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Alumni Letters

Letters from our readers
June 23, 2008

Katherine Bourzac did a superb job taking a complex subject, the search for cosmic gravitational waves, and bringing it to life (“Catching Einstein’s Waves,” May/June 2008). I was particularly struck by the researchers’ current hope that upgraded detectors might register a wave by 2014. Einstein’s general theory of relativity was introduced in 1915, and these waves are the theory’s last prediction to be confirmed directly. Their discovery would be a wonderful and fitting present for the theory’s centennial celebration.
Marcia Bartusiak, visiting professor
MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing

I enjoyed “Catching Einstein’s Waves,” but one thing the author stated roused my curiosity. How do we know that gravity waves, if they even exist, travel at the speed of light? Gravity seems to have little else in common with electromagnetic waves.
John Patterson ‘67
California, MD

Scott Hughes, assistant professor of physics at MIT, replies:
In relativity theory, all forms of radiation travel at the speed of light. For gravitational waves, our evidence goes deeper than this theoretical expectation, though: physicists have observed the waves’ effect by watching the orbits of certain binary stars evolve as the radiation drains energy from the system. If gravitational waves did not travel at the speed of light, the measured effect would disagree with theory.

Instead, in all cases the observed agreement is extremely good.

I was heartened to read about Amos Winter’s exploits in the developing world (“A Serendipitous Passion,” May/June 2008)–both by the outcome and by the irony that his plan to get a vacation with his girlfriend was foiled by his own ingenuity. It shows the best of what I have always associated with MIT: an indomitable will to get what you want, and a total inability to escape trying to solve a problem when presented with it. What Amos has done shows that engaging the problems of the developing world head-on can have life-changing results, not just for the giver or the receiver, but for an entire chain of people.

It is for just this reason that the Class of 1978 has chosen to advance the cause of the Public Service Center. I urge the entire MIT community to join us in assisting the PSC and the students of MIT as they build wealth in the developing world.
Peter Cheimets ‘78
Winchester, MA

It was a pleasure to read the piece on cellist Carlos Prieto–a truly remarkable man for so many reasons (“Once More, with Feeling,” May/June 2008). People like Carlos are exemplars of what the Institute develops.

Many MIT students are not only engineers or scientists but gifted artists as well. MIT recognized this years ago, implementing programs in music, the visual arts, and later, theater. These disciplines do not merely let students “blow off steam” at the intellectual boiler that is MIT. They also satisfy students’ profound need to be creative in multiple fields.

When Carlos played at Killian Hall in February, the room was at standing-room-only capacity. Enormously gracious and successful by every measure, Carlos inspired our students. We in the Music and Theater Arts Section are proud to share him with engineering and economics as one of our own.
Janet Sonenberg, professor and chair
Music and Theater Arts Section, MIT

There are roughly 7,000 languages in the world. One dies every two weeks. By the end of the century only 3,500 will remain. A friend once asked me, “Why the fuss? Three thousand five hundred is still a hefty number.”

Part of the answer is touched on in Jeffrey Mifflin’s article “Saving a Language” (May/June 2008). Preserving a language inevitably preserves a piece of the cultural mosaic that makes up the picture of humanity. But another side of language loss is of special interest to theoretical linguists.

Linguistics is a branch of cognitive science, the science that studies how the brain works. The loss of a single language risks destroying forever evidence that sheds light on the precise nature of the way the brain manipulates the symbols that give rise to natural language.

Think of the brain as a room with 7,000 locked doors. The only way to see into the room is through its keyholes. Each keyhole allows one to see only a small part of the room. But if we put all the views together, we have a chance to see the room in all its splendor. At the present rate of language loss, by the end of the century half of that remarkably ornate room will be out of sight forever. I believe this loss is comparable to the burning of the library at Alexandria.
Samuel Jay Keyser, HM ‘97
Special assistant to the chancellor, MIT

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