MIT grad challenge: connect wire, battery, light bulb


Originally published at:


Reminds me of the old joke: as man approaches 10 items or fewer queue with trolley in supermarket in Cambridge, checkout assistant asks “Are you Harvard and can’t count or MIT and can’t read?”

Sorry, accidentally posted in English. Here is a translation for those of you in Trumpistan:

as man approaches 10 items or less checkout line with shopping cart in supermarket in Cambridge, checkout assistant asks "Are you Harvard and can’t count or MIT and can’t read?

Thanks @rasmussen_bryan for drawing this to my attention. I’m afraid the leap second has obviously thrown my translation software out of gear.

[edit edit - I was told this story by an MIT grad who was living in England at the time. This was after I had told him I wished I had gone to MIT rather than Cambridge, UK. He had obviously been infected by our natural downbeatness.]


The video kind of muddles the point of the question. To me, the point is that it can’t be done as easily as the students expect, and certainly not with the results that they are picturing when asked and they answer. Overconfidence effect bias.


I suspect this is more clever editing or careful selection of subjects than reality. My PhD adviser went to MIT in the late 80s/early 90s, and even then a standard homework assignment in intro physics was to make a small electric motor with simple provided materials, and was something which pretty much everyone could do. The difference is some people did the obvious thing, and some people went crazy trying to get the fastest speed possible.

So yeah, it is fun to point to people who went to MIT and say “ha ha, they are stupid too”, but honestly I don’t believe this is reflective of reality. There are plenty of explanations for the results they show. It is rude to confront people while they are trying to have fun at graduation and ask them to do some "challenge’ on camera. Who knows how many people succeeded but weren’t shown. Trying to do this with the equipment shown is rather awkward if you only have two hands, which can fluster people.

And of course, trying to draw meaningful conclusions about education or psychology from such a “study” shows more about the person doing the study than the graduates being asked…


We’re they EE grads? If not I wouldn’t automatically expect someone to know how to do this. It’s like saying “lol you graduated with a masters in French and can’t fix my Renault.”

On the other hand, if they were EE grads, it’s perfectly ok to throw their diploma into a fire.


I went to an engineering school in the 80’s. My friend in the EE department swore that at least 50% of the EE seniors couldn’t explain how a TV worked. Granted, it’s a very specific application of electrical engineering, but still, it’s one that most of them used on a daily basis.


“Dr. Sadler first earned a B.S. in Physics from MIT in 1973 … Dr. Sadler has taught Harvard’s courses for students preparing to be science teachers and for the next generation of science professors.”

Typical elitist physicist. :wink:

But apropos the video: “Dr. Sadler’s research program includes assessment of students’ scientific misconceptions and how they change as a result of instruction”


Which is why you’d wind the wire to create a coil making it a voltage multiplier. Any first year EE should know this.


Seriously? I knew how to do this when I was 8, including the impossibility of lighting a 100w bulb with a 1,5v battery.
Also: Zero diploma. Dropped out of high school.


I hadn’t realised till I read that that it was having only two hands that causes me to get flustered, but now I realise that’s entirely right. Where can I get a third hand?

That was part of the physics O level (16+ exam) syllabus in the UK in the 1960s.
I am not suggesting things were more difficult then - far from it, there was a lot less physics then to know about - but it is one of the easiest experiments to do. Or was; a key ingredient (wooden cotton reels) doesn’t seem to be readily available these days.


First, “rude”? Seriously? JFC people, let’s try to dial it down just a smidgen, yeah? I suppose they didn’t include the film of the white dudes weeping into their newly acquired/rented Harvard/MIT gown as a response to the camerapeople?

Besides, they’re engineers. I’m not an engineer (nor do I play one on TV) but it was a simple puzzle that, given their smarts, I’d expect they would figure it out. I’ll give points for being excited or having one’s attention elsewhere at that moment, but it’s not like they were confronted with something requiring a server farm and solving a fourth-order integration.

tl;dr you don’t need a second wire, kids.



Yes, I thought that was very much the point. The look that the students had when they said “of course,” and then were handed the equipment and fumbled (or asked for “a hint”).

Sure, but the point was that they didn’t wire it up at all.

Obviously, though, it was edited. It’s a video trying to prove a point (by arch-rival Harvard professors, no less!), not a scientific paper.


maybe he was American and thought he was approaching the checkout line with a shopping cart?


Oh, I have plenty of things like that, but they’re never there when you need them, i.e. when you re getting flustered.


Cruel. I had unwittingly translated the story into English. WILLFIX.


I went to an upper tier engineering institute, where we had movies every Friday night. The media guys always had problems with the projector. The funniest was when a Panavision movie was started up without the special Panavision lens. Everything appeared squished sideways. After the media guys noticed it (which took a bit of audience yelling), they decided to put the lens on while the movie was still going. The squishing axis rotated around nauseatingly. Took awhile to get it just right.

Those guys are probably in charge of designing airplanes and defibrillators now.


Just so. Anyone who ended up at MIT should have learned this in HS. They seemed to not understand the idea of a “circuit”. I was wiring up batteries, motors and lights in homebuilt gadgets when I was 10. There were toys like Erector Set and model slot cars that involved this concept.


I stopped regretting that I don’t have an Ivy League degree when Bush The Younger was made president.


This is a thing? Don’t you mean a 120 Watt bulb?