9:30am, my office. Phone rings. I get it on the first ring.


Oh. Is that… Professor… Johnson?


Oh! I was not expecting to… Well I’m watching this program, and had some questions…

I see.

Well, when you say…

Well, who am I talking to?

Oh, I’m [name].


Hi… So, when you say millions of years, even billions of years in these programs… do you mean earth years? or, um, do you mean space years?

Oh, that’s a good question. I mean the regular years. Earth years, if you like.

Oh. So these things are really that old.

Oh, yes. They are.

I have one more question.

Of course, please go ahead.

Michio Kaku says that the universe is full of many things and all you have to do is ask for something and you’ll get it. How do you go about doing that?

Uh… Well… I’m not sure I understand what that means…

Well, you know we come from supernovae…. and… we’re from space… and there are maybe lots of gods out there that we can ask for things…Kaku says we can just ask the universe. How does one do that?

Well… I am not sure what he had in mind. It might be…. might be best to ask him…. But maybe what he meant is that the universe is a very big place, with lots of things going on, and maybe he meant that there are all sorts of things you could find out there because it is so big and diverse… But perhaps he did not have in mind that a particular person could go out and get any of those things… but you might want to ask him. I can’t say for sure.

Oh, ok.

But I can tell you what I think. I think that while the universe is a big and exciting diverse place, it is still the case that a given individual only has limited access to all those things in it. It is a big place, and so you mostly only have access to what you can get to locally. Travelling around it takes a long time…

Oh, I see. Well, thank you.

And… thank you, by the way, for watching the program. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Yes, I love these programs.

I’m glad to hear that. I hope you continue watching and do tell your friends about them too. All the best.



I enjoyed that chat. I love it when people are inspired to step away from their everyday life and ask questions about the universe they live in. I especially love it when they realize that it is fine to just get in touch with someone working in the field and not be put off by thinking (wrongly) that somehow they’re too important to be bothered by the public.

Overall, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of emails asking questions about physics, or offering new theories of the universe, or just saying they’ve enjoyed the content of one TV show or another that I seem to have been in. Perhaps the various channels are doing a lot of reruns of late? Not sure. Anyway, I’m very happy to know that people are continuing to be inspired by the physics in these shows. It makes the time and effort put into them very worthwhile. However, I can’t answer all emails, but I try to say hi back when I can. I especially cannot read all the manuscripts, detailed emails, letters, etc, with alternative theories of how the world works that we might have missed. There simply is not enough time. I am happy to recommned further reading that might help you answer some of your own questions, strengthen your research on your own ideas, and so forth, as time permits…


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9 Responses to Inquiries

  1. Philip says:

    I like this in several dimensions.

  2. JR West says:

    I really really like this, it made me laugh, so sweet and earnest and I was waiting for you to become irritated and you never did. Bravissimo.

  3. Carol Johnson says:

    Its always good when someone takes time to say thanks! What a great call to receive first thing in the morning. cmj+

  4. Rhys says:

    Hehe, what’s a space year? 🙂
    But seriously, it is always a positive development when a person starts asking questions. It shows a willingness to be educated. Any idea how old your mystery caller was?

  5. Clifford says:

    Thanks all!

    Rhys… I’d not laugh at space years… It is not that much of a stretch to imagine a different definition of a year based on the orbit of some other body about some other star, etc… Makes a lot of sense to clarify.



  6. mike shupp says:

    I’d guess that “space years” was the phrase that fell out while your caller was groping for “light years.” I.e., he had taken your statement that something had happened at so many years in the past as equivalent to the statement that something had happened so many LY away in space. “Tycho’s supernova, observed in 1572, is between 8000 and 10,000 LY away from earth. The explosion in the Small Megallanic Cloud occurred 300,000 years ago.” That sort of thing is probably insanely puzzling to someone unaware of the meaning of “light year.”

    So he was willing to believe in a very large universe, but was croggled by an old one. That’s my impression, anyhow.

    But deciphering Michio Kaku is beyond my powers.

  7. Yvette says:

    Haha, how fun. 🙂

    Just came back from my few days in Istanbul, and one of the things I always really love about chilling out in the hostel bar is the fun questions I get when I tell people I do astronomy (plus this particular one was on a terrace overlooking the Bosporus, didn’t hurt!). I mean most are about whether I think there are aliens or if the world’s going to end this year, but I’ll always throw in a “by the way…” comment to mess with people’s minds a little.

  8. Clifford says:

    Well, Yvette… _Is_ it going to end this year?



  9. Clifford says:

    mike shupp – that’s an interesting interpretation, although not the impression I got from the way the question was asked… but anyway… hopefully _she_ is clearer on things now.