engineering school is likely to be called "the MIT of" that region. For example, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) touted the University of Alabama in Huntsville as a possible "MIT of the South". ref|HuntsvilleTimes2003 The Georgia Institute of Technology has also been called "the MIT of the South". Other examples abound, ref|mitof so much so that "X is the MIT of Y" is a good example of a snowclone, a term recently coined to denote a family of formulaic clichés.

Movies and television

Frequently, when a character in Hollywood cinema is required to have a science or engineering background, or in general possess an extremely high level of intelligence, the film establishes that he or she is an MIT graduate or associate. (MIT can also be a comparative or a metaphor for intellect in general: "Would they think of "that" at MIT?") Numerous films and television series indulge in this technique, including "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "Desk Set" (1957), "The Phantom Planet" (1961),ref|PhantomPlanet "Help!" (1965), "Ghost Busters" (1984), "Hackers" (1995), "Independence Day" (1996), "Orgazmo" (1997), "Armageddon" (1998), "Sphere" (1998), "Space Cowboys" (2000), "The Fast and the Furious" (2001), "Undergrads" (2001), "XXX" (2002), "Arrested Development" (2003), "The Recruit" (2003), "National Treasure" (2004), "The Fantastic Four" (2005), "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (2005), "Rent" (2005), "E-Ring" (2005), "21" (2008) and "Iron Man" (2008). In "Iron Man," several close-ups of Terrence Howard clearly show his character ("Jim Rhodes") to be wearing a brass rat; Robert Downey, Jr.'s character ("Tony Stark") appears to wear one as well in the movie.

The "Star Trek" episode "Bread and Circuses" uses a shot of the Great Dome to depict a generic building on a planet dominated by ancient Roman culture. Fact|date=February 2007

James Burke's television series "The Day the Universe Changed" (1985) employs the same technique for a more academic purpose. In the episode "Point of View", which describes the discovery of perspective geometry and its ramifications, Burke spends a little time in the Italian city of Padua. This city, which hosted the second-oldest Italian university after Bologna, boasted a large concentration of intellectuals. In Burke's phrase, Padua was "the MIT of the fifteenth century". An episode of his later series "Connections 2" (1994) uses a similar shorthand to characterize the seventeenth-century Royal Society.

The TV show Numb3rs has several different connections to MIT. The pilot was shot in Boston. Co-creator and Executive Producer Cheryl Heuton says, "We originally tried to choose MIT for the show. We originally set the show in Boston, and Charlie [Eppes, one of the main characters,] was going to be a professor at MIT. We contacted MIT, and their answer was they're not in the film and TV business..." ref|Tech060922. Multiple episodes of the show mention that Charlie studied at MIT. Dylan Bruno, the actor who plays Colby Granger, has a degree from MIT.

Films set at MIT are less common than those which use the MIT name as metaphor. Nevertheless, MIT has been part of movie settings, in such films as "Blown Away" (1994), "Good Will Hunting" (1997), "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), and "21"ref|Tech21ref|Tech21Pix (2008). Most of the scenes for these movies, especially indoor scenes, are in fact filmed elsewhere. Although portions of "Blown Away" were shot on the Institute campus ref|BlownAwayTech, the film still makes several geographical errors about MIT and Boston in general ref|BlownAwayGoofs. The film "Real Genius" (1985) is set on a mythical technology campus which is a combination of MIT and Caltech, including for example Laslo, who lives in the basement on campus, a reference to MIT personality Richard Stallman. An incidental scene in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973) was shot on location outside of MIT Baker House.

Some cinematic references to MIT betray a mild anti-intellectualism, or at least a lack of respect for "book learning". For example, "Space Cowboys" features the seasoned hero (Clint Eastwood) trying to explain a piece of antiquated spacecraft technology to a rather whippersnapping youngster. When the young astronaut fails to comprehend Eastwood's explanation, he snaps that "I have two master's degrees from MIT", to which Eastwood replies, "Maybe you should get your money back." Similarly, Gus Van Sant's introduction to the published "Good Will Hunting" screenplay suggests that the lead character's animosity towards official MIT academia reflects a class struggle with ethnic undertones, in particular Will Hunting's Irish background versus the "English aristocracy" of the MIT faculty. "Help!", the Beatles' second film, ties MIT to the mad scientist stereotype when Professor Foot (Victor Spinetti) declares, "MIT was after me, you know. Wanted me to rule the world for them!"

HBO's television miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" (1998) contains segments set at MIT, most notably in the episode covering Apollo 14. The series portrays the Institute's denizens as very slightly eccentric engineers who do their part to keep the Apollo program running successfully.

"Inside" MIT references also appear in film without attribution. In "Stir Crazy" (1980), the opening close-up shot of Grossberger, played by Erland Van Lidth De Jeude (MIT Class of 1976, S.B. in Computer Science & Engineering), clearly reveals his actual "Brass Rat" class ring. In "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle" (2000), a background image of Whassamatta U. is recognizable as a main MIT building.

MIT is even referenced in some Japanese anime: the sci-fi series "Neon Genesis Evangelion" mentions MIT as the location of one of the replica MAGI supercomputers; the comedy series "Pani Poni Dash!" revolves around an 11-year old student who graduated from MIT and travels to Japan to become a high school teacher.

In the TV series "Las Vegas" (2003), "Mike Cannon" (played by James Lesure), one of the main characters, is a highly intelligent, and technically very gifted engineer and MIT graduate.

In the pilot of the tv show "Gilmore Girls", Rory and Lorelei visit Lorelai's parents for the first time in quite a while. Upon seeing Rory, Lorelai's father comments several times that Rory is tall. He says this so many times that Lorelai comments "Yes, they're doing a study of her at MIT." (or something to that effect). Regardless, MIT made it into the very first episode of "Gilmore Girls".


Dr. Thomas Louis Magliozzi and his younger brother Ray are "Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers", the hosts of National Public Radio's comedy car advice show Car Talk. Both are MIT graduates, Tom's in chemical engineering in 1958, and Ray's in general science in 1972, and they regularly use that fact in their self-deprecating attempts to establish their credibility on technical matters. After campaigning on-air for years, they were finally invited to speak at MIT's [ 1999 commencement exercise] .

Written works

Nonfiction works have been written which examine MIT, its history or its various subcultures. In addition to books like "Nightwork" which recount the Institute's hacking tradition, Benson Snyder's "The Hidden Curriculum" (1970) describes the state of MIT student and faculty psychology in the late 1960s. On the fiction side, the novel "The Gadget Maker" (1955, by Maxwell Griffith) traces the life of aeronautical engineer Stanley Brack, who performs his undergraduate studies at MIT. Ben Bova's novel "The Weathermakers" (1966) about scientists developing methods to prevent hurricanes from reaching land, is also set in part at MIT. Patricia Vasquez visits (or comes from) MIT in Greg Bear's "Eon" (1985). Neal Stephenson coyly hints at MIT in "Quicksilver" (2004), and other books of the Baroque Cycle, by having Daniel Waterhouse found the "Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of the Technologickal Arts" in the 18th century.

Noted physicist and raconteur Richard Feynman built up a collection of anecdotes about his MIT undergraduate years, several of which are retold in his loose memoir "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Some of this material was incorporated into Matthew Broderick's film "Infinity" (1996), in addition to Feynman stories from Far Rockaway, Princeton and Los Alamos.

MIT is also a recurring motif in the works of Kurt Vonnegut, much like the planet Tralfamadore or the Vietnam War. In part, this recurrence may stem from Vonnegut family history: both his grandfather Bernard and his father Kurt, Sr. studied at MIT and received bachelor's degrees in architecture. His older brother, another Bernard, earned a bachelor's and a Ph.D. in chemistry, also at MIT. Since so many of Vonnegut's stories are ambivalent or outright pessimistic with regard to technology's impact on humankind, it is hardly surprising that his references to the Institute express a mixed attitude. In "Hocus Pocus" (1990), the Vietnam-veteran narrator Eugene Debs Hartke applies for graduate study in MIT's physics program, but his plans go awry when he tangles with a hippie at a Harvard Square Chinese restaurant. Hartke observes that men in uniform had become a ridiculous sight around colleges, even though both Harvard and MIT obtained much of their income from weapons R&D. ("I would have been dead if it weren't for that great gift to civilization from the Chemistry Department of Harvard, which was napalm, or sticky jellied gasoline.") "Jailbird" notes drily that MIT's eighth president was one of the three-man committee who upheld the Sacco and Vanzetti ruling, condemning the two men to death. As reported in the 7 June 1927 "Tech":

:President Samuel W. Stratton has recently been appointed a member of a committee which will advise Governor Alvan T. Fuller in his course of action in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, it was announced a few days ago by the metropolitan press. The President is one of a committee of three appointed, the others being President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard and Judge Robert Grant. It was stated at Dr. Stratton's office that this appointment was very reluctantly accepted, for not only has the President not had experience with criminal law procedure, but he has not been following the case at all in the newspapers. It is thought by some that this very fact may result in an entirely unbiased review of the case, which might not be possible had he followed the case closely. ref|Tech1927

"Palm Sunday" (1981) a loose collage of essays and other material, contains a markedly skeptical and humanist commencement address Vonnegut gave to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Speaking of the role religion plays in modern society, Vonnegut notes

:We no longer believe that God causes earthquakes and crop failures and plagues when He gets mad at us. We no longer imagine that He can be cooled off by sacrifices and festivals and gifts. I am so glad we don't have to think up presents for Him anymore. What's the perfect gift for someone who has everything?

:The perfect gift for somebody who has everything, of course, is nothing. Any gifts we have should be given to creatures right on the surface of the planet, it seems to me. If God gets angry about that, we can call in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There's a very good chance they can calm Him down.

Kurt Vonnegut was friends with fellow humanist and writer Isaac Asimov, who resided for many years in Newton, Massachusetts. During much of this time, Asimov chose the date for the MIT Science Fiction Society's annual picnic, citing a superstition that he always picked a day with good weather. In his copious autobiographical writings, Asimov reveals a mild predilection for the Institute's architecture, and an awareness of its aesthetic possibilities. For example, "In Joy Still Felt" (1980) describes a 1957 meeting with Catherine de Camp, who was checking out colleges for her teenage son. Asimov recalls

:I hadn't seen her for five years and she was forty-nine now, and I felt I would be distressed at seeing her beauty fade.

:How wrong I was! I saw her coming down the long corridor at MIT and she looked almost as though it were still 1941, when I had first met her.

Asimov's work, too, trades on MIT's reputation for narrative effect, even touching upon the anti-intellectualism theme. In "The Dead Past" (1956), the scientist-hero Foster must overcome the attitudes his Institute physics training has entrenched in his mind, before he can make his critical breakthrough. Several jokes in "Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor" and its sequel "Asimov Laughs Again" hinge upon MIT, its reputation for scientific prowess, and the technocentric focus of its students. In a similar vein, the satirical newspaper "The Onion" published an article entitled "Corpse-Reanimation Technology Still 10 Years Off, Say MIT Mad Scientists", among many others in the same general tradition. ref|onion-mad-science

Several comic strips make use of MIT. In "Doonesbury," Kim Rosenthal almost earned her Ph. D in computer science, dropping out because it was "too easy". In the fall of 2006, Kim and Mike Doonesbury's daughter Alex entered MIT as a freshman. (The 3 October 2006 "Doonesbury" strip satirizes the "MIT of" snowclone; Zipper Harris declares the fictional Walden College to be "the MIT of southern Connecticut".) Dilbert received a degree from Course VI-1. Bill Amend's "FoxTrot" has also made MIT allusions, in keeping with the strip's genial satire of nerd subcultures. On Christmas Day 2005, the comic strip "Baby Blues" featured a character reading the instruction manual accompanying a gadget that he has given to his child as a Christmas present. The first volume of instructions begins, "Assembly Instructions — Step 1: Obtain a master's degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. Step 2: ..."

Computer and video games

Some genres of computer and video games have characterization requirements like those of movies. For example, a game involving a team of commandos might require a member who can break into computers, crack security systems or work with explosives. This character's background would typically have to be established very quickly and efficiently, perhaps within one screen of introductory text. Stating that a commando or top-secret operative "graduated from MIT" is one way to accomplish this.

MIT is mentioned in the computer games "Area 51" (1995), "Half-Life" (1998), "Half-Life 2" (2005) and "Metal Gear Solid" (1998).

The Infocom game "The Lurking Horror" (1987), written by MIT alumnus and interactive fiction pioneer Dave Lebling, is set on the campus of the George Underwood Edwards Institute of Technology, which strongly resembles MIT. Its fictional culture also parodies the MIT culture. For instance, G.U.E. Tech's class ring is known as the "brass hyrax", parodying MIT's Brass Rat.


In the musical Rent (1996-ongoing), a major character, Tom Collins, is an MIT drop-out, "for my theory of actual reality".

The song "Etoh" by the electronic music group The Avalanches describes MIT as "the home of complicated computers which speak a mechanical language all their own". This lyric can be taken literally, or it can be read metaphorically as a description of MIT student culture. Allan Sherman's paean to initialisms, "Harvey and Sheila," notes that Harvey "works for IBM; he went to MIT, got his PhD." Rhythm and blues group Tony! Toni! Toné! mentions MIT in the song "Born Not To Know," from their 1988 debut album "Who?." In the song, a pretentious individual rattles off a long list of his impressive academic credentials—culminating with a "Ph. D from MIT"—only to then ask, "so, can I get a job?" Tony! Toni! Toné! responds with a resounding "No!"

"Nerdcore" rap artist MC Hawking's song "All My Shootin's Be Drive-bys" (1997) takes tropes associated with gangsta rap and plays them out in a more academic setting. He speaks of taking revenge for the death of a friend, part of his Cambridge, UK crew:

:I saw Little Pookie just the other day.:Pookie was my boy we shared Kool-aid in the park,:now some punks took his life in the dark.

:I ask Doomsday who the motherfuckers be,:"some punk ass bitches from MIT."

When the narrator learns the identity of Pookie's killers, he decides to "give a Newtonian demonstration, of a bullet its mass and its acceleration", leaving six MIT students dead in the street. ref|MCHawking

"Weird Al" Yankovic's "White & Nerdy" (2006) riffs upon MIT, along with a plenitude of other geek culture references — "The Star Wars Holiday Special," pocket protectors and editing the Wikipedia, to name a few. Yankovic claims that he graduated "first in [his] class here at MIT"; however, the Institute does not assign class rankings or confer traditional Latin honors upon its graduates.

Over the years, the students and faculty of MIT have produced their own share of musical material. For example, the mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer taught for a time in MIT's political science department, lecturing on quantitative methods and statistics. This experience led him to write a song called "Sociology", played to the tune of Irving Berlin's "Choreography". The lyrics conclude,

:They consult, sounding occult,:Talking like a mathematics Ph.D.:They can snow all their clients,:By calling it "science"—:Although it's only sociology! ref|lehrer

Students have also written their own songs during their tenures at the Institute. This tradition, which goes back at least to [ The Doormat Singers] of the 1960s, continues with several present-day groups.

List of fictional characters

* Ellie Arroway, "Contact" - SETI researcher (in Carl Sagan's novel, Ellie Arroway is a Harvard graduate).
* Stanley Brack
* Mike Cannon, Las Vegas - "MIT graduate degree"
* Ben Chapleski, "Orgazmo" - "MIT graduate"
* James Clayton, "The Recruit" - CIA trainee, degree in "non-linear cryptography".
* Darcy, Secretary in "The Loop".
* Alex Doonesbury- character in the comic strip Doonesbury, daughter of Mike Doonesbury and J.J.. Currently attending her freshman year.
* [ Jack Florey]
* Tobias Fünke, "Arrested Development", completed his fellowship in psycholinguistics.
* Benjamin Gates, "National Treasure".
* Gordon Freeman, "Half-Life" - Degree in theoretical physics.
* David Levinson, "Independence Day" - Manager at NYC cable station, degree in computer science.
* Harvey, from Allan Sherman's song parody "Harvey and Sheila" ("He went to MIT and got his Ph.D.").
* The man who ran the computer in the Brothers Four song, "John Henry, The Thinkin' Man" [] .
* Will Hunting, "Good Will Hunting" - Savant on-campus janitor.
* Black Mass (comics) was a physicist at MIT before he was granted powers by the Overmaster
* Tim McGee, NCIS "has a Masters in Computing Forensics at MIT"
* Rebecca Miyamoto, "Pani Poni Dash!".
* Otacon, "Metal Gear Solid"
* Mei Ling, "Metal Gear Solid"
* Jim Rhodes, Marvel Comics' Iron Man.
* Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic Marvel Comics The Fantastic Four.
* Rockhound, "Armageddon" - Geologist with two MIT doctorates in Chemistry and Geology.
* Tony Stark, Marvel Comics' Iron Man.
* Ed Straker, commander of SHADO.
* Richard Sumner, Desk Set - A "PhD from MIT in Science".


* Kenneth Kesner, "Could UAH become the MIT of the South?" "Huntsville Times" 9 March 2003.

* "MIT of" examples: [ Georgia Tech] , [ Case Western Reserve] [ Indian Institute of Technology] . Others: [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] , [] . See also the proposed " [ European MIT] ".

* [ "The Phantom Planet"] (1961), available in the public domain from the Internet Archive.

* JiHye Kim, " [ MIT Alumni Inspire New Movie Hollywood Movie to Depict Blackjack Team's Las Vegas Escapades] ," "The Tech" 27 April 2007.

* Photos of the filming of "21" near the MIT campus: [ 1] [ 2] [ 3] [ 4] [ 5] [ 6] [ 7] [ 8]

* Eva Moy, " [ Movie Filmed in Killian Court] ", "The Tech" 26 August 1993.

* [ Goofs] for "Blown Away" at the Internet Movie Database.

* Jillian Berry, " [ TV Interview: ...Numb3rs... Continues to Make Math Chic] ," "The Tech" 22 September 2006.

* [ MIT "Tech" Vol. XLVII No. 47] , 7 June 1927.

* " [ Corpse-Reanimation Technology Still 10 Years Off, Say MIT Mad Scientists] ", "The Onion" 17 January 2001. See also " [ MIT Scientists Perfect $30 Million Love Tester] " (18 September 1996), " [ MIT Researchers Discover Each Other] " (10 November 1999), " [ MIT Physicists Split the Smithereen] " (31 May 2000), " [ Nerd's Parents Afraid Son Will Fall In With Popular Crowd] " (29 May 2002), " [ Actual Expert Too Boring for TV] " (4 May 2005; the expert is an MIT professor), and " [ MIT Fraternity Accused of Robot Hazing] " (12 April 2006).

* MC Hawking [ MP3 and lyrics page] .

* Video of Tom Lehrer performing five math-related songs for Irving Kaplansky's birthday celebration, [ available] via the Internet Archive.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Incest in popular culture — Incest is a somewhat popular topic in English erotic fiction; there are entire collections and websites devoted solely to this genre, with an entire genre of pornographic pulp fiction known as incest novels . This is probably because, as with… …   Wikipedia

  • Orangutans in popular culture — Orangutans, two species of great apes indigenous to Indonesia and Malaysia, have been the subject of multiple popular culture references. Contents 1 Famous orangutans 2 Orangutans as villains 3 Orangutans as pets and guardians …   Wikipedia

  • Phoenix in popular culture — The phoenix has proved an enduring allegorical symbol, symbolizing rebirth, renewal or uniqueness and often appears in modern popular culture. In literature Antiquity *Classical references to the phoenix include the early Christian Apostolic… …   Wikipedia

  • Necrophilia in popular culture — Necrophilia has been a frequent topic in popular culture. Contents 1 Necrophilia in fiction 2 Necrophilia in film and television 3 Necrophilia in music 4 Reference …   Wikipedia

  • List of women warriors in literature and popular culture — This list of women warriors in literature, and popular culture offers figures studied in fields such as gender studies, cultural studies, film studies, mass communication, sociology, psychology, and anthropology.Definition and… …   Wikipedia

  • MIT Media Lab — The MIT Media Lab (also known as the Media Lab) is a laboratory of MIT School of Architecture and Planning. Devoted to research projects at the convergence of design, multimedia and technology, the Media Lab has been widely popularized since the… …   Wikipedia

  • MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory — Established July 1, 2003 July 1, 1963 (as Project MAC) Field of Research Computer science …   Wikipedia

  • MIT Museum — MIT Museum, founded in 1971, is the museum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It hosts collections of holography, artificial intelligence, robotics, maritime history, and the history of MIT. Its… …   Wikipedia

  • MIT Mystery Hunt — The MIT Mystery Hunt is an annual puzzlehunt competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As one of the oldest and most complex puzzlehunts in the world, it attracts about 1,000 people annually and has inspired similar competitions… …   Wikipedia

  • MIT School of Architecture and Planning — See also: Campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT School of Architecture and Planning Established 1865 Type Private Dean Adèle Naudé Santos Location …   Wikipedia