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View from Paris: MIT, corridor of the future

Le Monde, France's leading newspaper, published a full-page profile of MIT, "MIT, le corridor du futur" on June 30. This condensed translation of the article by Le Monde reporter Francoise Lazare, provides some insight into how others--particularly this European journalist who made several recent visits to campus--see MIT. A translation of the complete article is available from the News Office.

From the most basic research to the most practical applications, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology invents the future by pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. Le Monde takes a trip through MIT's central hub, an 800-foot-long corridor that reaches into infinity.

The entrance to the Infinite Corridor is easy to find. It has an actual address, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, in the northeast of the United States. Its main doorway is hard to miss, set in a classical stone facade and flanked by tall Greek columns under a frieze which bears the carved inscription: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Traveling down the Infinite Corridor, however, is a far more challenging task. From one end to the other, the Corridor is aswirl with ideas that set children dreaming, and make adults hope they will live long enough to enjoy the new inventions spawning here. It is the kingdom of knowledge, where a casual visitor quickly becomes dizzy and breathless at the headlong pace of science creating our collective future.

On Friday, June 5, Bill Clinton came to Cambridge, but he did not venture into the Infinite Corridor. Instead, it was from a sunny lawn nearby that he delivered his speech about the future of science and innovation in the United States���������������������������

In just over a century, about 30 Nobel prizes, a series of major scientific discoveries (ranging from penicillin to radar), and giant international partners, such as the World Wide Web Consortium, have brought MIT to the top. For "only" 10,000 students, the Institute has a faculty of over 1,000 people and 3,000 researchers. It manages an annual budget of one billion dollars (close to six billion francs)��������������������������� William Barton Rogers, its founder, meant to create an institution which would "encompass the entire field of the physical sciences and of the arts, with the auxiliary branches of mathematics and modern languages."���������������������������

It has added, over the years, departments of philosophy, linguistics, economy, and a school of management. More recently, to be prepared for the revolution in biomedical research, it has added still another entity: the Whitehead Institute, created at the beginning of the eighties, is a private institution, independent from MIT but affiliated with it. The synergy between the world of the university and the business world is such that the mapping of the human genome is on its way to completion, an achievement which greatly expands the horizon of genetic manipulation.

Bill Clinton's visit to MIT is the revenge of the nerds��������������������������� Yet it is the archetypal nerd that the President of the United States sought out this year, not his Harvard neighbor���������������������������

While he may be unable to help a lost visitor who doesn't know the five-digit number of the office he is looking for, an MIT student will be able to discourse at length about the astronomy of the Infinite Corridor��������������������������� He will explain that, at a very specific time, twice a year, the Corridor's entire 800-foot length will be illuminated as the rising or setting sun tracks across its axis, and he will also suggest that the visitor get more information on an Internet Web site: .

���������������������������In the Infinite Corridor, the physicists��������������������������� are busy, under the direction of Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, refining the first atomic laser, which would be able to emit a coherent stream of atoms rather than a beam of light��������������������������� Brought to extremely low temperatures near absolute zero, atoms can be deposited directly onto electronic components. It isn't hard to imagine practical applications for the new technology, including the possibility of implanting miniaturized components onto the cornea of blind people, thereby enabling them to see���������������������������

Miniaturization is clearly a powerful tool for inventing the future��������������������������� Edward Crawley, the head of the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, loves it��������������������������� The most exciting project in his department is the micro engine, the size of a shirt button. Of course, several dozen of them would be necessary in order to propel even a tiny airplane, but these micro engines would also have the advantage of being silent.

It is a long term project, 15 to 20 years at least. And, like so many other projects at MIT, it raises questions about the role of human beings in technology��������������������������� How far can we trust our computers? What missions can we entrust to them in safety and confidence? All the departments at MIT, including philosophy, aeronautics and computer science, are wrestling with these and similar questions���������������������������

At the other end of the Infinite Corridor, you can see the Media Lab building, a big gray metallic cube designed by the architect I.M. Pei (designer of the Louvre pyramid), an MIT alumnus. The Media Lab is the heaven of the communications technologies of the future��������������������������� At the Media Lab, the nerds work day and night��������������������������� More than 90 percent of the Media Lab is funded by private companies, which are thus better able to recruit the most talented students. "But our students are so unique that they do not fit into any professionalprofile," Nicholas Negroponte, the head of the Media Lab, likes to say.

In fact, many people here end up creating their own companies from scratch, and MIT is committed to helping them succeed. At the moment, there are some 4,000 companies started by MIT alumni. They employ more than a million people, from the industrial giants Hewlett-Packard or Digital Equipment to the just born micro-companies which trade in a single idea or invention���������������������������

Whether they are deeply engaged in fundamental physics or wearable computer fashion shows, MIT researchers know that the corridor of knowledge is infinite, and that there are always new doors to open. This is the perfect time for exploring: almost all the domains of science, of information technology, and of biomedical research are in the middle of a revolution.

Even the frontiers between the government, private enterprise and the academic community are in movement. Bill Clinton himself would enjoy wandering down the stimulating, entertaining Infinite Corridor of MIT. But a President, alas, is too tightly scheduled to wander--even toward the future.

English translation by Sabine Levet, MIT Dept. of Humanities

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 1998.

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