A new book Ripples in Spacetime is an engaging account of the international effort to complete Einstein’s project, capture his elusive ripples, and launch an era of gravitational-wave astronomy that promises to explain, more vividly than ever before, our universe’s structure and origin. The quest for gravitational waves involved years of risky research and many personal and professional struggles that threatened to derail one of the world’s largest scientific endeavors. Govert Schilling takes listeners to sites where these stories unfolded-including Japan’s KAGRA detector, Chile’s Atacama Cosmology Telescope, the South Pole’s BICEP detectors, and the United States’ LIGO labs. He explains the seeming impossibility of developing technologies sensitive enough to detect waves from two colliding black holes in the very distant universe, and describes the astounding precision of the LIGO detectors. Along the way Schilling clarifies concepts such as general relativity, neutron stars, and the big bang using language that listeners with little scientific background can grasp. Govert Schilling (1956) is an internationally acclaimed astronomy writer in the Netherlands. He is a contributing editor of Sky & Telescope, and his articles have appeared in Science, New Scientist and BBC Sky at Night Magazine. He wrote over fifty books (in Dutch) on a wide variety of astronomical topics, some of which have been translated into English, including Evolving Cosmos, Flash! The Hunt for the Biggest Explosions in the Universe, The Hunt for Planet X, and Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries. In 2007, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid (10986) Govert after him.
Americans have always loved guns. This special bond was forged during the American Revolution and sanctified by the Second Amendment. It is because of this exceptional relationship that American civilians are more heavily armed than the citizens of any other nation. Or so we’re told. In The Gunning of America, historian Pamela Haag overturns this conventional wisdom. American gun culture, she argues, developed not because the gun was exceptional but precisely because it was not: guns proliferated in America because throughout most of the nation’s history they were perceived as an unexceptional commodity, no different than buttons or typewriters. Focusing on the history of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, one of the most iconic arms manufacturers in America, Haag challenges many basic assumptions of how and when America became a gun culture. Under the leadership of Oliver Winchester and his heirs, the company used aggressive, sometimes ingenious, sales and marketing techniques to create new markets for their product. Guns have never “sold themselves”; rather, through advertising and innovative distribution campaigns, the gun industry did. Through the meticulous examination of gun-industry archives, Haag challenges the myth of a primal bond between Americans and their firearms. Over the course of its 150-year history, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company sold over eight million guns. But Oliver Winchester—a shirtmaker in his previous career—had no apparent qualms about a life spent arming America. His daughter-in-law Sarah Winchester was a different story. Legend holds that Sarah was haunted by what she considered a vast blood fortune, and became convinced that the ghosts of rifle victims were haunting her. In this provocative and deeply researched work of narrative history, Haag fundamentally revises the history of arms in America and, in so doing, explodes the clichés that have created and sustained our lethal gun culture.
Private detective David Bryant strolled across the vanished bachelor’s threadbare ranch house bedroom, a thin smile animating his lips. He picked up the spiral notepad indicated on the dresser, then aimed it around like a loaded weapon. “No Carmen Electra poster, Fisher stereo or high def set in here,” he noted. “Although he does have those funky box springs, and Einstein watching from the wall.” He sniffed at the air, experimentally. “No sign of this being a crack house, either, that I can tell. Just keys in the kitchen for the van out front. How well do you know Nick, did you say?”
“As well as anyone did, I guess,” Border Patrol rookie Fletcher replied. “He was pretty quiet, with simple tastes.”
“Was?” Bryant shook his head and wagged a finger. “No, let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. Although, considering he’s sole heir to a men’s magazine empire, none of this makes much sense.” In explanation, Bryant jabbed the notebook in the direction of some haphazardly scattered books. “I mean, here’s a guy who could have it all, and what’s he do, Fletcher? He takes the civil service exam, rents a ranch house out in the boonies, and after rounding up his quota of illegals, he reads biographies, historical mysteries and Scientific American. Question I have is, why would a strong, healthy guy opt for this while dismissing the option of sharing a jacuzzi with supermodels?”
“You mean, is he a closet gay? You’re the new family detective.”
“Am I? Well, I detect a blind alley. ‘Cause he’s not gay, from what I understand. Not anything. Not even a disappointment. His old man brags about him being part of your team.” Bryant tapped the diary twice against the fist he made with his other hand, then held it up. “Anyone read this yet, Fletcher?”
“Nope. You’ll be the first, as requested.”
“Think it’s a list of babes he could have asked out, but didn’t?”
Fletcher shook his head. “That’s not my first guess.”
—Bryant blew out a breath, wearily. “Well, I hope it explains why he’s been livin’ like a monk here, at least, when he’s got access to a mansion with wall to wall centerfolds.”
“Sounds like you seen that mansion yourself,” the younger man said, and not without interest.
—Bryant narrowed his attentive gaze for a second, giving a sly smile. “That I have, son. But it was years ago, at a convention for what they called ‘private dicks.'” Bryant sighed in memory again, then slumped into a ratty wicker chair, and at last thumbed open the spiral notebook. “And now I’ve been hired to explain the call his father got from the bank. So lemme see what we got here before either of us does anything rash, like going public. Okay?”
—Fletcher said nothing, then witnessed the slow transformation of Bryant’s countenance from befuddlement to bewilderment.
6/4– My name is Nicholas Carter. I am a single man, age 40, never married, and I have worked for the Arizona Border Patrol for 15 years in good standing. My hobbies include reading and classical music. I particularly enjoy history and science. What I can tell you now is that string theory is no theory. I don’t claim to understand it, but what I know for sure is that physicists are right when they talk about extra dimensions in space beyond what we perceive, and the possibility of there being parallel universes which are like membranes of a higher reality. Not only is this true, but these membranes can be crossed at rare points and chance intersections. I’ve done it, you see, and I plan to do it again.
—It happened at 7:07 AM, two days ago. The first thing that struck me was the sense that my vision was blurred. Upon opening my closet door, I saw that my hanging wardrobe appeared to be a double image, with a tight or narrow overlap, as though viewed through a calcite crystal. I hesitated reaching in, and then for a moment put my hand to my head, instead. A disorientation, like dizziness, seized me. I shut my eyes hard, then opened them again, blinking, but the peculiar sight remained. I turned to look at the room, at objects in it that appeared normal: the night stand, lamp, my shoes on the floor. Then I turned back, and saw that the double image was a bit wider now. Over an inch out of synch, as if an identical photograph behind the original was being pulled slowly into view.
—I slammed shut the door, and ran outside in a panic. There I saw a kind of rainbow that terminated at my house. Only it wasn’t a rainbow, exactly. The colors extended in a plane straight up into the cloudless sky, in a blurred and mostly transparent image that did not curve out toward the horizon, but seemed to fade instead, as if the plane or membrane extended to infinity in all directions, leaving only visibly defracted light in the segment that cut through my house.
—When I returned to my bedroom, and found enough courage to face the closet door again, it opened this time on a dim light, and a space between the two separated images, which had expanded by more than their full width apart. What I saw in that space was a desert valley illuminated by a pale sun much larger and more orange than our own. A broken stone bridge stretched part way between two opposing peaks, and encrusted machinery lay next to what appeared to be a kind of elevator at the base. I stared in amazement, imagining it all to be some elaborate projection. But then I caught the scent from over there–from that parallel world–and it was like rust and sun baked cinnamon. Something real. So real that, without considering the consequences, I took a step forward, on impulse. And then another step, and finally another. At the last step, I turned my head to see that I was now beyond the back wall of the closet, but still within reach of it. Only I was standing on slate gray rock, like irregular slabs of stone stretching for a quarter mile to where the thing that resembled an elevator stood.
—I jumped back in a momentary return of fright, then stretched out one hand to touch a blue shirt which hung beside me. I felt the cotton fabric in the cool dimness, then pulled it free to see the clothes hanger rock in place, back into stillness.
—I stepped carefully back out of the closet into my room, but this time didn’t shut the door for fear the opening would close as well. Afraid even to look away, I sat on the bed and watched for some change, until the idea occurred to me to get my camera and also to measure the opening, which now appeared stable. After that, instead of dialing 911, I decided I would get a canteen of water and go on a quick expedition, once I determined the risk was worth taking. And so I did.
—The air of this world contains less oxygen, but is not uncomfortably to breathe. The predominately orange light, together with the spice scent, somehow gave me the impression of great age. I had not walked more than a few steps on the slate rock when I turned back to see if the interface had changed at all. An identical rainbow-like fuzz extended from it, up through the rock and the sky. I could see that the light coming through my closet was brighter than on the alien world, so I continued my trek toward the distant machinery.
—The elevator was caked with orange dust, but at the confluence of two oblong halves was a door like white glass bearing a horizontal ring of some metal alloy. I pulled this ring, and the thing gave an audible crack and then came slowly open, like a bank vault door of enormous weight. An acrid scent more pungent than the ubiquitous spice odor wafted out, and I discovered several controls inside shaped like wheels in a pedestal of green stone. Turning several produced no effect. I estimated the elevator to be twenty feet tall, with curved sides tapering to a nest of wires, perhaps a light fixture. The width of it was approximately twelve feet, and the floor appeared to be riveted metal plating, with flush rivets and circular groves glutted with dust.
—I left the elevator to look for some other way up, and in so doing used the binoculars I’d taken with me to check again on my interface at the narrow end of the box canyon. But the light still shone with the same comforting strength as before, and the opening seemed just as wide–or possibly a bit wider–considering my calculations. High above stretched the bridge, which was also the color of ochre, and had a texture like stone. It was approximately two hundred feet across at a height of perhaps five hundred feet, but broken at midpoint by a missing section of about one-fifth of the span. The bridge appeared to be thick and wide enough to support a bus or tank, but had no sides to it, and disappeared into an octagonal hole in the cliff side, where a man-sized instrument resembling a brass sundial stood sentry. The other cliff’s tunnel was blocked by a massive door.
—I found a staircase winding up from the wrong side, and realized that I would not be able to access the open tunnel from there. But I was determined to see inside, at least. The steps were high and steep, made of stone like rough granite. The final hundred feet or so they took a tighter curl around and inside a sculpted excavation graced by enigmatic designs that I first took to be coring marks left by whatever had hollowed out the upper cliff face next to the bridge. But then I saw that the circular rays drew closer together toward the top, and were attenuated by designs that resembled arrows.
—When I finally emerged onto the bridge itself, I discovered it to be covered in blue squares of stone two feet in diameter, each one unique and with a cryptic design, free of dust due to a noticeable breeze coming through the canyon at that height. I walked toward the edge and the open tunnel on the other side, but couldn’t see beyond about fifty feet inside, where the ambient light faded. But I could detect a shape there, like an amorphous sculpture well behind the sun dial, if that’s what it was. Except this sun appeared too large and dim for it to be that. I cursed myself for not bringing a powerful flashlight, and then turned to use my binoculars again on the opening through which I’d entered this world. It appeared to be the same, but I decided to return anyway. I took photos, and noticed that my flash revealed the shape in the tunnel to be crystalline, with pipes or tubes protruding from it that attached it to the floor. The tunnel itself appeared to curve further in, like a large labyrinthine cave with drooping metal rails affixed to its sides. I determined I would need a 20 foot extension ladder to bridge the span to the other side.
—Facing the massive door behind me, I noticed an image of this sun and world was depicted there, along with a starburst image further away. I went to the door, and placed my ear against it, but heard nothing. I banged on it with my fist, but there was no hollow thrumming. I next assessed the crack at the base of the door, and felt a slight breeze coming up from below. So the door obviously lowered somehow, but by what mechanism I could not determine.
—I was in the very act of wondering if any latent energy still existed, if life didn’t, when I suddenly saw a light above me, and noticed a glow atop a thin metallic pole high in the rocks above me. The light grew in intensity until it was too bright to look at, then quickly faded, leaving what looked like a small copper ball similar to what is found atop some lightning rods. Had I activated it, somehow? Was it a beacon, and would someone be coming soon in response? Maybe I could get higher to see from where the light might be visible. But then fear swept me, and I decided to return to my house instead. There, at the interface, as I watched and waited, I was startled to see a bird, very high in the sky. As it glided overhead I considered the implications. There must be plants–maybe even oceans–elsewhere on this world!
6/5– I recall reading about Gamma Ray Bursts, which are thought to come from hypernovas. The theory is that life has not been found via radio signals from space because these random hypernovas periodically exterminate whole parsecs of space throughout the universe. Maybe such a thing happened near this world, but not near enough to exterminate life completely. Perhaps, pre-event, the light here was not so orange? Of course I’m assuming that if this is really an alternate universe, existing in another dimension, similar laws of science apply. While it doesn’t seem to get completely dark on this alternate world, I have seen points of light in the sky beyond the atmosphere every few hours, which appear to be the brightest or nearest stars. I have seen other birds too, although none have landed nearby. My GRB theory is bolstered by the fact that the multi-band radio I keep testing on the other side has failed to detect any signals on any frequency. I shall continue to take digital photos, along with temperature and humidity readings, until I decide what to do next. I’m storing these on my computer’s hard drive under the file “Ochre,” which is my new name for this world. A measurement of the width of my interface has shown a 6 centimeter shortening of the opening in the last 24 hours, so I have limited time to decide what to do.
6/6– Last night I set my alarm to wake me every two hours, and I went over to Ochre to repeat my tests, and to measure the opening. The weather remains comfortable, and once I could even see rain visible in the distance, while the rate of interface contraction remains the same. What to do? While trying to decide, I have begun shuttling large items through to the other side. Extension ladder, tool chest, offroad bicycle, tent, sleeper sofa.
P.M.– I’ve just returned from a fifth trip to the Super Wal Mart in Nogales, where I’ve also purchased a water purifier with cleanable filters, chemicals, seeds, fishing tackle, first aid kits, some smaller pup tents, repair kits, fuel, and enough canned goods to feed the crew of an aircraft carrier for a month. I’ve now maxed out my credit cards, and moved everything over to Ochre, along with all my clothing, extra shoes and boots, some of my books, various containers, utensils, towels, crank powered flashlights, and several solar powered PDAs, along with three different Encyclopedias, and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
6/7– Things have escalated in the direction of this being goodbye. I have no family here that I can relate to, after all. My father wanted to supply me with girlfriends, but they seemed to look at me with soulless eyes. Better to give my trust fund to the needy. Regarding the American dream, what has it become, anyway? Decadent game shows, mall parking lots full of fuelish trucks and SUVs, sports scandals, liquor stores, fast food franchises. Who even talks to their neighbors anymore? Ironic that so many illegal aliens try to come to a land where most people don’t think or feel anything on their own. What I know is that I don’t want my father’s money, if it means an empty existence with spoiled brats as children, and a beautiful wife with soulless, cynical eyes.
—I have placed a call to a mule I know who lives in Nogales, Sonora. His instructions are explicit, with timing and directions to this “safe house” for one hand-picked family, of whom I hope to become a new member. If there is a daughter of childbearing age, so much the better. Perhaps we shall all escape together, and find our destiny with a new beginning.
6/7– My new family is here. They were hesitant, even frightened, but they have seen Ochre, and after much discussion have agreed to come with me. They have come to see this miracle as an opportunity from God, which is a miracle in itself. There are nine of them, all healthy. I believe the oldest daughter, Rosa Celeste, will be my wife. They are simple people from El Salvador, and have sold everything to come to America. There is no turning back now. Estaban asked me if he could go back if things didn’t turn out, but his wife just pointed and said, “that’s home now.” He could see the bridge in the distance, and the stacks of provisions waiting. Then a bird landed nearby to investigate. It looks like a crow, although more brown than black. It gave me a strange idea, which I leave for you now to contemplate. What if this world is not parallel in space, but in time? What if this is our own mother Earth, in the far future, and the machinery I see has somehow opened this door so that we can get past the hypernova to save humanity? Just a thought, albeit an ironic one. I shall not miss game shows and truck commercials and news reports from the Middle East, for certain.
—You will find photos of everything, plus all the testing data, on my computer hard drive. Wish us luck, whatever the case.
“The case,” Detective Bryant repeated, closing the notepad.
“What?” asked agent Fletcher.
“Nothing. See a computer anywhere, by chance?”
—Fletcher pointed out a USB cable lying on the floor in one corner of the bedroom. “I think that’s for downloads from a digital camera. You can see impressions in the carpet made by a desk, too.”
—Bryant leaned close, and nodded. Then he straightened, and tapped the notepad again before pocketing it.
“What is it? What are you thinking?”
“Nothing. Just. . . that this might a’ been the most bizarre suicide note ever. But without a body I’ll be forced to say our young Nick Carter split with his trust fund to old Mexico, leaving a none-too-subtle message that he’d like to be left alone.”
“You mean his father was secretly harassing him?”
“Did I say that? No, Nick’s never said anything negative about his old man up to now. Or taken any of his money. Still, something like this is bound to hit the tabloids, if it gets out.”
“What do you mean. . .if?”
“I mean there’s no way to prove any of it. Obviously all part of his plan to disappear while making his dad look like an jerk after bragging about him over the years.” Bryant lowered his voice. “Going into the closet instead of coming out. That’s a funny trick.”
—As Bryant strode out, Fletcher followed closely, asking, “You mean you’re not giving that diary to the Sheriff?”
“Is that a problem for you, son?”
“Well, I. . .I guess not. I mean, where did he go?”
—Bryant stopped to rub the back of his thick neck with one hand, considering it. “Who knows. Have to consult the family after the handwriting is verified, before we contact you again. You understand?” As they walked through the open side door, out toward the cracked concrete patio, Bryant observed how the door had obviously been forced by a crow bar. “Nice touch, that.”
—Near their respective cars, Fletcher made a circular motion back toward the rear of the ranch house with one hand, like he’d forgotten something.
“What’s the problem now?” Bryant asked. “Forget something?”
“Just some plants growing in pots out back I thought you should see, too. Thought it was marijuana at first, but then I saw that I was mistaken.”
—Fletcher led him around the back of the house, where he indicated four small clay pots containing ferns against the back wall, in the shade of a cottonwood tree. A brown hose was curled like a snake next to them. Bryant kneeled, and stuck a finger into one of the pots, finding the soil moist. Then he impulsively upended one of the pots, and spread the ochre-colored soil across the ground. A shiver ran across his scalp as he got to his feet.
“What’s the matter?” Fletcher asked him.
—Bryant trotted back into the house, through the kitchen and into the master bedroom. At the closed closet door he paused, then carefully opened it, and stared as Fletcher came up behind him. The walk-in closet was empty, except for a nest of wire clothes hangers pushed to the far right on the long wooden pole. Bryant turned and now stared beyond the patrolman’s left shoulder. Stared at the framed poster on the far wall.
“What’s wrong, sir?”
“Nothing and everything,” Bryant replied, uncertainly. He suddenly flashed on the playoff game that his wife had nagged him for watching. In his mind, he imagined her, even now, lurking just out of sight, forever peering at him with mocking disgust in her soulless, cynical eyes.
“I mean, did I say something was wrong?” Bryant asked, reflectively. Fletcher started out, but before following Bryant felt the kind of shiver that intuition brought to his job, and to fight it off stuck out his own tongue—in return—at Einstein’s gleeful face on the wall.
(© 2009 by Jonathan Lowe from Aphelion SF)