You've Got to Do
J. Richard Gott is an astrophysicist at Princeton University whose life's work has been nothing less than gaining an understanding of the universe: how it is structured and how its galaxies and voids are arrayed. In his journey to this rarefied intellectual plane, an ordinary household object—the humble sponge—has a rather special, and curious, place. The sponge has been a motif in his work. First it helped him win a Westinghouse, then it helped him explain the universe.
In 1965 Gott was a seventeen-year-old senior at Wagner High School in Louisville, Kentucky, enrolled in a program for gifted students. He undertook a study of the structure of certain metallic crystals and found that the structure, a three-dimensional network of polygons, resembled that of a marine sponge. It was composed of alternating dense and hollow areas, with the solid areas connected to each other by filaments and the hollow areas (through which seawater flows in the sponge) connected by tubes. Gott entered the project in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. The judges thought Gott's work so original they awarded him second place among the forty winners that year.
Two decades passed, during which Gott was accepted to Harvard, graduated summa cum laude, received a Ph.D. at Princeton, forged a distinguished postdoctoral career as an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and at Cambridge in England, and then returned to Princeton to teach. At the time, Princeton's astrophysicists were taking part in a rather contentious debate over