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The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  248 ratings  ·  32 reviews
This is a personal story of the educational process at one of the world's great technological universities.This is a personal story of the educational process at one of the world's great technological universities. Pepper White entered MIT in 1981 and received his master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1984. His account of his experiences, written in diary form, offe ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published October 12th 2001 by MIT Press (first published 1991)
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Average rating 3.81  · 
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Said AlMaskery
Jul 13, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biography
This book is more like a detailed MIT-university-student biography. Initially it was interesting, but then it becomes a little bit boring with irrelevant details.

I enjoyed the idea of the book (not the book), and if it were half the length it would have made an excellent read. Also being on a MIT course makes it a bit more interesting to explore what full time year student pass through in this prestigious university.

The most important extract was the following;
"It doesnt really matter what you
Jan 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
What a great book. The geek in me was totally into hearing about how people become engineers at MIT. He kept up the comic relief throughout the book, which is appreciated when the more serious issues rear their head. The reality of Pepper's experience hits you pretty hard. He has the great ability to relate his story well. His conclusions (closure chapter) pretty much erased any inclination that I had to go back to school at a place like MIT or UCB, etc. ...more
Lauri Zag
Oct 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
I liked this book. The narrating voice was approachable and interesting, even when explaining or ranting about an advanced mechanical engineering problem I had no background on. The pacing of Pepper's grad school experience was well thought out and allowed me to immerse myself in the story. He explains that a lot of the characters are composites; even so, they feel three-dimensional and emotional(i just really enjoyed that we get a play-by-play of what in this nonfiction has been fabricated). It ...more
Oct 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I loved the technical descriptions, problems and proposed solutions! There are lots of things I identified with having had similar experiences in grad school. The talk of suicides is disheartening though.

This was definitely not the best book to have read 3 weeks before my own PhD quals... I suppose my time would have been better spent studying instead. Now I plan to redouble my efforts for sure.
Aug 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book chronicles the experiences of Pepper White, a mechanical engineering graduate student at MIT during the early '80s. I found this to be a compelling and entertaining read - I brought it with me on vacation and couldn't put it down. ...more
Apr 04, 2021 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This was a really interesting read, although it felt inconsistent; as I think other reviewers have noted, the nature of the book involved a lot of flipping between the "soft" side of grad school (conversations, activities outside of class/work, etc.) and the "hard" details of problems.

Although the book makes an admirable attempt to explain the hard details to a lay audience, it still felt like a struggle to get through these parts -- I wanted to avoid skimming these sections, but it was either t
Mar 25, 2022 rated it really liked it
This was an almost unbelievably detailed account of a mechanical engineering student's pursuit of a master's degree at MIT in the mid 1980's. I enjoyed the story and could not help comparing it to my own studies in graduate engineering about ten years earlier at an Ivy league school. Pepper White had a much more "hands on" education than I did, as well as a much more limited education in the role of mathematics in the engineering sciences, which was surprising to me. He was also able to interact ...more
Warning: this is not an inspirational read, there is quite some suicide talk and it will probably make you NOT want to go to MIT (or at least 1980s MIT). Still, Pepper White keeps a remarkable levity in remembering his life in a system that pays less than zero attention to your existence as a human being, as its one and only goal is turning you into an engineer, whatever it takes. If you're interested in electronics, physics and such, you will enjoy the problems and solutions - if you don't, the ...more
Mar 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very enjoyable read even when considering my vested interest.
I am currently about to finish my mechanical engineering degree at a much lesser university many years after Pepper did his. Pepper talks through some very interesting ways about thinking about problems that I have been tackling blindly for years.
Jithu Krishna
May 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Its just a mediocre story of a student at any of the prestigious institutes (here MIT). You can read it if you have not been to one. Not much inspiring though, just gives a glimpse of MIT life.
Jon Derbyshire
Oct 18, 2020 rated it liked it
RIP Pepper
Asmawi Mohamad
*personal* is the key word here. There's not much that you can learn actually. Most are personal anecdotes. ...more
Thierry Uwilingiyimana
Apr 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: math, education
I just finished this book today (4/27/2015) and would like to quickly jot down my thoughts. I'll revisit this review to clean it up.
I've always been curious about the institution that is MIT. Pepper did a fabulous job walking me through the halls of MIT and into the classrooms, sharing the problems sets and the little insights through which he learned to think like an engineer. As he shares in the notes at the beginning of the book, he delivers an uncensored recounting of his experience during
Aug 25, 2009 rated it liked it
Who new that fluid dynamics could be so interesting....I've actually now spent some time trying to figure out what the heck 'entropy' actually means. Thus far I've deduced that it's related to Newton's principles as well as one of the first principles of thermodynamics. It has something to do with the chaos that results when energy is added to a system??? There was a picture that showed a pile of bricks and a neat stack of bricks; if the bricks fall off a truck then they are going to fall in a d ...more
Mar 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
(4.0) Makes me glad I didn't end up going... ;)

In the tradition of One-L and Ahead of the Curve (actually reading that now ;) ), first-hand account of what it was like to be a course 2 (mechE) grad student at MIT in the eighties. Good anecdotes, well-told, though some of the early conversations just feel way too condensed to have been real. I was surprised at how focused everyone (at least in the eyes of Pepper) was so focused on grades. That's very surprising, especially if everyone is as brill
Apr 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
If your life revolves around technical or complex problems then the ability to think and reason clearly, accurately, and precisely is all important. This books is an easy read describing the experiences of a graduate student at MIT who "learns how to think" - which is what graduate school, and life, is really all about. ...more
Juanita Baltz
Nov 24, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a really cool book about what it is like to attend MIT. It is a small book and I thought it was a fast read. I read it a very long time ago and am glad to learn it is still available. I recommended it for a pre college read and was told it was horrible. Perhaps it is a book that only works in retrospect.
Aug 31, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-adult
Interesting to read about MIT since I went to engineering school at SUNY Buffalo because I got a much better aid package than at MIT. Also, interesting to know that he struggled with one of the same problems (tank filling a balloon), that I remember! Unbelievable that he went without funding as that was the primary reason for my college choice.
Jul 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Pepper White, Inspiring Hero. Made me think to uplift my potentials. Real sync - can easily correlate his words to your imagination. Loved the way he projected scenarios in different phases. Best inspiring book i ever read...
Luis Angel
Jun 08, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book has useful insights on the inner working of MIT, its doctoral application process, and it gives you a well depicted idea of how is it like to study there. even though there were boting parts, this is a great book and a very informative one.
Nov 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. I found it very interesting.
Edward Shepherd
Dec 20, 2008 rated it liked it
MIT is not unique in teaching 'how to think' rather than 'regurgitative' learning. An interesting book ... recommended. ...more
Jun 25, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
As an MIT alum, I figured I would enjoy this book, but couldn't get past White's whining. It was hard...enough already. ...more
Nick Black
Dec 23, 2009 marked it as to-read
Shelves: to-acquire
Referenced at, "Everything I wanted to know about C.S. graduate school at the beginning but didn't learn until later." ...more
Oct 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
Very entertaining read. Relatively insightful.
Nicholas Wang
Too much whining and too much elitism for my tastes.
Tom Olmsted
Apr 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
Takes place in the 80s but still gives you some idea of being a grad student at the best engineering university in the world.
Sep 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
If you're interested in an engineering career, you should read this. ...more
I would like to read this book, as it seems to be the best experiences of pepper in MIT.
Nadia Shireen Siddiqi
Apr 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
The book that introduced me to M.I.T's Infinite Corridor, Suicide point on a cliff and Pepper White has a very casual familial open voice.

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