Letters to the Editor

2009 Brass Rat: Is the Tech To Blame?

The Brass Rat is a time honored tradition of MIT and a source of much pride for each MIT student that flaunts it on his or her finger. The ring design itself is evidently the most obvious element of this tradition, as it graces the ring finger of many MIT students and alumni for years, but the tradition extends far beyond these ever-evolving and unique designs premiered each year by the successive MIT classes. One equally important element of the tradition is the appointment of a committee of students, the Ring Committee, to design this ring; another, the Ring Premiere, where the class will for the first time see the design of the newest Brass Rat.

Many times in the past, the Brass Rat tradition has resulted in campus-wide controversy, both before and after Ring Premiere itself. Examples include the 2004 Brass Rat, when the fact that the design boasted a woman on its Seal Shank, was, by word of mouth, leaked to the public previous to Premiere, and the 2006 Ring, whose two Greek Letters on the Boston skylines created a reaction that carried over even into the careful selection of the 2007 Ring Committee members. These two recent examples serve to represent the fragility of the tradition, as might be expected when considering anything meant to please over 1,000 students each year.

This fragile tradition has, yet again, been compromised, but in this instance, the vehicle for breakdown was the two recent articles recently published in The Tech regarding the Brass Rat and Ring Premiere.

The Tech contacted the Chairman of the 2009 Ring Committee the night before Ring Premiere, threatening to publish the Seal Shank in the following day's Tech. The Chairman attempted to prevent the release of the design by asking what the purpose of publishing the Seal Shank, and thereby betraying the confidentiality of the ring design, would be. The Tech responded that the purpose was to "show some incompetence on the part of the Ring Committee."

We understand The Tech's obligation to deliver information about campus events and campus news as they become available, and we have taken appropriate responsibility for the mistakes made in the arena of ring design security. However, we also know that deliberate proactive rummaging in the Class of 2009's directory was required to obtain the design, and such actions are disappointing. In fact, the irony surrounding the discovery of the ring design by the Tech is great: a Tech staffer was the sole person to find the design online, as far as is known by the Committee. The design was then circulated not only to the members of The Tech and to several students outside of The Tech for "reaction interviews," but to other MIT students via personal communications with members of the Tech. In addition, the Tech encouraged students to seek the design by describing how to find it on Athena at the end of Friday's article.

In one move, the Tech jeopardized the three main elements that comprise the tradition surrounding the MIT Brass Rat. First, the design's confidentiality was threatened by obnoxious investigative reporting. Second, the Ring Committee's mistakes were, though appropriately addressed in their own right, exacerbated into a much larger conflict than would have otherwise been created if the Tech had, at the very least, kept the design as an internal discovery and not shared it with other MIT students. Third, the excitement traditionally surrounding Ring Premiere was threatened for MIT students by the premature release of the design.

The Tech's actions surrounding this manner demonstrate a surprisingly poor sensitivity to MIT's traditions and undermine the experiences of the MIT student body. We agree that all leaders on campus should be publicly held accountable. However, The Tech has an obligation to appropriately address issues without disrupting campus life and MIT student traditions. We hope that in future issues The Tech will reinforce MIT's community values by capturing campus life, positively promoting student events, and respecting student groups.

[Editor's Note: The Tech covers stories that are newsworthy, even if the articles criticize a student-run event or student committee.]

Hidden Message Has No Meaning

I'm disappointed in you. It seems as though "The Tech" has had it in for the 2009 Ring Council. With rumors of blackmail in exchange for an exclusive interview, and now the "hidden 08" non-story (on the front page!!!), you are definitely not living this down. At the very least, you could have buried the "hidden 08" in the story—not the headline. When we (Class of 2008) had our design revealed I found a "hidden 10" in the same area as the "hidden 08" (picture included below). Also, I found a "hidden LGBT" in the twigs (picture also included). If you want a scandal, why don't you follow that one up? Personally, I find it more objectionable to force the wearer to advertise, albeit extremely subtlety, this alternative lifestyle despite their own opinions on the matter than to have a previous year referenced on the bezel. You'll always find something "hidden" if you look for it, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So in the future, please reserve the front page for real news.

[Editor's Note: The Tech originally intended to print a picture of the seal shank, but decided that an article focusing on the leak of the design, rather than the design elements themselves, would be more newsworthy. This decision was somehow misconstrued by the author as a form of blackmail. There was no coverage last year of any controversy over the 2008 Brass Rat because the writer of last year's article did not hear about any such controversy.]

Why Are There No Time Travelers in MIT's Class of 2009?

In the summer of 2005, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a conference for time travelers. Their idea was that, if time travel ever became possible, these travelers would know about the MIT meeting and come. No one provably from the future (or past) did come.

The immediate question is, "Why?" The first and most obvious answer is: time travel is impossible. But that is not the only possible answer.

A second possible answer, inspired by the Doomsday Argument of Oxford University's Nick Bostrom, is that time travel is theoretically possible, but the earth (or humanity) will be overwhelmed by some cataclysmic event in the near future, before anyone has a chance to invent a time travel device.

A modest proposal for a third possible answer is as follows.

Let us assume that time travel involves travel between many possible worlds, differing from one another in minute ways: for instance, an electron near the center of Alpha Centauri in one universe is spin up instead of spin down; in another universe Napoleon wins the battle of Waterloo; in a third universe Gigli is a runaway blockbuster hit; etc.

We can suppose there is some "distribution" of universes where time travel is developed, and some distribution of universes where the MIT conference takes place. There is no reason to suppose that these sets of universes overlap; but even if they do, since there are so many possible worlds, if time travelers are as likely to go to any universe as they are to one with the MIT conference, then the chance they wind up in Room 2-375 is very small.

Even assuming, however, that time travel is possible, that it occurs in a universe like ours, and that every time traveler arrives at a universe with the MIT conference, there is still a significant probability that, in our universe, no time traveler arrives:

Suppose there is some random assignment of time travelers to universes with the MIT conference. Given certain assumptions, the probability that time travel is possible, but no traveler arrives in our universe, is approximately 0.37 (1 divided by the base of the natural logarithm). Thus, the probability is greater than 1/3 that time travel is possible in a universe like ours, yet no traveler ever comes to our universe.

Even if time travelers from a single universe are able to travel to more than one universe, since the number of time travelers (these all being sentient beings) is vastly smaller than the number of possible universes, the basic conclusion must be the same, namely, that the absence of time travelers at the MIT conference is not prima facie evidence that time travel is impossible.

Of course, it might be the case that time travelers of the future simply did not know about the conference, or, that they knew about it, and thought it sounded terribly dull.

Jonathan Farley is professor of mathematics at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and was formerly a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor in the Department of Mathematics at MIT.