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MIT's 'Maverick Genius'

As MIT celebrates its 150th anniversary this month, the Guardian's Ed Pilkington wonders, "what makes the university such a fertile ground for brilliant ideas?" For the past 150 years, MIT has led the way in scientific innovation, as its professors discovered the telephone, electromagnets, radar, office photocopiers, myriad cancer treatments, pocket calculators, computers, the internet, lasers, the code of the human genome, and more, Pilkington says. And that leadership has allowed the West, and especially the US, to remain dominant in the world of science, he adds. As the US struggles to rebuild its economy and maintain that "global dominance," it needs MIT's help, Pilkington says. "MIT has an enormous responsibility right now," says MIT President Susan Hockfield. "We feel that deeply. It needs to be a beacon of inspiration around the power of science and technology to create a brighter future for the world." Hockfield offers two reasons why MIT is so innovative: meritocracy and diversity. Hockfield is the university's first female president, and while the faculty is still only 21 percent women, the student balance is almost 50-50. MIT also specializes in taking people from various disciplines and putting them together, Pilkington says. This is especially evident in the new David Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where scientists, engineers, and clinicians are all working together toward the same goal. "It's not just another university, it has this pre-eminent reputation and that in turn sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy: as soon as it becomes seen as the cool place to go for technology, then people will head there as I did," MIT's Tim Berners-Lee tells Pilkington. "Even though I spend my time with my head buried in the details of web technology, or travelling the world, the nice thing is that when I do walk the corridors I bump into people who are working in other fields that are fascinating, and that keeps me intellectually alive."

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