Rylan Schaeffer

Kernel Papers

8 March 2020

The Idea Machine

by {"name"=>"Rylan Schaeffer", "email"=>"rylanschaeffer@gmail.com", "twitter"=>"RylanSchaeffer"}

Learning at Harvard and MIT in the Age of Artificial Intelligence


One of my favorite books is The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT by Pepper White. It tells Pepper’s story as a student earning his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at MIT in the 1980s, capturing his experiences as a student and as a researcher, including his constant feelings of inadequacy. Forty years later, as a Master’s student at Harvard conducting research in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Science Department, these posts are my stories, inspired by Pepper and in tribute to those who came before. To highlight my favorite quote, “If I could see […] an insight, a new way of looking at [a problem] that would maybe, just maybe, find its way into future generations […] In the Eiffel tower of technology, I would be a rivet.”

The Banana Room

MIT has a free banana room. If your experience is anything like mine, it’ll take you some time to figure that out. You’ll start by noticing that MIT students always seem to be eating bananas. You might wonder if that’s because MIT students are hyper-focused on their academics and are desperate to get any edge possible, including eating copious quantities of bananas. But then after a few days, you’ll notice that the campus has a clear banana gradient; when you get off the M2 line on Mass Ave, there are no bananas visible, but as you enter Building 7 and make your way towards Building 46 (MIT Brain and Cognitive Science, or BCS for short), you’ll see bananas everywhere until you cross Vassar Street, and then the banana density will decline.

One day I decided to discover the source of these bananas. I climbed the banana gradient until I ran into a friend of mine, who coincidentally happened to be munching on a banana. I asked him what the deal was and he showed me a small room, 26-110 (that’s the building and room number), which has tens of cases of bananas. They range from green to (very rarely) verging on brown, but there are so many of them and they’re free.

I was so excited by my discovery that I brought my story and a bunch of bananas back to my lab to share. One of my labmates, Mikail, said that he of course knew about the banana room. Jokingly, I demanded he explain why he kept it a secret and he laughed, saying he assumed everyone knew. I decided then that I’d pull a minor prank on him to get revenge. That night, at the Harvard Dining Commons, I took two oranges. The next morning, on my way to lab, I also stopped by the banana room for a re-up. I then left both the bananas and the oranges on the common table as bait. My plan was to convince Mikail that unbeknown to him, there was also an orange room. Expecting him to ask where it is, I’d tell him that he’d have to find it himself, sending him on a futile search across campus.

The idea was brilliant, but unfortunately, my execution was not. My supervisor came into my office to chat and on her way out, she asked why we now also had oranges on the common area table. Gleefully, I let her in on my little prank, giggling like a young child. No sooner had I finished explaining my master plan than I looked to my right and saw Mikail sitting in his office with the lights out, having heard everything I just said.

Lab Life at MIT BCS

Being the newest member of my relatively small lab (2 postdocs, 2 PhD students and me), I was still getting settled in, but I was appreciating one of my lab mates, Mikail, more and more. Mikail is an MIT Physics PhD student in his second year, and he impressed me with his balance of knowledge, curiosity, humility and humor. He had earned his undergrad in physics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, but he told me he would’ve also graduated with a second major in math had the school permitted double majoring.

Mikail had recently picked up the hobby of ice skating. In less than three weeks, he went from having never skated to being able to skate backwards and make small jumps, all by teaching himself. He was enamoured with the activity, going so far as to order himself ice skates and skating pants, although to be honest, I didn’t understand the degree of his fascination. One of my friends had recently moved to MIT to start her Master’s, so she, Mikail and myself all went ice skating and had a delightful time until Mikail realized he had to sprint back to make a meeting concerning the class he was the sole teaching assistant for. The class was actually quite amusing. Mikail told me that the course was an introductory physics course that non-physics undergrads could take to satisfy some minimum requirement. The students, he said, weren’t particularly interested in the material, and the professors teaching the course received massive, career-defining awards during the term. The combination of student apathy and important work elsewhere resulted in the professors effectively withdrawing from the course, leaving Mikail to handle all the grading and eventually write the final exam.


Before Spring term started, Mikail suggested I enrolled in MIT’s 2.152 Non-Linear Control, taught by Professor Jean-Jacques Slotine). Slotine’s lectures are publicly available for free, so I sampled a few and liked what I saw. Slotine was decently rigorous, gave ample intuition, and best of all, loved his little jokes. Early in the course, the 2020 Iowa Democratic Presidential Primary had majorly screwed up, failing to release results days after the voting had finished; Slotine, commenting on different notions of quantifying the stability of a system, suggested that Iowa showed the importance of being able to bound the behavior of a system in not just space, but also in time. I laughed at the not-so-subtle stab, but no one else did. Slotine was also fond of his joke where he’d present some problem, ask how we might solve it and then answer, “I will use mathematics considerably beyond the scope of the class” followed by an incredibly trivial step such as basic arithmetic.

The other course I’m taking is Harvard’s MATH 110 Vector Space Methods for Differential Equations, taught by Christian Brennecke. More on this later.

tags: idea-machine - 2020 - MIT - Harvard