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Two famous “dropouts” from Harvard and MIT respectively

已有 2228 次阅读 2022-8-13 16:23 |系统分类:海外观察

Almost everyone has heard of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Two famous undergraduate students who did not finish their Harvard studies but went on to become multi-billionaires. Lesser known are two MIT students whom I personally have known and who did not finish their graduate studies but also went onto most illustrious and successful careers.

The first is Morris Chang. He first went to Harvard but transferred to MIT in his sophomore year. He was one year ahead of me but we shared one course together in our UG studies. I did not know him well and lost track of him as we were majoring in different disciplines. But Wikipedia reports that he failed his doctoral qualifying examination twice and had to leave MIT graduate school. Later on he did well in Texas Instrument company and was supported by the company to get his Ph.d at Stanford. He also rose to very senior position in the company but was stopped by the Bamboo ceiling and did not get the CEO position. But Texas’s loss became Taiwan’s gain. Morris left and formed his own Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) which today controls 90% of the world's advanced integrated circuits production making Morris’s personal fortune in Billions. MIT in fact has now establish several Morris Chang awards to rectify her earlier “errors”. Better late than never, and to Chang’s credit he did not hold any grudges.

The second MIT graduate is probably the greatest scientist my own discipline in the second half of the 20th century, Rudolf Kalman of the “Kalman Filter” fame. He was three years senior in class rank at MIT’s EE Department. I remember him giving a brilliant invited talk during a department seminar on his master thesis work which I remembered and understood well even to this day. He also famously “failed” his doctoral qualified exam because, as I was later told by his major professor, “to teach him a lesson”.  Kalman has a somewhat difficult personality. Stories about his arrogance were many and legends for the second half of 20th century. I came to know his work in the late 50s when I returned to graduate study at Harvard and appreciated his contribution very early and coined the term “Kalman filter” for his greatest contribution to the literature. He and I got along well and co-authored the fundamental paper on “Controllability” which was only published in an obscure conference in Mexico in 1960 (How this come about is a story in  itself). Kalman personally told me that after MIT failed him in the qualifying exam, he angrily told the department that this is the greatest mistake of the department and immediately left Cambridge and drove three days and nights to CalTech on the west coast and demand to be admitted. Of course, at that time no one knew this unknown graduate student who is trying to revolutionized the field and refused his demand. With no other choice he went to work for the Dupont Chemical Company. Luckily, John Ragazzini, another giant in control theory, at that time was consulting for Dupont and recognized Kalman’s talent. He persuaded Kalman to enroll at Columbia where he finally got his Ph.D. The rest is history.

These two personal stories give further testament to the saying “If you don’t succeed at first, try and try again” and “to fail at MIT or Harvard is no shame”.




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