And You Shall Be as Gods

Scientist/engineer in front of two containers of emanating vapors
Mural detail showing the scientist/engineer presenting both good and bad outcomes of knowledge

I completed my undergraduate studies at MIT in the late 1980s. The art and architecture of the campus always fills me with awe, but one specific mural has always occupied a special place within my memories and imagination.

First a little history. MIT started out across the bay in Boston-proper way back in 1861. After a few decades, the school outgrew its campus in the increasingly expensive Back Bay area of Boston, and in 1916 the campus moved to its current location across the Charles River in Cambridge, where property values weren’t quite so ritzy. The original buildings on the new campus are those iconic and imposing neoclassical buildings surrounding the Great Dome and what is now known as Killian Court. One of the other originals was the Walker Memorial Building, which among other things was a student dining hall up until around 2004, from what I understand. Back in 1930, a famous muralist of the time, Edwin Howland Blashfield – who graduated from MIT in 1869 with a degree in Civil Engineering – adorned the main dining room’s tall walls with giant murals intending to depict the Institute, Knowledge and the pursuit thereof.

Fast forward half a century (and change), and imagine a poor little student frequently sitting in what was still a student dining hall at the time, under those murals, still unsure of what he wanted to be when he grew up. I was eating my chocolate-chip muffin, staring up at these colossal depictions of cherubs and gods and demons… and students… I didn’t know what the heck was going on there. One mural particularly interested me. At its center is this scientist-dude decked out in what appeared to be 1860s-style lab garb. He’s presenting two large urns before him, each with emanating vapors: one that looks pretty good, with the smoke circling happy little nymphs and a pretty lady holding a cornucopia, about to lay a wreath on the scientist’s head. The other circles around a rather menacing Darth Sideous and a couple hounds-of-war-looking dogs. A large, kinda creepy naked lady is in the background at the top, melting into the trees; and before the scientist are four dudes at a table, looking up at him as if for his advice or consultation. The mural potentially offers a tiny explanation: at the bottom are two cherubs holding up a plaque inscribed in Latin. “ET ERITIS SICVT DII SCIENTES BONVM ET MALVM.” Well, I don’t speak Latin, so that wasn’t much of a help… until curiosity got the better of me.

One day I went to the bookstore and picked up a Latin-English dictionary. I brought it back to the dining hall and translated the inscription to read [remember, I don’t speak Latin, so take this for what it’s worth]: “And you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Wow. That was pretty deep. I thought maybe the mural possibly was meant to reflect the state of science and engineering around the late 19th century, back when some scientists believed they had discovered everything there was to know. They were feeling pretty cocky at the time, and thought they had the keys to all the Universe and could present to world leaders the ideas and options that could be leveraged for either good or evil – so watch out!

Fast-forward another term or two, and my semester schedule included an “Ancient Literature” class. One of our assigned texts was the Book of Genesis from the King James version of the Bible. Imagine my surprise when I come to Chapter 3, Verse 5, where the serpent tempts Eve with the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge – using that exact same line. So… the artist painted a huge mural depicting the goals of the Institute – the discovery and application of knowledge – as a warning that said Knowledge might be used for either good or evil – by quoting the silky exhortations of pure evil himself!

Honestly, I felt that was pretty darn weird.