MIT culture distinguishes itself not only for its seriousness of purpose, but also for its unique sense of humor, as expressed through "hacking." Hacks at the Institute are elaborate but benign practical jokes, perpetrated anonymously on campus, around Cambridge, or even farther afield, and that amaze for their creativity, cleverness, and difficulty of execution. A 1958 prank in which the Harvard Bridge was measured in increments of fraternity pledge Oliver Smoot has achieved such fame that "smoot" has been incorporated into the American Heritage Dictionary and is included as a unit of measure in Google Earth. The bridge still displays its quirky unit of measure today.
Although not officially sanctioned, hacks can be appreciated for their technical prowess and humorous digs at rival institutions, for example in the astonishing emergence of a large black weather balloon with MIT written all it over in the middle of a Harvard-Yale football game in 1982, or in the 2006 cross-country theft of Caltech’s Fleming Cannon. Other famous hacks involve rather large objects falling from building rooftops (the Baker House Piano Drop) or appearing where they don’t belong, most notably on MIT’s Great Dome, which over the years has been graced by a Hilltop Steakhouse plastic cow, a Campus Police cruiser, the Wright Flyer, an MIT fire truck, and the Apollo Lunar Module.
Not content to just produce exceptional graduates in the usual fields of study, the Institute also offers its swashbuckling students the opportunity to become certified pirates. Students who complete four physical education courses—archery, fencing, pistol (or rifle), and sailing—are eligible to receive a Pirate Certificate, officially awarded by the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation. In addition to receiving a tangible document printed on faux parchment, newly minted pirates are rumored to swear a secret oath. Although they are no longer lily-livered landlubbers, their pirating activities nevertheless are limited to “entertainment purposes only.”
In a ritual long enjoyed by MIT undergraduates, a committee of sophomores gathers each year to design their class ring, which is ceremoniously revealed during the spring term. The history of MIT’s class ring dates back to 1929 when a student committee convened to design what is formally known as the “Standard Technology Ring.” Featuring a beaver on top (an industrious, nocturnal, American animal), the Boston and Cambridge skylines on the sides, and the MIT seal and dome on the shank, the ring also incorporates unique design elements related to each individual graduating class. Made of gold, the ring’s nickname, “the Brass Rat,” derives from its color—similar to brass—and the prominence of the beaver mascot—resembling a rat.
A concrete symbol of an MIT education, the distinctive Brass Rat is recognized worldwide and instantly identifies MIT alumni to one another, serving as a reminder of the bond that all MIT students share.
F.A.T. Chain Reaction
For 19 years, the Friday After Thanksgiving (F.A.T.) Chain Reaction has been a highly anticipated event that brings participants together to link their chain reaction devices in order to form one enormous, collaborative chain reaction, which is then set off as the culmination of the afternoon. Participants range from Girl Scout troops to artists and engineers, from MIT clubs to middle schools and family teams. More than 1,000 people attend this giant chain reaction each year.
MIT Mystery Hunt
The MIT Mystery Hunt is a puzzle hunt competition that takes place on the MIT campus every year in January. The hunt challenges each participating team to solve a large number of puzzles that lead to an object (called a “coin”) hidden somewhere on campus. The winning team gets to write the subsequent year’s hunt. Mystery Hunt was launched in 1981 and is widely regarded as one of the oldest and most complex puzzle hunts in the world. It attracts more than 2,000 people every year and has inspired similar competitions at universities, companies, and cities around the world.
In true MIT fashion, the Institute typically releases admission decisions on Pi Day (March 14), an annual celebration of the mathematical constant. Frequently, these admissions decisions are released at 6:28 p.m., which is known colloquially as “Tau time” (Πx2). An exception was made for the release time of early decisions on March 14, 2015—known as “Super Pi Day” as the date reflects the full first five digits of Pi (3.1415)—when admissions decisions were released at 9:26 a.m. in order to continue with the next three digits of Pi. MIT Admissions creates a humorous video to accompany the announcements and celebrate the tradition, and posts this to the MIT Admissions Blog.