Gott, J. Richard, III 1947-

views updated

GOTT, J. Richard, III 1947-


Born February 8, 1947, in Louisville, KY; son of J. Richard and Marjorie (a conservationist and landscape designer; maiden name, Crosby) Gott; married Lucy Jennifer Pollard, June 10, 1978; children: Elizabeth. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (physics; summa cum laude), 1969; Princeton University, Ph.D. (astrophysics), 1973.


Office—Princeton University, Dept. of Astrophysical Science, Princeton, NJ 08544-0001.


California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, postdoctoral fellow, 1973-74; Cambridge University, London, England, visiting fellow, 1975; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, assistant professor, 1976-80, associate professor, 1980-87, professor of astrophysics, 1987—. National Westinghouse Science Talent Search, Washington, DC, chair of judges, 1986; Hayden Planetarium visitors' committee, 1992-93.


American Astronomical Society, International Astronomical Union, Phi Beta Kappa.


Alfred P. Sloan fellow, 1977-81; R. J. Trumpler Award, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1975; inaugurated into Hall of Fame of Waggener High School, Louisville, KY, 1996; President's Award for excellence in teaching, Princeton University, 1998.


Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel Through Time, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.

Contributor to periodicals and professional journals, including Time, Scientific American, New Scientist, and American Scientist.


J. Richard Gott, III, is one of the world's leading astrophysicists and authorities on probability theory. Gott grew up in Kentucky, where his mother was a charter member of the Louisville Astronomical Society, one of the most sophisticated organizations of its kind, and he joined the Louisville Junior Astronomical Society before he entered high school. The society offered more than forty programs for the public each year and had the use of an observatory with a twenty-one inch reflector telescope. Gott became editor of the society's publications and was first elected vice president, then president. He placed first and second respectively in the math divisions of the International Science and Engineering Fair and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Gott graduated from Harvard in 1969, then spent the summer in Europe where he visited the Berlin Wall, the first subject for which he calculated a survival time. He carried his theories over to governments, Broadway plays, and the human race, which he calculates will endure for approximately another five to nearly eight million years. In the 1970s, Gott and several colleagues published a paper arguing that the universe is open and will forever continue to expand. Gott earned his doctorate at Princeton in 1973, and three years later began teaching at that university, where he is now a full professor and a popular instructor.

Discussing his predictions in an interview with Timothy Ferris for the New Yorker, Gott said, "My approach is based on the Copernican principle, which has been one of the most famous and successful scientific hypotheses in the history of science. It's named after Nicolaus Copernicus, who proved that the earth is not the center of the universe; and it's simply the idea that your location is not special. The more we've learned about the universe, the more non-special our location has looked." Over the past several decades, he has built a reputation as one of the foremost astrophysicists in the world, in particular for his work with Einstein's equations of general relativity and his championing of the open (ever-expanding) universe theory.

Gott built on the black hole theory of Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology in considering ways in which time travel might be possible. Thorne reasoned that wormholes, which are thought to exist in black holes, are the channels that connect points in space and time. Einstein's theory of relativity theorizes that the speed of light is the threshold for time travel, that as an object approaches that speed, time begins to slow for the object, that at the speed of light it stops, and that traveling faster than the speed of light would send it back in time. Most physicists concur that it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light; and, therefore, time can only go forward. When Thorne proposed that time travel could be accomplished through wormholes, his theories were rebuked by such scholars as Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, who in his "The Chronology Protection Conjecture," wrote that "we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future."

Gott's hypotheses relate to the theory of the Big Bang, in which the universe was created by an explosion that generated enormous heat. "Under the right circumstances," wrote Michael D. Lemonick in Time, "physicists believe, very long, very thin strings of pure energy might have survived in their original state rather than cooling off with the rest of the universe. These cosmic strings would be infinitesimally thin but unbelievably dense, with a thousand trillion tons of mass for every inch of length. The enormous mass would warp the region around a cosmic string so that space itself would act like a distorting lens." Gott posits that time travel could be achieved through bending such a cosmic string, and published his conclusions in 1991 in the journal Physical Review Letters. In a later Time article he explained his theory, describing cosmic strings as "thin strands of energy millions of light-years long, predicted by some theories of particle physics (but not yet observed in the universe). You could try to construct a cosmic-string time machine by finding a large loop of cosmic string and somehow manipulating it so it would contract rapidly under its own tension, like a rubber band. The extraordinary energy density of the string curves space-time sharply, and by flying a spaceship around the two sides of the loop as they pass each other at nearly the speed of light, you'd travel into the past." Gott explained the barriers to traveling back in time and said that even if they could be overcome, it would be impossible to go back to a time before the creation of the time machine being used.

Gott wrote, "So, will we time-travel in the next century? Travel to the future—yes, but only in short hops, I suspect. To the past—very likely not.…But we are interested in knowing whether time machines are possible, even in principle, because answering that question will tell us where the boundaries of physics lie and provide clues to how the universe works."

In his book Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time, Gott begins by exploring why anyone would want to travel in time and what would happen if this were possible and we could alter history by our actions in the past. Astronomy's George Smoot favored chapter four "because in it Gott discusses the relationship of time travel to the beginning of the universe. At his urging, graduate student Li-Xin Li figured out a self-consistent solution to Einstein's general relativity equations that shows that the universe could be its own progenitor."

Bryce Christensen noted in Booklist that Gott uses popular culture in explaining his theories. "Where else can you turn to find an abstruse explanation of quantum mechanics illustrated with episodes from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure ?" Gott explains how time travel was possible in this movie, as well as others, including Contact and Star Trek. "This is fun," wrote Dick Teresi in the Wall Street Journal, "but why did Mr. Gott ignore more literary authors who have written about the topic? Jorge Luis Borges, Martin Amis, and Mark Twain come to mind. It's disturbing to think that a Princeton professor's cultural icons are Keanu Reeves and Gene Roddenberry."

Gregor Milne of Richmond Review wrote, "I was never bored, and it is to Gott's credit that I have come closer to understanding the brilliance and lunacy of current scientific thinking in this area of physics." A Publishers Weekly contributor said Gott "clearly enjoys his subject, and his excitement and humor are contagious; this book is a delight to read." Martin Rees noted in the London Sunday Times that Gott's "entertaining and accessible book suggests that there's nothing fundamentally absurd about time travel, and the concept merits serious thought."



Astronomy, November, 2001, George Smoot, review of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time, p. 98.

Booklist, May 1, 2001, Bryce Christensen, review of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, p. 1650.

Chemtech, November, 1999, Dorit L. Noether, Miles McMahon, "Principles, Innovations, and the Future," p. IBC.

Choice, December, 2001, D. Bantz, review of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, p. 721.

Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14, 1990, Kim A. McDonald, "Computer Models of the Evolution of the Universe Suggest Gravity Is Main Architect of the Cosmos," p. A6.

Discover, April, 1992, David H. Freedman, "Time Travel Redux," p. 54.

Journal of Philosophy, May, 1997, William Eckhardt, "A Shooting-Room View of Doomsday," p. 244.

Los Angeles Times, February 1, 1990, Lee Dye, "New Theory May Burst Some Cosmic Bubbles," p. A32.

Nature, May 27, 1993, J. Richard Gott, III; September 27, 2001, Paul Davies, review of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, p. 354.

New Scientist, May 19, 2001, Michael Brooks, "I'll Be Back," p. 48.

New Yorker, July 12, 1999, Timothy Ferris, "Annals of Science: How to Predict Everything" (interview), pp. 35-39.

New York Times, February 1, 1990, John Noble Wilford, "Model Suggests Gravity Shaped Universe," p. A14; February 8, 2000, James Glanz, "Point, Counterpoint and the Duration of Everything," p. D5.

Publishers Weekly, April 23, 2001, review of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, p. 63.

Science News, March 28, 1992, Ivars Peterson, "Timely Questions," p. 202.

Scientific American, February, 1994, Madhusree Mukerjee, "Time-Trippers Beware," p. 32.

Sunday Times (London, England), July 22, 2001, Martin Rees, "Fast Forward to the Future; Books," p. 33.

Time, May 13, 1991, Michael D. Lemonick, "How to Go Back in Time," p. 74; April 10, 2000, J. Richard Gott, III, "Will We Travel Back (or Forward) In Time?," p. 68.

Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2001, Dick Teresi, "Bookshelf: No Time Like the Present," p. A14.

Washington Post, February 1, 1990, Kathy Sawyer, "Model Points to Gravity as Architect of Universe," p. A3.


Richmond Review, (December 31, 2001), Gregor Milne, review of Time Travel in Einstein's Universe.*