I, Robot


Harvard president Lawrence Summers is facing his latest—and biggest—public relations disaster. Ever since he suggested in a speech last month that the lack of top female scientists could be due to “innate differences” in genetics and upbringing between men and women, the national outcry has been fierce. “It’s pandemonium,” says Harvard junior Simon Rich, president of The Harvard Lampoon, of the situation on campus. Some alumni are threatening to stop giving money. The New York Times ran a major article questioning Summers’s leadership skills. The National Organization for Women has called for his resignation.

I went to school down the street from Harvard, at M.I.T. While growing up, I was never made to feel that there were “innate differences” between men and women when it came to anything; besides, both of my parents were scientists. My father, an eccentric chemistry professor, only once remarked that there were innate differences between me and my two brothers. “You’re smarter than they are,” he said. “You should be a scientist.” He’d sneak me into the nearby Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University on weekends to do my homework as a kid and started me on thick textbooks about physics and organic chemistry as soon as I learned how to read. By the time I was 12, he had me proofreading the scientific manuscripts he was preparing for publication, and at age 13 I applied to work in my first chemistry lab. I had just bought my first Kraftwerk record—The Man-Machine—and decided that robots were the future and that I wanted to be one.

That summer I worked in my first laboratory, teaching a giant magnet connected to a robot arm how to conduct chemistry experiments. I met a kid there who was a year or two older than me, and he was applying to a place called M.I.T., where, according to what I’d heard, everyone liked robots if they weren’t robots already, and where everyone believed technology was the future. I looked up to him, partially because he seemed to know more about robots than I did, and we became fast friends. We fell out of contact, but a few years later, he—by then a student at M.I.T.—encouraged me to apply there, and I did.

A few months before I got to campus in the autumn of 1997, I got a letter from a tiny group calling itself the M.I.T. Extropians. They had mailed an inflammatory—and wholly unauthorized—eight-page pamphlet to the entire incoming freshman class, myself included. In it, they praised hoary teenage standbys like Ayn Rand, Beethoven, and Nietzsche; waxed philosophical about life extension, cybernetics, and neural networks; and disturbingly issued several sweeping statements about women and minorities, lashing out against affirmative action and M.I.T.’s liberal diversity policies. These guys were much more strident and extreme than Summers could ever be accused of being, even considering his worst verbal gaffes.

The pamphlet included choice lines like “The average woman or ‘underrepresented minority’ at M.I.T. is less intelligent, less intellectual, and less ambitious. . . . The average woman majors in the softer, less mathematical majors, by contrast with the average man, who majors in the harder, more mathematical majors.” The examples they offered of these “softer” majors were biology, my chosen field of chemistry, materials science, architecture, and civil and environmental engineering. It went on to say, “Ask upperclasswomen, better yet ask a sorority (who set out to rush 40% of the freshwomen every year), how often a group of women will sit down on the weekend, or Friday night, to discuss what Bell’s Theorem and the Aspect Experiment imply for a hidden variables interpretation of quantum mechanics.”

The pamphlet ended with a ludicrous “Open Letter to the Prometheans, Class of 2001,” a list of recommendations that included reading bad sci-fi and listening to chestnuts like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and—finally and most crucially—the signatures of all three of the M.I.T. Extropians. Finally I could see who these morons were.

One of the three names was my buddy from high school—the one who encouraged me to come to M.I.T. in the first place. I felt like I’d been kicked in the face.

When I got to campus, I confronted him. “How could you do this?”

He looked bemused. “I didn’t mean you,” he said. “You deserve to be here. We meant, like, other girls.”

I wanted to punch him but restrained myself. Besides, I’d never punched anyone in my life. And he was taller.

That’s the only time in my life that I’ve felt discriminated against for being a female in science. Happily, M.I.T. was an open, democratic system—no one cared if you were male or female, black or white, robot or nonrobot, as long as you could do the work. Being a great scientist or engineer has little to do with those superficial human designations. As students, we were joined by a single bond: We were all nerds. Besides, there were plenty of other girls at M.I.T., and I was relieved to find out that nearly all of my classmates thought that the Extropians were completely out of their minds. They got into major trouble with the administration, and M.I.T. refused to recognize them as a legitimate student group. A few guys from the M.I.T. humor magazine even dubbed themselves the M.I.T. Entropians, and handed out hundreds of copies of their own pamphlet, a ferocious line-by-line parody of the original.

Years later, after I graduated, I ran into two of the three M.I.T. Extropians in New York City. What had happened to those three weirdos who fantasized about being lone misunderstood geniuses, of being Ender in Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game? The ones that were going to cryogenically freeze themselves for life after death, who were going to upload their brains onto computers, who were investigating the deepest issues in artificial intelligence? None of them were actively doing science anymore. My former friend had discovered raves and told me excitedly that he’d spent the past year getting wildly immersed in San Francisco’s psychedelic trance scene.

“No more Mahler?” I asked.

“No more Mahler.”

Geeta Dayal is a writer living in Brooklyn. “The Acid Test,” her story on LSD research, appeared last month in the Voice Education Supplement.