ezyang’s blog

the arc of software bends towards understanding

Why I am in Cambridge

I am studying computer science this academic year at Cambridge University, not MIT. For some people, this seems quite strange: when I tell old friends at MIT and new acquaintances at Cambridge about the fact that I am a Cambridge-MIT Exchange student, they say, “Why?” Sometimes, it’s some disbelief at the fact that I am choosing to leave the familiar social circles and situations that mark MIT. Other times, it’s some disbelief that I would want to study computer science at Cambridge rather than MIT (“Just joking,” they add, though I’m not necessarily sure I believe them.)

I would like to explain why, in terms of both before leaving for Cambridge and also how my perspectives have changed after a mere three days in the college. This is a post for future students considering CME, my parents who anxiously want to know how I am doing at Cambridge, and for everyone who may at some point have asked me why. Oh, and there might be something about the functional programming research in Cambridge. wink

Foreign exchange program was always something I had vague intentions of doing while applying to colleges. When you haven’t done sufficient thinking about a subject, or haven’t experienced enough to really have enough data, your ideas are molded by platitudes and truisms like “it will be a good experience” and “you’ll learn more about the world than just the US.” It’s a bit like describing a hurricane as ‘wet’; it’s vacuously true and not very useful. My impressions about what college life might be like were similarly vague.

MIT swept away those preconceptions and made me understand what my college life would be like. And, to tell the truth, I liked it. MIT is busy—it doesn’t give much time for introspection—but when I was able to step away from it all for just a moment and see myself talking about how chroots work while walking home from the Stata center, or working out with a person I really respect and admire how to encode the Futamura projections in Haskell, or finding myself in control of a fictional economy in a live-action role playing game, or staying up all night in a room with my friends talking about relationships until the sun pokes through the window... it makes you fiercely loyal to the place. By the end of my freshman year summer, I was incredibly ready to return to MIT.

But MIT is a slightly pathological environment (perhaps that’s how it attracts the people it does.) And one of the things it is able to do is make you tired. Not just from missing sleep: it also stems from things like having been up for classes since 10AM and having had not more than hour to yourself before some other class or activity demanded your time. Though I have never definitively burned out (usually a weekend of marathoning some TV show is enough to cure me), I see many of my friends constantly sparring with (and occasionally succumbing to) the beast. But I found myself feeling tired, and when the information session for the CME program came up, it seemed extremely timely.

I was not really alone in feeling this way; I saw some familiar faces at the information session, and they expressed similar feelings. And some of these people, in the end, decided not to do the program, because they just couldn’t bring themselves to leave MIT. I suspect that just “feeling tired” would not have been enough to make me go to Cambridge. But the topic had brought back a memory of the summer of my Junior year that became a driving force.

This was the possibility of an alternate reality Edward; one who had not gone to a university where computer scientists were not spilling out of the walls and my social groups were not almost entirely composed of people who, in some way or another, were studying science or engineering. A universe where Edward had gone to a liberal arts university where people did not constantly boast about how “hosed” they were. Post-MIT, it would have been impossible to imagine, except for the fact that I had attended a little program called Governor’s School for the Arts and put away my computer for my oboe and hanged out in the room of a creative writer with artists, actors and other musicians. It was just a month: a mere taste. But it was a taste I never forgot.

It was enough to make me seriously consider the possibility, and let my parents know about it. They strongly approved, which pushed me even further. I decided I’d write the requisite essay and see if they’d admit me. They did.

There are not many major decisions in my life that I have agonized over. This one was a whisper in the cacophony of MIT life. I accepted, and it was a simple, plain fact, with no real impact on my life. MIT was still MIT, my life was still ordinary, life moved on.

My father had always bugged me to “have lunch with every computer science professor at MIT.” I went as far to compile a list of all of the professors and their rooms, so that I could track them down in person. But I never did it: I could never figure out what we would talk about, and in that case, it seemed like a waste of both my time and the professor’s time, unless he was feeling in the mood for doing a bit of advocacy for his work.

Summer at Galois set my decision that I wanted to pursue functional programming in some shape or form as a computer scientist. Once I figured out what it was I actually doing, it was as if my eyes were opened. I learned about research groups at MIT that I had never heard about before, I suddenly discovered that I had a small kernel of research ideas that I could grow as I read and learned more about the computer science research. I had not thought at all about the academics of Cambridge (such a famous university ought to have a sufficient computer science department.)

Now I looked, and I was quite pleased to discover that Cambridge University seemed to be more in line with these research interests than MIT was. The basic undergraduate curriculum covers such topics as denotational semantics, types and Hoare logic. Simon Peyton Jones and Simon Marlow, my two idols, work at Microsoft Research Cambridge. It’s right next to the Cambridge Computer Lab: I dropped by just to squee at the location before heading back home. Several research groups work in areas that feed into functional programming: the Automated Reasoning group holds lunches with talks every week. Glasgow, which was the epicenter of the functional programming movement a few decades ago, is within striking distance.

I believe in the ability for individuals to shape their destiny, but I don’t really believe people know what they’re shaping it to: they just make adjustments when things happen that they don’t like. And sometimes it takes a giant irrational change to move you out of the local optimum. My reasons for going to Cambridge are irrational: how do I know if Cambridge will be less stressful than MIT or if I will actually restore parts of that alternate universe Edward. It’s entirely up to me whether or not I take advantage of the resources around me in Cambridge (I haven’t yet, but it’s only four days in...) But here I am. Nothing has happened yet. But everything is in place. And I am optimistic.

8 Responses to “Why I am in Cambridge”

  1. Brent Yorgey says:

    Have a great time! Cambridge is a fantastic place. I spent June-August at MSR—for very different reasons—but I think you will like it.

  2. Yeah, I noticed! It sounded like you had a blast at MSR; it’s definitely something I want to do at some point.

  3. Piper says:

    Wow, this is a spectacular post.

    Good luck shaping your own destiny. I think this journey is going to be fantastic :-)

  4. Ivan Lazar Miljenovic says:

    In case you haven’t seen it, here is Richard Feynman’s rationale for why he didn’t go to MIT for graduate school (from “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman”):

    When I was an undergraduate at MIT I loved it. I thought it was a great place, and I wanted to go to graduate school there too, of course. But when I went to Professor Slater and told him of my intentions, he said, “We won’t let you in here.”
    I said, “What?”
    Slater said, “Why do you think you should go to graduate school at MIT?”
    “Because MIT is the best school for science in the country.”
    “You think that?”
    “That ‘s why you should go to some other school. You should find out how the rest of the world is.”

  5. Sam Martin says:

    Feynmann had another great tale called “Don’t you have time to think?”. I have no knowledge of life at MIT so I wouldn’t want to suggest whether it’s applicable here, but it’s a great read if you haven’t come across it yet.

    Anyway, welcome to Cambridge!

  6. Ivan says:

    Very nice post!

    I’d like to know how you’re doing in Cambridge nowadays.

    Maybe you could write another post about it, huh?

    Anyway, good luck, and I hope you’re enjoying your experience!

  7. Celine says:

    Yes! Please tell us more about your life in England!
    I also want to know more about your eurotrip, with all the details!
    Hope you enjoyed your stay in paris.

  8. Joel M says:

    Wow, interesting decision and an interesting read. I’d love to study at somewhere in the U.S such as MIT or CalTech. How are things working out?

Leave a Comment