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Bruins in Paris

Seminar explores theories of time

By Jeyling Chou

April 21, 2005 9:00 p.m.

Seventeen students and one professor meet to tackle some of the
most mind-boggling contradictions and theories of time and the
universe, one hour at a time.

Led by physics Professor Michael Gutperle, the Fiat Lux seminar
titled “What is Time?” consists of fifty minutes
devoted to discussing time in the context of physics, black holes,
relativity, the beginning and the end.

“My goal is really to show them physics is not just
something they have to take because they want to go to medical
school but something very interesting and has profound consequences
about how we think about nature and how we think about the
universe,” Gutperle said.

This week, the students began talking about Albert
Einstein’s famous theory of relativity, which was published a
hundred years ago, revolutionizing the way time and the universe
were perceived.

Before Einstein rocked physics with relativity, one prevailing
theory had guided the field since Isaac Newton defined the laws of
matter: time was absolute and inflexible.

“That was kind of the point of view that sometimes we
intuitively have. Physicists had really inscribed in their theories
that there is an absolute way to measure time,” Gutperle
said. “That was completely revised.”

Gutperle hopes to give his students a sense of how the
perception of time has changed over the centuries, and continues to
be modified now.

“In high school physics, time was something that was a
fuzzy concept for me,” said Nina Norman, a second year
undeclared student in the seminar. “This was a whole class
talking about different theories of time and it sounded really
interesting to me.”

Notes from the class Web site in Gutperle’s handwriting
include doodles of cars and bicycles moving at relative speeds,
models of time reversal, and the arch of a thrown ball.

Though some of the concepts are difficult to grasp without
complex equations, Gutperle hopes to leave out the math and still
get the idea across. Students enrolled in the class hail from all
backgrounds ““ from economics to English.

“I wanted to talk about physics without being in a big
class with 200 people ““ you have to have homework, exams, you
feel a little bit like an old-style school master,” he

“You try to do your best to explain it and make it fun,
but because everyone has to do well and get the grade there are a
lot of constraints,” Gutperle said.

The theoretical physicist decided to hold the Fiat Lux seminar
after handing out a questionnaire to students in Physics 6A:
Physics for Life Science Majors. The majority of students in the
class viewed it as an obligation between them and medical school,
and a potential threat to their grade point average.

“I think physics gets a bad rep very often and maybe
justifiably so,” Gutperle said. “For a lot of people,
physics is something they have to take here, they’re forced
to take, and they’re not really interested in it ““
it’s a stumbling block.”

The seminar gives him a forum to share his passion for the
field, and introduce the works of someone he feels is
“obviously one of the greatest scientists who ever

Theoretical physicists like Gutperle continue to follow in
Einstein’s footsteps, attempting to reconcile the theory of
relativity and quantum mechanics.

Working primarily with calculations using pen and paper, they
search for the answers to the questions of the universe, and
attempt to unify the laws of elementary particles with the
exceptions of relativity.

“The dream of unifying gravity with all other fundamental
interactions is still a holy grail of physics,” Gutperle

He wonders at the genius of a man who could revolutionize an
entire field in one year. His Fiat Lux seminar has shed light on
Einstein’s thought experiments, and demonstrated that awe can
be contagious.

“Some of these things Einstein started thinking about when
he was 17 years old,” Norman said. “That’s
younger than any of us, and that’s crazy to me.”

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Jeyling Chou
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