The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe by J. Richard Gott (Princeton, 2016) 255 pages

TCW Gott

After a sex book last time (Full Service), I don’t feel bad in plucking a physics (ok, astrophysics) book off the pile this time. I love books like this, and I just bought one that will make a good comparison to Gott’s ideas in a few weeks….so stay tuned. You can compare this book to Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question as well, but considering the smallest things in the world instead of the largest.

Not too long ago, astronomers knew as much about the structure of the universe as anyone can tell from looking up at the sky. The Earth seems to be suspended in the middle of a big sphere of stars, with a few wandering things that turned out to be planets (Copernicus put them circling the sun instead of everything orbiting the earth). There was this big cloudy lane called the Milky Way through the sky, really thick in Sagittarius, and a few smaller cloudy blobs scattered here and there, again with a lot toward the south.

Once telescopes came along, Da Vinci saw that the Milky Way consisted of myriads of small stars, presumably dim because they were so very far away. So the universe grew a lot bigger a couple of hundred years ago. And it’s been growing ever since, as the initial chapters of Gott’s book points out.

Remember those cloudy blobs? Those are other “island universes” like the Milky Way. And it turned out that the sun wasn’t even in the center of the Milky Way, it’s sort of way out toward the rim, as determined by some of those blobs, which turned out to be globular clusters that formed a kind of halo around the center of our galaxy.

Why does any of this really matter? Well, in a sense it really doesn’t, except that the fact that humans can figure it out is very, very cool. But in the big scheme of things, sometimes I think only the geeks and nerds really care. It reminds me of an old joke I heard in college: the professor says “yes, science has determined that the sun will burn out in 4 billion years, ending all life on earth…” and a sleepy student in back goes “What! That’s horrible!” And the professor says “well, but 4 billion is a lot of years…” and the student says “Oh, that’s ok then…I thought you said 4 million years.” Now, why anyone would really worry about anything happening that far in the future when we don’t usually worry about what will happen in 10 years (Global warming? What global warming?) is of course the joke.

But I think that our knowledge of the structure of the universe at the largest scales, like our understanding of the universe at the smallest atomic scale, can help us to figure out how humans fit in. It’s an odd fact that we happen to be suspended about halfway between the smallest and largest things we know about. Maybe it’s our job, in some sense, to figure it all out. Or not.

Anyway, this book costs about thirty bucks (but you can find it cheaper), but it well worth it just to look at the 16 color plates that Gott has assembled to illustrate our knowledge of the universe as it stands today.

In a real sense, the purpose of Gott’s text is to get you to understand what you are looking at when you examine the incredible beauty of Plate 5, a yellow and bright gold group of filaments that shows how galaxies flow in the “Laniakea Supercluster.”  And there we are, a little red dot, not to represent our planet or even our galaxy, but our whole group of galaxies. It’s a big universe out there. (Laniakea means “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian: we live in a place as beautiful as a tropical paradise.)

Gott was one of the first people to figure this large-scale structure out. The universe is a sponge it seems, with big bubbles or voids or more or less empty space and thin veils of galaxies forming the material of the sponge to keep it all from falling apart (kidding: it can’t really fall apart, andeverything is pretty isolated anyway.

Much of the central text describes the infighting between US scientists, who favored a model where the galaxies form walls and clusters in space, and the Russians, who favored a model where the galaxies form a honeycomb and the voids are the “clusters” in some sense.  If this bores you, and it was tough going in places, just look at the pictures and read that pages that reference the color plates. Our home is a beautiful place.

The blurb on the jacket promises that Gott’s work on distant galaxies and surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey will supply “vital clues” on both the origin of the universe and “the next trillion years” that stretch out ahead. So don’t worry about the universe going away anytime soon. Now, the sun, on the other hand…we’re doomed!

Addendum: Let me add a few words about the numbers million-billion-trillion because astronomers and politicians tend to throw those numbers around without any real appreciation of what it all means.

OK, I used to say when I taught this stuff, everyone wants to win a million dollars in the lottery. What if you could win a million dollars in a lottery every day of your life? How long would it take to win a billion dolloars? Well, a billion is a thousand million (and a million is a thousand thousand, of course). There are 365 days in a year, so it will take about 3 years to win a billion dollars (there’s no winner on Sunday if you want to make the numbers fit a bit better).  Three years at a million dollars a day. How long for a trillion? Well, a thousand billion is a trillion, and at a million dollars a day it will take 3,000 years to win a trillion (the national debt of the USA is about 19 trillion dollars, by the way).

When I used to teach this, given Bill Gates of Microsoft’s age and net worth at the time, it turned out he was making a million dollars a day since the day he was born.

So the next time you see anyone use the terms million-billion-trillion as if they were somehow the same type of thing as a dollar bill and a ten and a hundred, take a minute to make sure they understand just how much that is, and how big the universe is.


Full Service by Scotty Bowers

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg (Grove Press, 2013) 286 pages

FS Bowers

Last time I checked, Scotty Bowers was still going strong at 92 (he was born July 1, 1923, so he’s not quite 93 just yet as I write this). This is a good thing, because once Scotty goes, the number of people who can testify first-hand about the wild and crazy days of Hollywood between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when fear of AIDS made everyone a bit nuts (or become porn stars), will be greatly diminished. And Scotty was not just a witness, he claims to be one of the movers and shakers of what is sometimes called “Hollywood Babylon” (which Kenneth Anger wrote a famous book about).

This book probably only exists because you can’t libel dead people. And almost everyone famous in this book has been long gone. Shocking, I know, the thought that they had sex, sometimes with people they weren’t married to, and of the same sex…and a LOT of it…but get over it.

Trigger warning (I actually know what those are): If sexual topics upset you, or if the very idea that people, men and women alike, are having sex makes you turn away because the whole thing strikes you as sort of icky, then you might want to stop now and read about war or violence or something safer. On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that you have to use a certain vocabulary (or not) to talk about sex, so you might be disappointed in that regard also.

This book made me think about things I hadn’t pondered for years. I thought about how my father had fought in the Pacific like Scotty Bowers, although my father fought for the Army’s 77th Division on Guam and Okinawa and Bowers fought for the Marines on Guadalcanal. My father, however, rejoined his family in White Plains, NY (where they had moved from outside Scranton, Pennsylvania) while Bowers stayed in Hollywood after the occupation of Japan ended. I always wondered why my father came back, until he told me much later that he didn’t trust his stepfather, a drunk who abused all his children, with his mother. When my grandparents’ family moved to Rockford, Illinois, my father had married my mother and stayed in New York. At least, my father always said, the war got him out of the coal mines. Next time anyone tells you how wonderful and vital the coal industry is, talk to me, and I’ll tell you what my father thought…you could ask my grandfather, but he died in the mines in 1917.

Back to the book, I promise.

Scotty Bowers—real name George—gives most of what you need to know about his life before coming to Hollywood after WW II on pages 15-17. Born on a farm, the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s and George became Scotty in 1934 when this very good-looking boy of 11 (the book has lots of photos) began hanging around with a girl who had Scottie dogs. People would say “Here come the Scotties” (p. 43) when they strolled by, and, after the girl was gone, people still addressed him as “Scottie.” So the name stuck (and his mother never cared for George in the first place, says p. 18).

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young men (and not-so-young-men: they took a lot of older people then than they do now) had two choices: sign up or wait to get drafted. My father waited, but Scotty and a close buddy signed up for the Marines. The Marines were picky, then and now, so there was a bit of extra prestige that went along with being a Marine, even back then.

(I can’t resist telling this story about that…my father-in-law’s cousin, also age 92, told me that even after he signed up for the Navy, the Marines tried to claim him, a big farm boy from North Dakota, thinking he was with a pool of draftees when they all reported for duty. No, no, he told them, I want the Navy…and he told me “There was no way I was hitting the beach and getting killed…I wanted to stay on the ship where the food was better.” And the Marines really couldn’t touch him.)

OK, I’m only going to talk about the book now, I promise/promise.

After the Marines, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a gas station in the heart of Hollywood: on the corner of Van Ness at 5777 W Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not long before he was offered twenty bucks for certain “favors” of a sexual nature. Of a homosexual nature. Now young Scotty, like many farm boys and service members, was not naïve about such matters (which should probably include high school football players and, come to think of it, just about everyone). However, Scotty’s philosophy about such things was years ahead of his time:  “if it feels good, do it” said the 1960s. (Actually, those days it was closer to the Victorian undercurrents that stated “do what you want, but don’t scare the children or horses.”)

At the station, Scotty started pimping for his veteran friends, many of whom were in great need of ready cash. Another friend parked a big RV behind the station, which Scotty then used as a bedroom for his “customers.” Eventually, he moved on to bartending, another good occupation if sex is what you’re looking for, or peddling.

Business was booming throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, because in pre-cell-phone days, gas stations and phone booths were places you could make and take calls without the people around you paying too much attention. Even after Scotty got married and had a child, he does not want to give up his bisexual lifestyle, and he was lucky enough to have had a wife who was fairly comfortable with this relaxed arrangement.

In the book, Scotty claims to have had sex with folks are varied as Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). He also hung around with or arranged partners for Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover. And this is not even a complete list (well, it almost is).

Not much in the book surprised me, and many of the stories have already been told one way or another. Actually, I was kind of surprised that the Vatican, of all places, has one of the most extensive collections of porn in the world (p. 179). Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is cited as the source of the story, as is the claim that ex-King Farouk of Egypt was in second place. I guess, to some people then (and now?), this mattered.

The party pretty much ended with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, sex could not only ruin your career, it could end your life. The last fifty pages or so of the book are a sort of sad lament for days gone by. But at some point in everyone’s life, doesn’t it always come to that? It hasn’t happened to me yet, I don’t think…but maybe my reading and writing like this is a kind of warning…:-)

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Villard, 1996) 408 pages

TS Russell

This is another book I heard about through that Great Courses course about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. This book came out of the class on how religions are portrayed in science fiction. However, a lot of it has more to do with alien “first contact” and the events that follow, although there’s plenty exploring the relationship of God to man (and alien) to satisfy a church deacon.

Wolfe sort of warns you about the odd aspects of this book, both as science fiction and as literature, meaning that it’s not a particularly easy read. But, as Wolfe promised, the payoff is substantial if a bit tame in comparison to what goes on across the planet we live on—aliens aren’t torturing women in Africa or the Middle East in the name of religion. We are. And we are all humans.

Anyway, this book takes place along two timelines: the first contact event in 2019 (almost 35 years in the future when the book was written) and a kind of religious trial when the sole survivor of the initial expedition, Jesuit priest Father Emilio Sandoz is fetched back to earth in 2059. Due to the relativistic effects of star travel, Sandoz is much “younger” than his colleagues who have spent the entire time of his trip on earth and aged at the ordinary rate.

Not that it much matters. When the second expedition from earth reaches the planet of Rakhat and the two odd races of creatures that dwell there, they find Father Sandoz with his hands horribly mutilated and working in a brothel as a prostitute. Moreover, the crazy priest kills the one being on the planet that actually cares about him: a young child in no way involved in the priest’s condition.

So Sandoz is taken back to earth to face charges about his circumstance when found, as well as questions about exactly what happened to the other seven people who left earth with him. These good people, all chosen by the church, half of them Jesuits, ride an asteroid to incredible speeds (the details of this asteroid mass-burning for speed are not presented) to reach the stars. We know there are intelligent beings on a planet out there because a radio telescope has received charming music of classical quality coming from one of the three suns of Alpha Centauri.

Before going on, let me just say that there are no real spoilers to risk in revealing the plot; no cliffhangers to be uncovered; no plot twists to expose; no doubt as to Sandoz’s guilt or innocence. It’s all there on the book flap, and the real tension is in his former friends grappling with what transformed Sandoz from a gentle priest helping poor children in Puerto Rico into a homicidal maniac. Whatever it was, due to Sandoz’s role in society, there is not convenient villain to blame, like violent video games or our current understanding that many priests are capable of evil deeds because they are all human beings, and human beings are capable of all manner of evil deeds. This book was written before the recent church scandals that have swept away the naïve picture of the always innocent, and in some ways childish, individuals who are drawn to the priesthood.

The first question a reader might ask is this: What the heck is a Jesuit priest doing on an expedition to encounter the first aliens detected by humanity? (And these aliens are tantalizingly close: literally right next door on Alpha Centauri.) Well, in this future, based on trends of the late 80s and early 90s, only Japan has enough money to accomplish great things. In fact, they run Arecibo, the big radio telescope that receives radio broadcasts of truly wonderful music that entices humanity to get to know the obviously sensitive beings that created such marvelous tunes. (This future 2019, imagined in the early 1990s, has no Facebook, no social media, no slavish following of reality show stars, smartphone isolation, or…Hey! Can we go back?…I’m not serious: see Walter’s First Law of Reality: When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.)

Outside of the rich Japanese, only the Holy Mother Church, not yet unburdened of years of bingo earnings by victims of abuse, has the wherewithal to mount an expedition to the aliens before the world’s governments can scrape together some cash to do the same. In the spirit of exploration, humans just jump right in instead of thinking to send a query to these other beings asking if their arrival would be a welcome one.

The priest’s presence has a lot to do with the author’s background. Russell is a cultural anthropologist, and her specialty is paleoanthropology,the study of how ancient societies lived in prehistoric times. Her studies and experiences inform the text, and make for a different kind of science fiction experience.

Readers can be forgiven if they see Sandoz and company’s encounter with the aliens as a thinly veiled retelling of what happened when the first Jesuits encountered the bloody altars on top of the pyramids of the Aztecs. The moral outrage at all this ripping of beating hearts out of the chests of sacrificial victims must have been absolutely justified to the priests who had conveniently forgotten how their minions made the streets of the Holy Land run with blood during the Crusades. But, obviously, those guys over there are savages, and we aren’t.

(As a footnote, I am not one of those people who tend to think that the Jesuits invented the Aztecs’ brutality in order to justify their own inhuman treatment of the natives after the conquest—which recent DNA studies have shown to be even worse than researchers had imagined. Aztec DNA is immediately polluted with the imported European kind, which probably had the benefit of allowing many of them to survive European diseases. But it seems that a whole generation of women in the cities interbred with no one but the conquerors. More to my point, a recent construction project in Mexico City unearthed an enormous wall consisting of layers of human skulls mud-bricked into a hundred-foot-long rampart, right at the foot of the main pyramid in the center of town. So yeah, those Aztec rulers were some evil folks. Although they say that those invited to for a brief visit to the altar on top of the pyramid were happy to be picked to keep the sun shining, and they had some really good drugs…and never ignore the effects of peer pressure, whether civilian or religious. Those who tremble before Jesus will happily skewer you outside the abortion clinic.)

The question asked about the Aztecs is the same as that asked in this book: could the same God that nurtures us good people also rule over these unrefined heathens? How can a just God, supposed ruler of the universe, allow such inequity to continue?

It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, in this book as in real life, there aren’t any easy answers. The main offense the visitors from earth commit is to treat the downtrodden peasants of Rakhat with as much dignity as their overlords. This offense cannot be forgiven, especially because being invited to dine with the overlords is an experience as fraught as being invited to enjoy the view from the top of the Aztec’s big pyramid. You don’t mess with other people’s food supply.

I will reveal why the book is called The Sparrow: it’s on page 401, almost at the very end of the book. “Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” his judges cite: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.

This book is an interesting peek into the mind of priest who can no longer believe in a just God. If you don’t expect more than that, you won’t be disappointed.


Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M. John Harrison (Bantam, 2004) 310 pages

L Harrison

It’s been a while since I’ve done a science fiction book, huh? Let’s fix that right now…

So I bought this course from a company called The Great Courses about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. I found it pretty fascinating, especially when we got past the 1980s and into the “rise of the new space opera” and stuff like that. After a time when science fiction focused on the nuances of characters or drilled into the minds of people involved in dystopian worlds or deep government plots (the whole “cyberpunk” movement) , the 1990s saw a revival of stories where the whole universe was the canvas. This harkened back to the old space opera stories of the 1930s.

The new space opera authors were not afraid to send characters to weird worlds, or have them encounter strange aliens (humanoid or not), or find hints of civilizations, dead or alive, doing things that humans could barely comprehend. One of the writers that Wolfe spoke about in the course is British author M. John Harrison, a name I had not come across before. Harrison wrote many books, but this quote got me interested in the book I am writing about this week. Here’s what Wolfe says about Harrison and Light:

“[Harrison writes books] all featuring morally ambiguous characters and all connected to a mysterious region of space where reality is so distorted that it has baffled and even damaged many civilizations over the millennia. [The book] Light, in particular, is a superb example of the sort of literary complexity that can be packed into a space opera template.”

Naturally, after that build-up, I had to get my hands on the book and read it.

It was not an easy read. Not only are the characters ambiguous and mysterious, but so is the narrative. Apparently the idea of a linear or sequential narrative is one of those things that people in the deep future can do without. But if you’re willing to jump around a bit in time and space, you’ll find a heckuva story in here, but told in three interlocking sets of episodes.

Michael Kearney is the person we meet first, a Londoner in fear of the Millennium (it’s 1999). He’s doing research into quantum computing and manipulation of quantum effects with a partner, but mainly it’s the partner who does the research while Kearney mainly goofs off and tries to talk his ex-wife into having sex with him (she does not need much convincing). Kearney is also a very casual serial killer, a fact introduces so casually that you wonder if it’s one of those space-time distortions. But apparently not, and it seems the only reason that Kearney does not murder his ex-wife is because she wouldn’t mind dying at all.

If this isn’t quirky enough, we next meet a woman in the far future named Seria Mau Genlicher, someone who now lives as a mass in a tank of liquid and has been merged into a starship/warship called the White Cat (Kearney’s research involves a black cat and a white cat). These “K-ships” are all that remain of an ancient civilization that has tried to penetrate the boundaries of a region of the galaxy where massive black holes of something even stranger has muddied reality into odd areas of overlapping quantum effects. This is the Kefahuchi Tract, where alien civilizations have entered but form which nothing has ever returned. Seria has taken her K-ship rogue, and is not above taking on passengers she kills in order to examine their cargo, even as the authorities hunt for her and try to destroy her.

Last but not least we have Ed Chianese (“Chinese Ed”) who would rather spend his days as a “twink” on New Venusport near the Kefahuchi Tract than anything else. Twinks live in a virtual reality world while immersed in a vat of psychedelic nutrients, and Ed spins a marvelous fantasy as a hard-boiled detective in Chicago until he can’t pay the rent and is dumped out onto the floor of the tank farm. Ed has experience on “dynaflow ships” and has “gone deep” into stellar envelopes and made his way through old alien mazes where many have been lost. He owes a lot of people, and they’re out to collect…

(Have you figured out this book is not your usual trip to Mars yet? And why would an author try to make faster-than-light travel, or strangely connected places in space and time understandable, or weird god-like beings in some way logical? This is the quantum world, baby, where nothing makes much sense. So just go along for the ride. )

Chinese Ed and Michael Kearney and Seria Mau Genlicher are all tied up in ways that slowly reveal themselves as the book plays out. Kearney and his partner’s actions must determine the future where the other two play, and their work is so important that there are dioramas in place in the far future to commemorate key moments in their lives and work. Ed and Seria have a past that is shared in a way that you slowly figure out as the book goes on. (It’s easy to hide these little snippets in plain sight because there is so much happening in each scene.)

Lurking everywhere in the background is this thing called the Shrander, a being that shows up in different forms under different names (Sandra Shen, for one) at different times all over the book. Kearney has stolen a set of weird dice form this Shrander – they are shown on the cover of the paperback – and is fond of tossing them at odd times. He has given names to different results, names that also exist in the far future in the other parts of the book. But it’s unclear what effect if any this tossing is having on Kearney’s life or anything else.

Perhaps Kearney’s throws in the present are having an effect on the characters in the far future? Lots of things in this book happen on multiple levels, including the narrative. Sort of like real life.

Before I read this book, I would never had thought it possible to sell a narrative so disconnected, or ideas introduced with so little context or explanation (like “K-tech), or characters so clearly lost and adrift in life and the plot. But now I see that you can, or at least a writer could in the early 2000s. There are two more books in this loose “series” about our very odd future (Nova Swing and Empty Space). But I’m not sure I’m ready to read those yet. I hope I will be.