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Physicists jam at Leap-Year event

Why is this leap year so special? Is time travel possible? How can aliens menace the Earth when they live for only microseconds?

The discussions at the Leap Year Convocation at the MIT Museum on February 29 -- when the MIT Club of Boston and the Museum convened some of the world's greatest experts on time to celebrate the once-in-400-years leap year event -- were clearly not the usual fare.

The futuristic discussions began with an examination of the calendar by Will Andrewes, a freeman in Britain's Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and, most recently, the curator of Harvard's Collection of Scientific and Historical Instruments. Mr. Andrewes talked about the evolution of the calendar and the significance of this leap year. (Leap year is not observed when the year is divisible by 100, unless it is also divisible by 400.) Since it is the first millennial leap year to occur since 1600, it is the first time the United States has ever celebrated this calendric event, he said.

In his take on time, Professor Robert Jaffe of the Center for Theoretical Physics talked about particles that live for a few millionths of a second, which he pointed out is actually natural. What's strange, he said, is why human beings live so long. He added that one of the issues he has with the concept of aliens visiting the Earth is that it is predicated on the concept that they have life spans comparable to humans. Professor Jaffe's colleagues, Professors Alan Guth and Edward Farhi, joined the discussion, and the three theoretical physicists began an unforgettable jam session on questions such as can time go backwards. The answer was, "Possibly!"

Professor Farhi, discussing his studies on time travel, said that certain theories of time travel are consistent with the laws of physics, although he believes it would only be possible to travel forward. One particularly whimsical method would be to dangle people by fishing rods near black holes, where time slows down, so that when they came back to earth, hundreds or even thousands of years would have passed.

"Only at MIT!" was the most frequently heard comment as the evening drew to a close. Jane Pickering, MIT Museum director, said her first thought was when she could reconvene the group for future discussion. She hopes to add such an event to the museum calendar in the coming months.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2000.

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