Conversation Piece

I wrote a piece for The Conversation recently that is making the rounds, drawing on lots of research sources (including reading some comics from the 1960s!). You might like it. Here it is:

The hidden superpower of ‘Black Panther’: Scientist role models

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King of a technologically advanced country, Black Panther is a scientific genius.
Marvel Studios

Clifford Johnson, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

I’m not the first to say that the upcoming Marvel movie “Black Panther” will be an important landmark. Finally a feature film starring a black superhero character will be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a successful run of intertwined movies that began with “Iron Man” in 2008. While there have been other superhero movies with a black lead character – “Hancock” (2008), “Blade” (1998), “Spawn” (1997) or even “The Meteor Man” (1993) – this film is significant because of the recent remarkable rise of the superhero film from the nerdish fringe to part of mainstream culture.

Huge audiences will see a black lead character – not a sidekick or part of a team – in a superhero movie by a major studio, with a black director (Ryan Coogler), black writers and a majority black cast. This is a significant step toward diversifying our culture by improving the lackluster representation of minorities in our major media. It’s also a filmmaking landmark because black creators have been given access to the resources and platforms needed to bring different storytelling perspectives into our mainstream culture.

Last year’s “Wonder Woman” forged a similar path. In that case, a major studio finally decided to commit resources to a superhero film headlined by a female character and directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. Female directors are a minority in the movie industry. Jenkins brought a new perspective to this kind of action movie, and there was a huge positive response from audiences in theaters worldwide.

Above and beyond all this, “Black Panther” also has the potential to break additional ground in a way most people may not realize: In the comics, Click to continue reading this post

Two Events of Interest!

This week there are two opportunities to hear me talk about The Dialogues in person, for you to ask questions, and to get your own personally signed copy!

On Thursday at 7:00pm I’ll be chatting with writer M. G. Lord at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena. We’ll talk about the book of course, but probably about science and art and writing and a whole lot of things in general. There’ll be a Q&A of course. Then I’ll sign the books you bring to me. More details here.

On Friday at 7:30pm I’ll chat with Griffith Observatory’s curator Laura Danly as part of their excellent All Space Considered show. It’ll be up at the Observatory and there’ll be a Q&A and of course books on hand for you to obtain and I’ll sign them for you. More details here.

Come to one, or come to both if you like, as time, geography, and tastes dictate. They’ll be quite different events with different emphases!

-cvj

Conversation Piece

I wrote a piece for The Conversation two week ago. It turned out to be very well read. It concerns science, entertainment, and culture. I also discuss aspects of how my work on the book fits into the larger arc of my work on engaging the public with science. I hope that you like it. -cvj

New ways scientists can help put science back into popular culture

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Science is one thread of culture – and entertainment, including graphic books, can reflect that.
‘The Dialogues,’ by Clifford V. Johnson (MIT Press 2017), CC BY-ND

Clifford Johnson, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

How often do you, outside the requirements of an assignment, ponder things like the workings of a distant star, the innards of your phone camera, or the number and layout of petals on a flower? Maybe a little bit, maybe never. Too often, people regard science as sitting outside the general culture: A specialized, difficult topic carried out by somewhat strange people with arcane talents. It’s somehow not for them.

But really science is part of the wonderful tapestry of human culture, intertwined with things like art, music, theater, film and even religion. These elements of our culture help us understand and celebrate our place in the universe, navigate it and be in dialogue with it and each other. Everyone should be able to engage freely in whichever parts of the general culture they choose, from going to a show or humming a tune to talking about a new movie over dinner.

Science, though, gets portrayed as opposite to art, intuition and mystery, as though knowing in detail how that flower works somehow undermines its beauty. As a practicing physicist, I disagree. Science can enhance our appreciation of the world around us. It should be part of our general culture, accessible to all. Those “special talents” required in order to engage with and even contribute to science are present in all of us.

So how do we bring about a change? I think using the tools of the general Click to continue reading this post

Process for The Dialogues

Over on instagram (@asymptotia – and maybe here too, not sure) I’ll be posting some images of developmental drawings I did for The Dialogues, sometimes alongside the finished panels in the book. It is often very interesting to see how a finished thing came to be, and so that’s why I’m sharing this glimpse into my process. You might be interested to know that for every single finished element you see in the 240+ page book, there are many (sometimes very many) drawings that you don’t see that led to it. That’s one of the reasons the book took 6 years to draw. (Also, I was learning as I went, and only doing it in my spare time.)

You may have heard me talk about this a bit with Ira Flatow and Janna Levin on Science Friday, and on the Science Friday site (audio there too) there two examples of the process drawings, so go there and have a look if you like. Above is another I prepared for them that they did not have room for (click for a larger view).

This one shows the design process for an entire page. The original pencil sketch on the left is actually only about 2in across, and you can see me working out the elements that eventually became the finished page on the right. Follow @asymptotia on instragram for more in the coming days and weeks!

-cvj

Nice to be Back…

Back where? In front of a classroom teaching quantum field theory, that is. It is a wonderful, fascinating, and super-important subject, and it has been a while since I’ve taught it. I actually managed to dig out some pretty good notes for the last time I taught it. (Thank you, my inner pack rat for keeping those notes and putting them where I could find them!) They’ll be a helpful foundation. (Aren’t they beautiful by the way? Those squiggly diagrams are called Feynman diagrams.)

Important? Quantum field theory (QFT) is perhaps one of the most remarkable Click to continue reading this post

An LA Times Piece…

It seems appropriate somehow that there’s an extensive interview with me in the LA Times with Deborah Netburn about my work on the book. Those of you who have read it might have recognised some of the landscape in one of the stories as looking an awful lot like downtown Los Angeles, and if you follow the conversation and pay attention to your surroundings, you see that they pass a number of LA Landmarks, ultimately ending up very close to the LA Times Building, itself a landmark!

(In the shot above, you see a bit of the Angel’s Flight railway.)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the interview! We talk a lot about the motivations for making the book, about drawing, and – most especially – the issue of science being for everyone…

[For those of you trying to get the book, note that although it is showing out of stock at Amazon, go ahead and place your order. Apparently they are getting the book and shipping it out constantly, even though it might not stop showing as out of stock. Also, check your local bookstores… Several Indys and branches of Barnes and Noble do have copies on their shelves. (I’ve checked.) Or they can order it for you. Also, the publisher’s site is another source. They are offering a 50% discount as thank you for being patient while they restock. There’s a whole new batch of books being printed and that will soon help make it easier to grab.]

-cvj

Press Play!

Happy New Year!

Yesterday, the NPR affiliate KCRW’s Press Play broadcast an interview with me. I spoke with the host Madeleine Brand about my non-fiction graphic novel about science, and several other things that came up on the spur of the moment. Rather like one of the wide-ranging conversations in the book itself, come to think of it…

This was a major interview for me because I’ve been a huge fan of Madeleine for many years, going back to her NPR show Day to Day (which I still Click to continue reading this post

LARB Radio Hour Interview!

This is one of the best interviews I’ve done about #thedialoguesbook so far. Eric Newman is an excellent interviewer, and for the first half of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) radio hour we covered science and its intersection with art, culture, philosophy, religion, politics, and more!

You can listen to it here.

-cvj

You Can Find It!

Partly due to reader enthusiasm the book is temporarily hard to find online. BUT, while out there doing your last minute shopping, stop in a physical bookstore and check the Science section and you can often find it, as I did a couple of times yesterday. B&N seems to have it in a lot of branches, and several Indy stores*! #giftgivingseason #thedialoguesbook

-cvj

*Also note that the manager at Cellar Door Books in Riverside says she’d be happy to mail some of her copies to remote buyers!

Geography

Attention New York! Philly is ahead of you right now. Yes that’s right, Philadelphia is beating you… but Greenbay-Appleton in Wisconsin: c’mon, not one? Don’t make me come over there! #jointheconversation #science #thedialoguesbook #salesgeography #graphicnovel

On a serious note, I must say Thank You to lots of people:
Click to continue reading this post

Noted…

Last week the always-interesting Maria Popova of Brain Pickings wrote a piece about the book. I was pleased to see what she wrote because it was clear that she really understood many of the several things I was trying to do in making the book. (I say this because my expectation is usually that people aren’t going to click with it because it does not fit narrow presuppositions for either a non-fiction science book or for a graphic novel.) So this was a very pleasant surprise indeed. There’s no point trying to paraphrase her, so let me simply point you there with this link.

The book also made the roundup of top Science Books for 2017 on NPR’s Click to continue reading this post

Anthony Zee’s Joke(?)

So I’ve been waiting for some time to tell you about this clever joke by eminent physicist Anthony Zee. Well, I think it is a joke, I’ve not checked with him yet: The final production period for The Dialogues was full of headaches, I must say, but there was one thing that made me laugh out loud, for a long time. I heard that Tony had agreed to write a blurb for the back cover of the book, but I did not see it until I was finally sent a digital copy of the back cover, somewhat after everything had (afaik) gone to print. The blurb was simple, and said:

“This is a fantastic book — entertaining, informative, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.”

I thought this was rather nicely done. Simple, to the point, generous…. but, after a while… strangely familiar. I thought about it for a while, walked over to one of my bookcases, and picked up a book. What book? My 2003 copy of the the first edition of “Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell”, by A. (for Anthony) Zee. I turned it over. The first blurb on the back says:

“This is a fantastic book — exciting, amusing, unique, and very valuable.”

The author of that blurb? Clifford V. Johnson.

Brilliantly done.

-cvj

The Geometry Door

Now that #thedialoguesbook is out is I get even more people telling me how they can’t draw. I don’t believe them. Just as with science (and other subjects), everybody has a doorway in to a subject. It is just a matter of taking time to finding your individual Door. Individual doors is what makes us all wonderfully different. For me it is mostly geometry that is my Door. It gives a powerful way to see things, but isn’t the only way. Moreover, I have to work hard to not be trapped by it sometimes. But it is how I truly see things most often – through geometry. Wonderful geometry everywhere.

-cvj

Pleasant Discovery

So I don’t know about you, but I’ve been really enjoying the new series of Star Trek. I started watching Star Trek Discovery because I was one of the science advisors they talked with from the early writing stages to finish, building some of the science ideas, concepts, and tone for their reimagining of the Star Trek universe.

Over many months after the initial meeting with all the writers, I would take calls from individual writers and researchers and give them ideas or phrases they could use and so forth. But much of the work was done blind, which is to say I had very little context for most of what they were asking for advice for. I think they do it this way because they wanted to protect a lot of the material from leaking because, well, it’s Star Trek! Yes, you’ll know from my various writings and interviews about science advising that this is not usually my preferred way of working as an advisor, but I was happy to help in this case and make an exception because after all of this is a huge show that has a tradition of inspiring people about science over many generations. so it could be of value, just by virtue of some of the little science ideas that I helped sprinkled in there, however accurately or inaccurately. The bottom line is that Star Trek just isn’t about accuracy, it’s about inspiration and dreams.

Well, needless to say, when it came out I was curious to see how they used Click to continue reading this post