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MIT cryptologist tries to break the curse, not code

MIT professor Ronald Rivest throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park on April 16.
MIT professor Ronald Rivest throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park on April 16.
Photo courtesy / Alexander Rivest

He can lock up a secret--but can he lock into baseball's strike zone?

That was the question for MIT cryptology expert Ronald Rivest, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Fenway Park before the Red Sox took on their arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, on April 16.

At every Friday night home game this season, the Red Sox are honoring a member of the local medical and scientific communities with the first-pitch opportunity.

The Fenway public-address announcer noted that Rivest, who is the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, is "the co-inventor of the RSA public-key cryptosystem, which aids in keeping medical records completely private."

"It was really very exciting to be pitching the first ceremonial pitch for this first Red Sox-Yankees game of the season. I was of course, hoping, that this will be the pitch that "breaks the curse," said Rivest, referring to the legend that a curse has prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series since 1918.

Rivest's son Alexander, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, took photos from the stands and posted them on the web at The sequence of pictures is interspersed with tongue-in-cheek mathematical musings about the baseball's motion--"helping me to figure out what angle to pitch the ball," Rivest said. "But they are quite likely in error, anyway. I wasn't actually thinking about math at all while I was pitching, of course!

"It was fairly cold, which made the ball quite slippery; I was hoping that I wouldn't lose control and make a wild pitch," Rivest said. "I was also thinking that there were a lot of people watching this."

Rivest is the first of two MIT faculty members to have this Fenway first-pitch opportunity. The other is Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, director of the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, who is scheduled to take the mound before the Sox game on May 7.

Rivest got a souvenir of his moment on the Fenway field of dreams: the baseball he threw, stamped with his name and the date.

Perhaps his appearance was a good omen for the Red Sox--they beat the Yankees, 6-2.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 5, 2004.

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