The New Improved Scooby-Gang? (Part 2)

usc_dornsife_frontline_scholars_medium(Click for larger view.) The answer’s still no, but I still amuse myself with the joke. (Alternative forms would have been “The New Expendables Poster?” or “Sneak peek at the Post-Infinity Wars Avengers Lineup?”…) This is a photo that I was thinking would not make it out to the wider world, but that’s probably because I was not paying attention. We spent a lot of time on that rooftop getting that right – no it was not photoshopped, the city is right behind us there – as part of the “Frontline Scholars” campaign for USC’s Dornsife College of Letters Arts and Sciences… and then the next thing I heard from our Dean (pictured three from the right) is that he is now our ex-Dean. So I figured the campaign they were planning would not feature him anymore, and hence this picture would not be used. But I think the photo was actually in use for the campaign for a while and I did not know since I don’t actually pay attention to Click to continue reading this post

Happy Centennial, General Relativity!

general_relativity_centennial_kip_thorne(Click for larger view.) Well, I’ve already mentioned why today is such an important day in the history of human thought – One Hundred years of Certitude was the title of the post I used, in talking about the 100th Anniversary (today) of Einstein completing the final equations of General Relativity – and our celebration of it back last Friday went very well indeed. Today on NPR Adam Frank did an excellent job expanding on things a bit, so have a listen here if you like.

As you might recall me saying, I was keen to note and celebrate not just what GR means for science, but for the broader culture too, and two of the highlights of the day were examples of that. The photo above is of Kip Thorne talking about the science (solid General Relativity coupled with some speculative ideas rooted in General Relativity) of the film Interstellar, which as you know Click to continue reading this post

The New Improved Scooby-Gang? (Part 1)

This is a group shot from an excellent event I mentioned on here only briefly:


(Click for larger view. Photo from album linked below.) It was on Back to the Future Day… the date (October 21st 2015) that Marty McFly came forward in time to in the second of the BTTF movies… where we found hover boards and so forth, if you recall. The Science and Entertainment Exchange hosted a packed event at the Great Company (in downtown LA) which had several wonderful things and people, including some of the props from the films, the designer of lots of the props from the films, a ballroom done up like the high school prom of the first film, the actor who played George McFly (in the second two films), an actual DeLorean, and so much more. Oh! Also four experts who talked a bit about aspects of the science and other technical matters in the movies, such as hover boards, drones, web security… and of course, time travel. I did that last bit, and my talk was a 15 minute series of recipes for how to actually make a time machine.

It was fun! That’s us (me far left, wearing my coat that looks a bit like a blue lab coat (I was being ironic), and Parisa Tabriz, Romeo Durscher and Spiros Michalakis far right) and some of the event organisers standing next to the DeLorean before the event began. They have a whole photo album here.


One Hundred Years of Certitude

Einstein_CentennialSince the early Summer I’ve been working (with the help of several people at USC*) toward a big event next Friday: A celebration of 100 years since Einstein formulated the field equations of General Relativity, a theory which is one of the top one or few (depending upon who you argue with over beers about this) scientific achievements in the history of human thought. The event is a collaboration between the USC Harman Academy of Polymathic Study and the LAIH, which I co-direct. I chose the title of this post since (putting aside the obvious desire to resonate with a certain great work of literature) this remarkable scientific framework has proven to be a remarkably robust and accurate model of how our universe’s gravity actually works in every area it has been tested with experiment and observation**. Despite being all about bizarre things like warped spacetime, slowing down time, and so forth, which most people think is to do only with science fiction. (And yes, you probably test it every day through your Click to continue reading this post

A Mexico Meeting

from_museo_nacional_antropologia_mexico_1Continuing in the “tradition” of sharing a drawing from a visit to a city South of the border, let me introduce you to this character I met (to my delight) on the recent Mexico trip. I did a quick visit to the wonderful Museo Nacional Antropologia, and there he/she was. I neglected to get the information about the figure. Sorry. There was no time to do it in the spot since they were closing, so I took a snap and sketched the figure in pencil in my hotel later, and painted it on the plane (with watercolour pencils and brush) on the way back. (Click for larger view; I’ve another to share… stay tuned.)


D-Brane Fun!

imageTurns out that it still a lot of fun to lecture about string theory and D-branes! (The latter are an important type of extended object, generalizing membranes, that have been very useful in theoretical physics for the last 20 years. — My goodness, it has been 20 years since Joe Polchinski first demonstrated their importance for string duality!) The students at the Latin American String School here in Mexico City seem to be very engaged and enjoying themselves. Although I was having fun I was also not without a presentation error or two brought on by Click to continue reading this post

Not the Cafe from Hell…

imageQuite the opposite actually! And a very welcome find across from my hotel soon after arriving here in Mexico City since it provided me with an excellent ham sandwich and good coffee. While I approve of my companions choice of Hendricks gin, I decided not to have any since it was 3:00pm, and also I’d planned a walk to explore.

I’ll try to show you the amazing Day of the Dead find I made shortly after, but now I’d better prep my lectures for today.

Happy Halloween!


That Dilemma Again

So here I am at the boarding gate at LAX, ready for my flight. I’m off to Mexico City. What’s on my mind? :- What will I be doing on the plane? What am I in the mood for? What I really should be doing, perhaps, is preparing the four 90 minute lectures I will be giving at my destination. What I really want to be doing is writing the papers reporting the results of my nice computations I’ve been working on over the last few weeks. You know, the ones I had to break off from to write a midterm. Some of my best papers have been written on planes, so this could be a good opportunity…

Which shall I do?

I’ll let you know the other end. Boarding has begun.


Five zeros!

So I passed a landmark the other day, and actually missed the moment, as it slipped my mind. But two minutes later, on a safe stretch:


100K and still running like a dream.

(I’ll try to ignore the fact that a few days before I came back to find a “We Buy Junk Cars!” card attached to one of its windows…)


It’s Time

delorean_sketchOk, So I’ve finished prepping my presentation of detailed recipes for how to make time machines. (Sorry, but it does not involve any of the elements depicted in the sketch above.) It is for a special event tonight celebrating the fact that this is the day Marty McFly came forward in time to in Back to the Future II. The question is: Should I really be telling people how to do this? Yikes. ;)

Ok, time to get into my flying car and head off to teach…


Gravity on the Horizon!

joshua_tree_shoot_horizon_2Had to nip over to Joshua Tree National Park yesterday, for my sins.

Why? Well, gravity, of course. I can’t tell you the full details, but I was helping out the folks from the BBC on a documentary program (for the series Horizon, which I loved watching back in the 80s when I was in school!) being made about topics connected to gravity, space travel, mass, energy, and all that good stuff.

You can see me mid-demo in the photo (click for larger view), standing upon a Click to continue reading this post

That Serial Film Crime…

hobbit_poster_cropAfter all these years, I still have that little pain inside about what I think is one of the greatest missed opportunities (nay, crimes) in the history of film: that Guillermo del Toro did not get to direct the Hobbit due to all the delays in New Zealand over strikes (if I recall correctly), and so after two years of development he (and all his staff) packed up and moved on with their lives…. leaving Peter Jackson to take over the reins. That pain is right there next to those three jabbing pains inside that still feel a bit raw every time I get a reminder about how the films actually turned out overall. Just seeing a poster can set me off. (There are of course some nice set pieces in them here and there, but memory of them is rapidly erased by the overall wrong tone, silliness, and pandering to the need for pointless action sequences at the expense of common sense.) It’s old news now, but it still really hurts.

And it is nothing to do with the fact that Click to continue reading this post

Back to Basics

back_to_basicsHappy to say that I’m back to regular bread-making! The oven had some problems for a while and since I Was distracted by far too many things, I did not have time to get it fixed until recently. It is working again, and now I can make bread once more, and all is well with the world. Here is some of last week Sunday nights’s batch. (Seven other rolls were made, but those are bagged and frozen already…)



Screen Junkies – The Martian, Science, and Problem-Solving!

screen_junkies_martianAs promised, the Screen Junkies episode we made is out. It is about The Martian! JPL’s Christina Heinlein (a planetary science expert) also took part, and I hope you find it interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe even funny too! As usual, there’s a lot that was said that was inevitably left on the (virtual) cutting-room floor, but a lot of good stuff made the cut. All in all, I’d say that this film (which I enjoyed a lot!) had a refreshing take on science and engineering for a big studio film, on several scores. (Remaining sentences are spoiler-free.) First, rather than hiding the slow machinations involved in problem-solving, it has a lot of it up front! It’s an actual celebration of problem-solving, part of the heart and soul of science and engineering. Second, rather than have the standard nerd stereotype Click to continue reading this post

Get ready for some “movie science” chatter…

hal_cvj_christina_bigYes, I’ve been hanging out with my Screen Junkies friends again, and this time I also got to meet JPL’s Christina Heinlein, who you may recall was in the first of the Screen Junkies “Movie Science” episodes last year. While we were both in it, I’d not got to meet her that time since our chats with host Hal Rudnick were recorded at quite different times. This time, however, schedules meant Click to continue reading this post

Metals are Shiny


“Metals are shiny.” That’s one of my favourite punchlines to end a class on electromagnetism with, and that’s what I did today. I just love bringing up a bit of everyday physics as a striking consequence of two hours worth of development on the board, and this is a good one for that. I hope the class enjoyed it as much as I did! (Basically, as you can’t see in the snapshot of my notes in the photo, those expressions are results of a computation of the Click to continue reading this post

Thomas and Fermi

thomas-fermiThe other day the Thomas-Fermi model (and its enhancements by Dirac and others) wandered across my desk (and one of my virtual blackboards as you can see in the picture) for a while. Putting aside why it showed up (perhaps I will say later on, but I cannot now), it was fun to delve for a while into some of these early attempts in quantum mechanics to try to understand approximation methods for treating fairly complicated quantum systems (like atoms of various sizes). The basic model showed up in 1927, just a year after Schrodinger’s Click to continue reading this post

Moon Line

(Click for larger view.) This was a heartening reminder that people still care about what’s going on in the sky far above. This is a snap I took of a very long line of people (along the block and then around the corner and then some more) waiting for the shuttle bus to the Griffith Observatory to take part in the moon viewing activities up there tonight. (I took it at about 6:00pm, so I hope they all made it up in time!) The full moon is at close approach, and there was a total lunar eclipse as well. Knowing the people at the Observatory, I imagine they had arranged for lots of telescopes to be out on the lawn in front of the Observatory itself, as well as plenty of people on hand to explain things to curious visitors.

I hope you got to see some of the eclipse! (It is just coming off peak now as I type…)



office_musings_2 Just thought I’d share with you a snapshot (click for larger view) of my thinking process concerning my office move. I’ve been in the same tiny box of an office for 12 years, and quite happy too. For various reasons (mostly to do with one large window with lots of light), over the years I’ve turned down offers to move to nicer digs… but recently I’ve decided to make a change (giving up some of the light) and so after much to-ing and fro-ing, it seems that we’ve settled on where I’m going to go.

Part of the process involved me walking over there (it’s an old lab space from several decades ago, hence the sink, which I want to stay) with a tape measure one day and making some notes in my notebook about the basic dimensions of some of the key things, including some of the existing Click to continue reading this post

Face the Morning…

expo_line_lady_11_sept_15With the new semester and a return to the routine of campus life comes taking the subway train regularly in the morning again, which I’m pleased to return to. It means odd characters, snippets of all sort of conversations, and – if I get a seat and a good look – the opportunity to practice a bit of quick sketching of faces. I’m slow and rusty from no recent regular practice, so I imagine that it was mostly luck that helped me get a reasonable likeness Click to continue reading this post

MacArthur’s Balls

macarthur_balls_cvjYou should go and see them! (Click image for larger view.) Nobody seems to be talking much about this – or I’m utterly out of touch these days since I’ve not seen a thing about this and nobody I asked seems to know either – but there’s a wonderful thing to see down at MacArthur Park. (No, it is most definitely not a cake left out in the rain, since… you know… no rain.) There are about 2500 spheres floating in the lake, and looking quite splendid, I might add. I love this highly neglected park, and so am glad that someone feels the same way and got (I read after gingerly googling “balls macarthur park” and finding this article) about 10,000 volunteers to help paint and launch these balls in an art project aimed at bringing the park back into people’s minds, at least for a while.

The panorama (click for larger view) does not do it justice, since it flattens and shrinks, by necessity, so I recommend going along and getting up close and having a look (as I ought to have done, but was on my way home in a rush and Click to continue reading this post


negative_mass_thoughtsSnapshot of my doodles done while talking on the phone to a BBC producer about perhaps appearing in a film discussing anti-gravity*. I explained lots of things, including why General Relativity does not seem to like negative mass, partly because they have something called a “naked singularity”, which is a big problem. Only after the call ended did I recall that in 1999 I co-authored a paper in which we discovered a new mechanism for removing such singularities in some cases, using D-branes in string theory. That’ll be a fun thing to try to explain to camera in simple terms. Hmmm….


*Some blurring of rest of page to remove some not-for-public stuff.

PBS Shoot Fun

pbs_shoot_selfieMore adventures in communicating the awesomeness of physics! Yesterday I spent a gruelling seven hours in the sun talking about the development of various ideas in physics over the centuries for a new show (to air next year) on PBS. Interestingly, we did all of this at a spot that, in less dry times, would have been underwater. It was up at lake Piru, which, due to the drought, is far below capacity. You can see this by going to google maps, looking at the representation of its shape on the map, and then clicking the satellite picture overlay to see the much changed (and reduced) shape in recent times.

There’s an impressive dam at one end of the lake/reservoir, and I will admit that I did not resist the temptation to pull over, look at a nice view of it from the road on the way home, and say out loud “daaayuum”. An offering to the god Pun, you see.


Turns out that there’s a wide range of wildlife, large and small, trudging around on the Click to continue reading this post

Fresh Cycle

brompton_30_08_2015I’ve been a bit quiet here the last week or so, you may have noticed. I wish I could say it was because I’ve been scribbling some amazing new physics in my notebooks, or drawing several new pages for the book, or producing some other simply measurable output, but I cannot. Instead, I can only report that it was the beginning of a new semester (and entire new academic year!) this week just gone, and this – and all the associated preparations and so forth – coincided with several other things including working on several drafts of a grant renewal proposal.

The best news of all is that my new group of students for my class (graduate electromagnetism, second part) seems like a really good and fun group, and I am looking forward to working with them. We’ve had two lectures already and they seem engaged, and eager to take part in the way I like my classes to run – interactively and investigatively. I’m looking forward to working with them over the semester.

Other things I’ve been chipping away at in preparation for the next couple of months include launching the USC science film competition (its fourth year – I skipped last year because of family leave), moving my work office (for the first time in the 12 years I’ve been here), giving some lectures at an international school, organizing a symposium in celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s General Relativity, and a number of shoots for some TV shows that might be of Click to continue reading this post

Red and Round…


Some more good results from the garden, after I thought that the whole crop was again going to be prematurely doomed, like last year. I tried to photograph the other thing about this year’s gardening narrative that I intend to tell you about, but with poor results, but I’ll say more shortly. In the meantime, for the record here are some Carmello tomatoes and some of a type of Russian Black Click to continue reading this post