Saturday, August 21, 2010

In Defense of the Infinite Corridor (MIT)

Occasionally I come across challenges to MIT’s Infinite Corridor based on its length compared to other corridors that may or may not exist elsewhere in the same universe. Of course, it is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that at a mere 147.491 Smoots from its entrance in building seven to the exit at building eight, the apparent length of the corridor is not very great. After all, the bridge connecting Boston to MIT measures a full 374.4 Smoots +/- one ear.

For a full explanation, I’ll draw on two of my fictional characters, walking the corridor for the first time in 1961, about the time that “IHTFP” became the de facto motto of the undergraduate student body.
“So this is what they call “the Infinite Corridor.” Bill said to me as we walked along the lengthy hallway from Building Seven to Building Fourteen.

“Don’t they also call it something else, Stonehenge or something?”

“ MIT-henge, I think,” he replied.

To the uninitiated, we were walking from MIT’s main entrance on Mass. Ave toward the Hayden Memorial Library. MIT people communicated largely in numbers: buildings, courses, departments, were all identified that way.

The Infinite Corridor is the hallway, 251 meters (825 feet, 0.16 miles) long, that runs through the main buildings of MIT. This corridor, which at its midpoint passes directly under the Great Dome, serves as the most direct indoor route between the east and west ends of the campus.

As for MIT-henge, on several days each year, the sun sets in alignment with the Infinite Corridor and shines along its entire length. "MIT-henge" is a reference to Stonehenge's alignment with the sun. This occurs on several days around January 31 and November 11.

Myself, I never considered it “Infinite” because of its length, as that would define infinity as linear, and we all know that, like our life stories, infinity always turns back upon itself. It was actually one of four to nine connecting corridors, one on each floor. Intersecting on each level were U-shaped corridors bending back to their start. Staircases stood in each intersection. Every serious physics student is familiar with the Möbius Strip, a model of infinity that can easily be created by taking a paper strip and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip together to form a loop. M. C. Escher has a famous example, “Möbius Strip II”, featuring ants crawling endlessly around the surface of one. Add his “Ascending and Descending” to represent the staircases and you have a well decorated dorm room. Escher’s prints were popular items at our bookstore, “The MIT COOP.”

These corridors and stairways of MIT, with pipes exposed overhead and radiation and electrical warnings on many doors, were all painted a drab grey-green, giving MIT an industrial era appearance contrasting starkly with the classical architecture of Harvard and Wellesley. Some of my classmates would dream they were lost forever in this maze. My nightmare was that the corridors were bones, and that the buildings had decayed away, leaving only the rib cage of a vast evil leviathan to bleach on the muddy shores of the Charles. And rumors persist that on moonless nights you may still encounter the ghost of Claude Shannon on his unicycle, juggling as he propels himself through the maze.

You might note that today MIT has many new buildings on campus, many connecting with the original network of corridors. But remember, if the corridor is already infinite, adding all those new connections doesn’t increase the length at all.

You can find an interactive map of the current MIT campus here.

The explanation above is drawn from “Killer App –A Murder at MIT,” my novel in progress.