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Convocation Speaker Explores Shape of Universe

 Weeks talk 
Cadets join Dr. Jeffrey Weeks on stage for a tic-tac-toe game in a computer visualization of a two-dimensional finite universe. – VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 5, 2011 – Today’s academic convocation challenged cadets to think on a grand scale while honoring the achievements of more than 150 current cadets who have earned academic stars and the contributions of two of VMI’s founders in the academic year of the 200th anniversary of their births.

Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, superintendent, suggested in his opening remarks that in honoring J.T.L. Preston, Latin and English professor and “champion of the humanities,” and Francis H. Smith, VMI’s first superintendent and “champion of mathematics,” the VMI community should rededicate itself to VMI’s academic mission.

In introducing speaker Dr. Jeffrey Weeks, a freelance mathematician, Peay noted that Smith had also been the champion in the United States of the new field of descriptive geometry, which was an “early attempt” at mathematical research and mathematical visualization. Weeks, who designs computer programs for this purpose, dazzled the Corps with graphics that took them “inside” various current conceptions of the shape of the universe.

Members of the Corps joined Weeks on the Cameron Hall stage to play a tic-tac-toe game demonstrating the properties of a two-dimensional finite universe, the torus. Their colleagues in the audience shouted advice, cheering their victories and bemoaning their losses. Games of pool and chess illustrated properties of three-dimensional finite models.

In his opening remarks, Peay had admonished cadets to make the most of their opportunities at VMI: “We should never lose sight of the adventure and the excitement of learning. … The foundation that you’re laying here at the Institute will serve you for a lifetime, so make it as strong and as wide as possible.”

Many of the cadets took a step in that very direction as their own perceptions about the universe were challenged and stretched by Weeks’ presentation.

Referring to his diagrams of the insides of the various model universes, Weeks concluded, “The repeating images tell us that space is finite; the pattern tells us the shape.”

He closed by interpreting some real images from space telescopes according to what his computer models indicate.

His conclusion offered food for thought: “The universe might be flat, or it might be slightly curved; it might be finite, or it might be infinite. The only thing we know, absolutely for sure, is that Mother Nature has more surprises in store for us.”