MIT model explains how the brain can learn novel tasks while still remembering what it has already learned.
If MIT sophomore Alex Weathers had remembered that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was not born in the United States, he might still be playing Jeopardy.
In a program taped in March and broadcast last week on Channel 7 locally, Mr. Weathers faltered when asked which current cabinet member is the last woman in the line of succession to the presidency.
"Who is Madeleine Albright," replied Mr. Weathers, a chemical engineering major from Greer, SC. "Who" should have been Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
By the time he missed on his fourth appearance on the air, Mr. Weathers had made it to the Final Jeopardy round of the College Championship and won $16,199. Volvo is matching his winnings in a gift to MIT.
Ms. Albright was born in Prague, and while the secretary of state is the first cabinet member in the line of succession (after Vice President Albert Gore, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Strom Thurmond of South Carolina), the president must be a native-born American citizen.
The first woman in the line of succession is Attorney General Janet Reno, who was born in Miami. She is fourth in line in the cabinet, behind the secretaries of state, defense and treasury. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Ms. Shalala follow Ms. Reno, the eighth and ninth cabinet members in line.
Mr. Weathers, an occasional viewer of Jeopardy, sent a postcard to the producers and was invited to tryouts in North Carolina last summer. He swept through the preliminary rounds into the on-air group. Competitive shows were taped at the University of California at Berkeley on March 24-25. The other contestants were the eventual winner, Andrew Hutchings of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA (who took home $17,100), and Shane Underwood of the University of Alabama. The other two competitors are both graduating seniors.
Once he was chosen to compete, Mr. Weathers prepared for the competition by watching the show religiously, often with his brothers at the Delta Tau Delta house in Boston. By the time the big day arrived, he was ready for prime time.
After he flunked out of the show, Mr. Weathers felt let down -- "but I was glad to get on the show in the first place." The biggest surprise? "How absurd it is to see yourself on television." The biggest kick, besides the money? "Hearing from lots of old friends who saw me on TV."
Mr. Weathers was not the first MIT student to match wits with opponents on Jeopardy. Christopher Morse, a graduate student in chemistry, won a 35-inch TV set and a gaggle of other prizes last year on the show. Freshman Tanis O'Connor of Clearwater, FL, announced on the air that she was going to attend MIT while competing on the program. She won $5,000.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.