MIT has a secretive resident in Random Hall: the Milk. For two decades, this carton of milk has migrated from floor to floor; since it no longer requires refrigeration, it could appear in the laundry room, on top of the piano, or in the common area. In honor of its recent 21st birthday, Slice investigated this fascinating entity, its history, and its science.
Justin O. Cave ‘98 was the original owner of the Milk, which he purchased in 1994 in a half-hearted attempt to make mac and cheese. “When I tell this story,” he says, “I say I probably forgot the butter, but if you talked to people who know me, they’d probably suspect that the mac and cheese was more likely.” Life and Rush Week intervened, and the Milk sat neglected. Ten months past its expiration date, Cave re-discovered it and decided that his floor should throw it a birthday. Then, he says, they were stuck with it. “We can’t throw it out just after we had a birthday party for it. That would just be rude!”
Attention around the Milk intensified in 1995 when Random residents campaigned for it to win that year’s Ugliest Manifestation on Campus (UMOC) award. They offered to bring the Milk to the competition, but “that argument ultimately did not win the day—something about hazardous materials,” says Cave. So residents dressed in a Milk costume and served as its emissary. The Milk won that year, and “once that had happened, it became its own little celebrity—it can never be gotten rid of now.”
And thus, the Milk was allowed to remain, despite some strange-smelling changes that started to take place. When it ate through its carton, the residents kept the liquid in a plastic container. “At some point as a joke we actually did negotiate on behalf of the people of Earth a mutual non-aggression treaty with it,” says Cave. The Milk became a fixture of Random Hall. It won UMOC again in 1998, 2000, and 2003.
Nina Davis-Millis, housemaster of Random Hall, says the Milk is now a mostly harmless presence. “I don’t think it has any odor to it anymore. I am told that it used to smell very bad,” she says. “I definitely try not to get too close to it.”
These days the Milk, now a brownish-orange liquid, sits quietly. Technically, it may no longer be milk, according to Steven C. Murphy, fluid milk expert in the Milk Quality Improvement Program at Cornell University. “There likely are living organisms in some form or another, but it may have become so toxic or nutrient deficient that little growth is occurring and that few actually survived,” he says.
What would happen if ingested? Nothing good, according to Murphy. “It is possible that some toxic or illness-causing agents are in the mix, or it could be benign. I would not use it on my Cheerios.”
Toxic or not, Random Hall would never even dream of getting rid of the Milk now. Davis-Millis says, “We just think of it as a mascot—or millions of little mascots—run amok in there. I guess you can think of it in terms of when good science goes bad, or as far as Random Hall goes, as appreciating the random moment. It began with one act of forgetfulness and then a year later a friend saying, this could be trash, but let’s make it treasure.”
Cave is still shocked at the persistence of the Milk. “I figured it would be gone a year or two after I was gone,” he says. Every time he hears about the Milk, he and his friends get excited. “It’s still around! It’s older than my kids!”
“I just hope that they haven’t lost the mutual non-aggression treaty,” he added. “At some point it will become sentient, and, if it does, I hope that it’s kind and loving.”