The Mysterious Markings on the Bridge to MIT

APRIL 2018
Nuclear Science and Engineering

A bridge: “a structure carrying a pathway or roadway over a depression or obstacle” (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

As a daily pedestrian across one such bridge (the Harvard bridge, spanning the Charles River to MIT) I agree that it is a structure carrying a pathway. However, I object to the use of the word obstacle, with all of its negative connotation, in describing the beautiful Charles River.

On a crisp Autumn day as I walk home from class, the breeze flits over the river and brushes my cheek, and the sapphire waves glint like 1000 tiny diamonds. This “obstacle” has come to be something that I enjoy in all its moods – from the placid mirror-like gray of a calm cloudy day to the chaotic crashing black of a stormy evening. I not only have the beauty of the river to admire on my daily constitutional that takes me to and from MIT, but I have also had quite a few interesting experiences on the journey, each of which has taught me something new.

One occurred in my first few days of living in Boston. The river is a sanguine aquamarine, with the occasional sparkle, reminding you of the life within. Not only is it a beautiful day, but I have finally solved the mystery of the strange painted markings that occur at regular intervals (on the sidewalk of the bridge. ‘10 smoots,’ ’30 smoots,’ ‘220 smoots,’ what is this nonsense? The first time I crossed the bridge, I felt like I was reading a Dr. Seuss novel … ‘one smoot’, ‘two smoot’, ‘red smoot’, ‘blue smoot’ … that is until today when I actually discovered the meaning. As with most interesting observations that I have made at MIT, it has a fascinating history.

The pledge-master of the MIT fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha in 1958 did not share my passion for bridge crossing and wanted a way to know his progress on the bridge at any point en route. To accomplish this, he set the pledge class of the fraternity the task of measuring the bridge length (about .5 miles in ordinary units) using only the height of the shortest pledge, Oliver Smoot. Smoot was up to the task and spent a strenuous 1.5 hours laying himself on the bridge so that his fellow brothers could mark the bridge length every 10 smoots (in total coming up with 364.4 smoots).

In proper scientific form, they even stated their uncertainty: plus or minus 1 ear. Serendipitously, Smoot went on to become the president of the International Organization for Standardization. The marks still exist to perplex uninitiated bridge crossers today because Lambda Chi Alpha brothers faithfully repaint them every year. As an interesting side note, Google calculator actually recognizes the smoot as a standard distance measurement. The unit has entered my personal lexicon as well, as I have been known to tell my mom, when talking to her on my way home, “Yeah, I am nearly over the bridge; I only have 20 smoots to go.”

This story taught me two important things about MIT that I had not fully internalized before coming here. The first is the mere influence and history of this place. Not only do we have our own special unit in Google Calculator, but I am constantly astounded by the significance of the ground on which I tread.

Every day I walk by the building housing the office of Rainer Weiss, the 2017 Nobel Laureate in physics for his contributions to the detection of gravitational waves. Are you serious? I feel as though this ground is laced with gold and that I am surrounded and supported by all of the incredible minds whose footsteps I am now following. This is where they lived and worked and thought and struggled and dreamed and discovered. We get to do the same on this hallowed ground on which the pages of history were written. Imagine: you quite likely walked on the same path taken by Richard Feynman when he studied here. How could that knowledge fail to inspire?

Secondly, this story taught me the lasting impact that just 1.5 hours of work can have. It is critical to do everything to the absolute best of your ability because at MIT you never know what it could turn into. Any trivial task or decision has the potential to inform the trajectory of your life. I feel that there are few locations in the world where this statement is more true than it is here at MIT.