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The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT [Kindle Edition]

Pepper White
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)

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Book Description

This is a personal story of the educational process at one of the world's great technological universities. Pepper White entered MIT in 1981 and received his master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1984. His account of his experiences, written in diary form, offers insight into graduate school life in general--including the loneliness and even desperation that can result from the intense pressure to succeed--and the purposes of engineering education in particular. The first professor White met at MIT told him that it did not really matter what he learned there, but that MIT would teach him how to think. This, then, is the story of how one student learned how to think. There have of course been changes at MIT since 1984, but its essence is still the same. White has added a new preface and concluding chapter to this edition to bring the story of his continuing education up to date.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Getting an education at MIT is like getting a drink of water from a firehose," says one of White's fellow students in this grad school memoir. Test anxiety, lab-project drama and stylish prose propel White's recollections with enough force to make three years of engineering study compelling, even to readers committed to the liberal arts. The professors' egos, the career stakes and the quizzes are presented as powers more intense at MIT Engineering than elsewhere. But the author's deft personality sketches and diary-like accounts of encounters with even such stuff as "System Dynamics and Control Problems" yield a technical school analogue to Scott Turow's One L.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

An informative and entertaining report on how a Johns Hopkins graduate faced the challenge of his young life when he embarked on a master's program in engineering at one of the toughest science schools on earth. Among the most intimidating credentials to go for in the field of technology are ``MIT cubed''--a bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree from the venerable Massachusetts Institute of Technology. North Carolina native White, son of a musician and a writer and product of a ``well-rounded'' environmental-engineering and liberal-arts education at Johns Hopkins, would have been happy with MIT simple--a master's degree in engineering. But even that accomplishment seemed dauntingly unreachable as, on registration day, he traversed MIT's infinite corridor from Building 13 to Building 6, still expecting to learn that his admission to MIT's graduate school was the result of a clerical error. From his first days spent floundering through classroom lectures (it was several semesters before White learned what a scientific model is)-- buddying up to millionaire professors who'd built companies around their patented inventions, attempting to solve technical conundrums and build miniature machines--to the final dash to the finish as other students fell victim to suicide and burnout, White struggled to maneuver through an intellectual boot camp while trying to maintain a modicum of emotional equilibrium. Here, he plays his advantage as a liberal-arts type who's a semi-outsider to full advantage as he searches for the meaning behind the madness. Despite his denunciations of MIT's merciless environment, his writing itself stands as a heartening example of MIT's broader aim- -to teach its students how to think. Required reading for all college applicants with a yen for science. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 3555 KB
  • Print Length: 331 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition (October 12, 2001)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001949X9U
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #641,292 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars rings heartbreakingly true November 3, 1997
After almost 20 years in and around MIT, I've encountered only two great MIT books: (1) A.R. Gurney's out-of-print novel _The Snow Ball_ (correction: it is Entertaining Strangers); (2) Pepper White's book.

White went to a top undergraduate school and was very strong academically. Yet he was completely unprepared for MIT grad school and couldn't believe how easily the folks who'd been MIT undergrads took everything in stride. He didn't know that they'd had exactly the same experience four years before!

It is all here. Losing the girlfriend. Being surrounded by nerds. Scrambling for funding. Being called a jackinape by professors.

Every MIT kid should make his parents read this book, if only to increase the supply of mailed-in CARE packages.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Accurate but atypical September 17, 2005
I'm currently a grad student in the same lab Pepper White worked in. His descriptions of the professors, classes, and quals are dead-on, even today - not all that much has changed in that regard. Some of the same equipment is still in the lab.

But his MIT experience is NOT typical, for a whole host of reasons. He took way, way more classes than any grad student should - I've never taken more than two per semester, often only one. A master's thesis usually takes 2 years or less. Most students aren't resident tutors in Senior House, one of MIT's more, shall we say, unique dorms. Considering how unprepared he was to be a graduate student in mechanical engineering, I'd say he did pretty well in the end.

Unfortunately, the part about knowing someone lost to suicide is all too typical, but many, many ways MIT is a kindler, gentler place than it was in the early '80s, for better or for worse.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By anon
As one of the undergraduates in Pepper White's dormitory, and one who shared many if not most of Mr. White's experiences, I can personally attest to the accuracy of almost every description in this impressively detailed and honest account. In fact if anything Pepper's book is honest to a fault, perhaps leaving people who lived and worked in a different part of this incredibly varied school with the mistaken impression that his descriptions are innaccurate simply because they don't match their own.

Not everyone going through MIT is going to experience the same things - some will have kinder, more supportive professors and friends while many others will suffer under less kind, less supportive (and quite often downright nasty) professors and friends who are more interested in their work than in spending the extra time it takes to be a good friend. Some because of their natures will thrive in the isolation and loneliness of eighty or hundred hour work weeks, month after month, year after year, and others will sooner or later find this life just too lonely and unsatisfying to bear and decide that it's time to move on.

Pepper was one who moved on (though this wasn't his choice. It's interesting to wonder if he would have moved on anyway if he had passed his PhD exams). So it might be helpful to think of his book and descriptions as being accurate for the sort of person who also would be inclined to move on in similar circumstances. Whether that's the majority or minority at MIT is hard to say.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars learning to be human September 8, 2001
It's interesting to see the binary response readers/reviewers have given this book -- like an inverted bell curve. For my part, I'd say that the picture painted of MIT's graduate program is pretty repellent, but the very things that repel are also a source of the school's strength. Maybe civilization needs places like this and Caltech -- but you wouldn't necessarily come out of the experience a better person. To his credit I think White does emerge a better person, and that makes the story interesting. For those who haven't read the book, I'll just say keep an eye on the peripheral figures. They are more important than you think at first -- and more important than White initially thought, too.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accurate and humorous, a good read! February 17, 2006
By maddox
Read this book if you want to know what it is like to live and breathe and be at MIT. Being at MIT is an honor, and a privilege that I take seriously...and a pain. Pay close attention to Pepper's underlying message...MIT is a place of beautiful torture and torturous beauty...a place students hate, but alumni miss dearly.

A warning to readers...don't let his experience define yours. While I am currently going through much of what Pepper has described, I must give my fellow reviewers that his (or my) experience can be atypical. Last year, for eg, I breezed through and couldn't identify with most of Pepper's experiences. Most MIT student experiences lie between these extremes.

The bottom line...accurately painted with a great sense of humor.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Author Cliams MIT is Hell October 3, 1999
By A Customer
Pepper White, a Mechanical Engineering Grad student tells of his life at MIT. Anyone who is considering gradaute study in engineering has to read this book. Anyone who is curoius about what life might be like at MIT should read this book. In summary, Pepper works like a slave for a couple of years and loses a part of himself in the process. But there is no doubt that he emerges with an education that makes him incredibly better at thinking. But really, is it worth it? Anyone who is having the Be-All-You-Can-Be-At-The-Top-Notch-Tech-School OR Settle-For-Less-And-Have-A-Real-Life debate with themselves needs this book. This book will push you to "having a real life." MIT sounds scary.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Relatively good
This book has useful insights on the inner workings of MIT, the lab work, its doctoral application process, and it gives you a well depicted idea of how is it like to study there. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Luis A. Torres
5.0 out of 5 stars It captures the essence of learning at the highest level
As an MIT graduate, I really appreciated this book as it brought back so many memories including the peer pressure to excel and the rigorous but casual attitude of the faculty. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Dr. James C. MacMillan
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening
Although the author went to MIT close to 30 years ago and some of what he experienced may be out-dated, I think the essense of an MIT education and how that differentiates with... Read more
Published on April 28, 2013 by B. Chen
1.0 out of 5 stars the book title is great but
the book title is great but the content is very negative and mediocre
It would give you a wrong impression on MIT and on great universities for genera. Read more
Published on March 16, 2013 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Not for non-engineering people
The author of the Kirkus Review that Amazon gives on the product page got it wrong - White did NOT enter MIT to get a Master's degree. Read more
Published on November 28, 2012 by D. Meyer
4.0 out of 5 stars book
This book arrived in the time before
promised and was in good condition.
If a person wanted an insight to one
of, or the best institution of higher
learning,... Read more
Published on March 6, 2012 by M. Clay
5.0 out of 5 stars What has tea leaves at the end of the cup got to do with fluid...
Do you really think you are smart and it is all there is to get everything in this world? Read this book and reconsider. (And no, I won't talk about tea leaves. Read more
Published on November 15, 2009 by Emre Sevinc
5.0 out of 5 stars MIT Personalized
This book gives a first hand account of one man's journey through graduate school at MIT. I will be attending this fall as a freshman undergraduate and from what I've seen of MIT... Read more
Published on August 14, 2009 by Scott Landers
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read if you're not going to MIT
If you're going to MIT, I bet there are loads of websites and info-dumps out there for you. This is the book for the rest of us, those that that wonder what it would have been... Read more
Published on May 17, 2008 by Dave English
4.0 out of 5 stars Good story, more revealing of why not to go to MIT, I think
I'll start with the disclaimers - I did not go to MIT, and didn't even think about applying. I did, however, get my master's and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering; did... Read more
Published on February 21, 2008 by T. Briggs
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