The Universe Lives!

(Seems a highly appropriate title to use when up at 4:00am listening to the excellent violent wind and rain storm that’s going on outside.) This is mostly a note for fans of the show The Universe, on the History channel, or H2, and channels by other names internationally. I just wanted to say that the show is going to carry on, with a new season coming out early next year!

I mention this because it looked for a while (at least a few times) like there wouldn’t be another season (after a solid 7 or 8 seasons over as many years), and then at the last minute they greenlit that short season that aired earlier this year with the subtitle “Ancient Mysteries Explained” or something worrying like that (because it sounds a lot like the “Ancient Aliens” show which, well, I’d rather it did not sound anything like…) Then it was not clear again whether that was just a last hurrah or not…

Well, it was not, since we’ve been shooting for several episodes this last month or so! Looks like there will be at least a short season coming, with the same subtitle. I’ve done some work on a few segments that will appear in two or three episodes. They wanted me to do more but I had a rather busy period coming up and so declined to do any more shooting days after November, so I’ll be somewhat fleeting in my appearances, but hope that the physics I did get to talk about is clear and interesting – assuming they use those bits at all (you can never tell).

My favourite day was when we were out at Zuma Beach, which I think I mentioned in a short post a while back. The episode focuses on contrasts between Astronomy and Astrology, which is certainly a good topic! I came up with a fun analogy with which to explain a certain idea and we enlisted a group […] Click to continue reading this post

Grabbing Fun Shapes

culver_city_building_8th_dec_2014_smallA quick sketch of a building in Culver City, done while waiting for a meeting to finish (I was in my occasional role as chauffeur). A very classic and pleasing combination of shapes for Southern California. (I splashed on ink and colour later on, once home).

In other news, I’m all ready for the last teaching event of 2014. I’ve written, typeset, and checked (multiple times) the final exam for the graduate electromagnetism class. There are some interesting things on there. I hope they like it!

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LAIH Field Trip: The Clark Library!

laih_clark_library_visit_2014_07One of the things I want the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH) to do more of is field trips – Exploring the city together! We’re an LA resource (as I’ve said in earlier posts) and so we should visit with and strengthen our relationships with some of those other LA resources, whether they be physical places, or groups of people (like us), etc.

Friday saw us take a wonderful field trip to the William A. Clark Memorial Library. It is another of those classic LA things – an amazing gem hidden away that you pass every day and don’t see. It is not far from USC, and in fact a number of USC faculty I know have used it regularly for research, since it has several important collections of papers and rare books of various sorts (Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, etc).

A lot of these were put out for us to see by Head Librarian (and LAIH Fellow) Victoria Steele and her staff, and they gave us a guided tour. During the tour […] Click to continue reading this post

Einstein Papers on Film…

A quick note I made over on facebook, concerning the recently released public archive of Einstein papers…

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Black Hole Slides!


Since people were asking for copies of my slides from my colloquium chalkboard-style talk on black holes and the things I call “holographic heat engines” last month at Harvey Mudd College, I decided to export them as a movie. You can find it on YouTube. Link below. It was a 50 minute talk, but all the builds are compressed down to a 6 minute file! I try to keep the bulk of the narrative in my head and speak it with the slides as visual aids (instead of writing everything on the slides as is often the practice) and so I do not know […] Click to continue reading this post

The Imitation Game – Thoughts

[caption id="attachment_16600" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd. (Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd.)[/caption]

Since this time I don’t think I’ll be getting the call from the folks at Screen Junkies to talk about this one, I’ll do a quick post on my thoughts while they are still fresh. (There are no real spoilers in what follows, but if like me you like to know as little as possible about a film before going to see it, forming your own opinion before having to see the film filtered through those of others, do wait until you’ve seen it before reading beyond the second paragraph.)

I enjoyed the film very much. As a piece of human drama, it was a great story to tell, and frankly it does fill me with dismay that few people seem to know the story, so I am glad it is getting mainstream attention. It was done extremely well, in terms of standard things like all the acting performances (more or less), photography, and the overall tone of judge direction. Given the subject matter – its social and historical importance – this was a beyond the ordinary human drama well told. I enjoyed it.

But. BUT

But it missed an opportunity to not just be “beyond the ordinary” but truly exceptional and ground breaking. All we needed was about 5 or so minutes of extra screen time to achieve this. I’m talking about the ironic fact that Interstellar, which is I remind you a science fiction film (which many scientists […] Click to continue reading this post

Cabinet Caper!

Remember I mentioned that I was building something? Well, I finished the project:


The usual thing happened. I could not find the right kind of cabinet that fit the space and function, and so decided that I might as well build one designed to fit exactly what was called for. It holds all the living room media needs, and keeps them discretely hidden away (no electronics and cables everywhere) until called upon. The top chamber opens up to deploy a projector (the holes […] Click to continue reading this post

Monday’s Quarry

red_line_guy_24_11_2014_smallMonday’s quick grab on the subway on the way to work. I claim that one of the most useful aspects of the smartphone is its facility for holding people in predictable poses in order to be sketched.

He had a very elegant face and head, and was engrossed in his game, and I was done reviewing my lecture notes on scattering of light, so I went for it. I was able to get out my notepad and a pen and get a good fast […] Click to continue reading this post

Look Up In the Sky…!

graduate_electromagnetism_class_sky_watchingYesterday’s graduate class in electromagnetism had a bit of extra fun. We did a particular computation in some detail, and arrived at a pair of results. We thought about the main features of the equations we’d derived and I then asked the class if they could think of an example. An example with those equations essentially written all over it. It was the sky. Not just the blueness of the sky (for which the result supplies a partial answer) but the pattern of blueness on the sky, especially when looking through your polarised sunglasses. (You know how you tilt your head when wearing them and you can darken or lighten the sky a bit? Well, that effect is way more effective if you are looking in a direction at right angles to the sun as opposed to either toward or away from the sun.)

So I took the class outside to gaze upon the sky in person, rather than just sit and talk about it. Actually, a little bit of knowledge about the pattern of blue in the sky is useful in a lot of ways. For example it is amusing to me to see how often architects and their artist collaborators get the sky wrong in renderings of […] Click to continue reading this post

Luncheon Reflections

LIAH_Hawthorne_luncheonYou know, I never got around to mentioning here that I am now Director (co-directing with Louise Steinman who runs the ALOUD series) of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH), a wonderful organisation that I have mentioned here before. It is full of really fascinating people from a range of disciplines: writers, artists, historians, architects, musicians, critics, filmmakers, poets, curators, museum directors, journalists, playwrights, scientists, actors, and much more. These LAIH Fellows are drawn from all over the city, and equally from academic and non-academic sources. The thing is, you’ll find us throughout the city involved in all sorts of aspects of its cultural and intellectual life, and LAIH is the one organisation in the city that tries to fully bring together this diverse range of individuals (all high-acheivers in their respective fields) into a coherent force.

One of the main things we do is simply sit together regularly and talk about whatever’s on our minds, stimulating and shaping ideas, getting updates on works in progress, making suggestions, connections, and so forth. Finding time in one’s schedule to just sit together and exchange ideas with no particular agenda is an important thing to do and we take it very seriously. We do this at […] Click to continue reading this post

Chalkboards Everywhere!


I love chalkboards (or blackboards if you prefer). I love showing up to give a talk somewhere and just picking up the chalk and going for it. No heavily over-packed slides full of too many fast moving things, as happens too much these days. If there is coloured chalk available, that’s fantastic – special effects. It is getting harder to find these boards however. Designers of teaching rooms and other spaces seem embarrassed by them, and so they either get smaller or disappear, often in favour of the less than magical whiteboard.

So in my continued reinvention of the way I produce slides for projection (I do this every so often), I’ve gone another step forward in returning to the look (and […] Click to continue reading this post

Three Cellos

three_cellos_14_11_14These three fellows, perched on wooden boxes, just cried out for a quick sketch of them during the concert.

It was the LA Phil playing Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos, preceded by the wonderful Rapsodie Espagnole by Ravel and followed by that sublime (brought tears to my eyes – I’d not heard it in so long) serving of England, Elgar’s Enigma Variations.


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Nerd-Off Results

UCB_nerd_offSo I’m supposed to be writing 20 slides for a colloquium so let me see if I get this right really fast:- First round, the Koch Brothers bested the Justice League and Ultron was beaten up by Inspector Gadget meanwhile Ice Cube trumped Mr. Rogers and Stephen Hawking battled Charles Darwin but the audience loved them so much that they were asked to team up for the next round (before which Jon Snow did standup in the break) and in which they lost to Inspector Gadget who […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Science at Screen Junkies!

screen_junkies_interstellarAs promised on Tuesday, below you will find my Screen Junkies interview where I chat with Hal Rudnick about some of the science in Interstellar. We covered a lot of topics and went into a lot of detail, but a lot of that is on the cutting room floor in order to make a svelte (but relatively generous) ten minute cut. I hope you enjoy it. (See my earlier thoughts on why I think scientists need […] Click to continue reading this post

Subway Glances


Just a few grabs of parts of faces of people who I see on the subway journey to and from USC each day. Sometimes I get a good look, other times not… Sometimes they disappear before I get anywhere. I’ve been busy on other things (like prepping lectures and reading endless books and files for one duty or another) and so have not got as many done as I like to. This collection is about three weeks’ worth. Also, when travelling in rush hour I seldom get a […] Click to continue reading this post

Hanging out at Screen Junkies!

hal_rudnick_clifford_johnsonJust finished another enjoyable hour of chatting about movies and science with the Screen Junkies guys! You’ll recall the fun results of the last two (see here on Time Travel and here on Guardians of the Galaxy). We were talking about… wait for it… Interstellar! Their legions of fans have been shouting at them to do something about the science in Interstellar for weeks now, and they heard them, and called me in to chat. In the course of an hour we talked about a lot of fun things, but remember – they’ll cut it all down to 5 minutes or so, and so we won’t get to a lot of things. I do not know what bits will be used… (It will be different from my spoiler-free recent Interstellar discussion.)

In my previous visits there I’d never got to see the famous Screen Junkies wall in front of which they have conducted so many fun interviews (see their site […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Thoughts

After emerging from a spectacular 70mm viewing of Interstellar at the Arclight Dome last night, I was grinning from ear to ear, which is unusual these days after seeing a film in this subject area (science fiction, space travel, the future of humanity, etc). (And by science fiction here I mean proper science fiction, not space opera or space adventure. There’s a lot of that and some of it is fun and makes me grin too, like this Summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But that’s not at all the same sort of thing.)

I’m not going to go into any details, since I am very tired of the practice of talking about films to the extent that you say so much of what happens that it is impossible for someone to enjoy watching the film unfold in front of them without knowing what comes next, the way I like my films best. So I’m not going to ruin things for you.

Everybody keeps asking me “what did you think of the science?” since they know that there’s a lot of stuff in there that relates to my subject area and interests. Many seem to want me to pronounce on what’s “good” and whats “bad” about the science, as though I’ve (like many scientists in the public sphere seem to have done) elected myself some sort of guardian of scientific ideas. Let me say two things. The first is that this is a science fiction film, not a science documentary. I’m already hearing all sort of humourless declarations about this and that and the other being wrong and how shameful it is, as happened with Gravity last year. Done right, such discussions can be an opportunity to teach a bit about science ideas, but most often it just comes across as being a smartass, which is a bit tedious, and leads me to my second point.

The second point is something I say a lot and needs to be said a lot more: Scientists don’t own science and its concepts and ideas. We should be careful […] Click to continue reading this post

Podcast on “Beyond the University”

That podcast from the Bedrosian Center series that I contributed to is now live! I mentioned it here, remember, and talked a bit about the book we discussed, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, by Michael S. Roth. In the discussion I chatted with the Center’s Director Raphael Bostic, who also hosts, Deborah Natoli, and David Sloane, all in the USC Price School of Public Policy. It was a fun discussion, and I hope you find it interesting and useful. As I said in the previous post:

It is by no means a perfect book, as we discuss in the podcast, but it is in my view a book that is worth reading since it lays out rather nicely the history of the conversation that has been going on about this issue in America dating back to Jefferson and before. This is, to my mind, a conversation we will always need to have, an issue that is self-renewing and that has to be revisited, and we should all be part of it whether we are educators, parents, students, potential students, or employers. (Frankly, I think every new faculty member at a university that claims to be giving a liberal education should be given a copy of this book (or a book like it) in their arrival package. Existing faculty as well, if possible! Why? To get everyone involved in education thinking about the point of what it is they are doing, if nothing else.)

The podcast can be found on Soundcloud, iTunesU, and iTunes podcasts, but I’ll point to it on the Center’s page here since there are other […]

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Interstellar Discoveries

I’m a fan of Chris Nolan’s work so I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar. I’ve also been fascinated by the McConaussance – the transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor of considerable stature in a series of excellent films (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, etc…), so I’ve been doubly interested in seeing how he works in a film under Nolan’s direction. Same for the always amazing Casey Affleck. All quite exciting to see.

But then to my surprise it turns out there’s another reason to be interested. Kip Thorne. Some years ago, at a party when I last saw him, Kip told me that he had been working on some film or other with a major studio, but I did not know of the details. Then I ran into a mutual friend a couple of months ago who said something a long the lines of “Kip’s movie is coming out soon…”, and I learned that it was something to do with Interstellar! But I did not know any details.

Then I got sent* this Wired story, and then** this story, and I finally got around to looking. The Wired story has a lot of interesting detail, including a special film (that I ought to look at at) with interviews and behind the scenes material (the still to the right is a screen shot from it). still_from_interstellar_wiredThe film will apparently feature a black hole and a wormhole in some way (I don’t want to know more – I like films to unfold in front of me in the theatre). Kip has been working with the visual effects people to get right exactly how such objects really look, an issue that has not really been fully addressed, it seems. He, like a number of us interested in science and film, is keen to help filmmakers really do a good job of representing some of these fascinating objects as accurately as possible. (Not, in my view, in order to stifle filmmakers’ imagination, as it so often seems when you hear scientists out there pontificating about what’s wrong in one film or another, but because the actual science is so very often far more interesting and full of delights and possibility than a visual effects kluge can be…) So apparently he wrote down […] Click to continue reading this post

Reading Storm…

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 09.55.07For a while back there earlier this week I was in a storm of reading duties of the sort that I hope not to see again in a while. A lot of it had to be put off at the end of the week before because I wanted to prepare my talk for Sunday, which took a little more time than I’d planned since I wanted to do some drawings for it. All of it had a deadline. Monday was to see me participating in a podcast at the USC Bedrosian Center to discuss the book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, by Michael S. Roth. I had the book for about six weeks, and started reading it when I first got it… but found that I was getting through it too fast too early and wanted to have it fresher in my mind for the podcast, so I held off until closer to the date. Unfortunately, this then clashed with two promotion dossiers that got scheduled for a Tuesday meeting, both from book-heavy fields, and so that added three books on language, representation, business and history (tangled up in a fascinating way) that I can’t tell you about since the proceedings of the relevant committee are confidential. Then I remembered that a Ph.D. thesis exam had been moved from the previous week to that same Tuesday (and I had put off the reading) and so I had a thesis to read as well. (Not to mention all the dossier letters, statements, committee reports, and so forth that come from reading two promotion dossiers…)

A lot of the reading is also fun, but it’s certainly hard work and one is reading while taking careful notes for later reference, in a lot of the instances. I always end up surprising myself with how much fun I have learning about topics far beyond my field when I read promotions dossiers for other areas. I’m certainly not an expert (and that is not why I’m called into service in such cases) so I’m reading with an eye on seeing what the quality of scholarship is, and what the voice of the person writing is like. These are things that (if you are not of the tedious point of view that your own field of inquiry is somehow king of the disciplines (a view we physicists all too often seem to have)) can be glimpsed and sometimes firmly perceived by wading deep into the pool of their work and keeping an open mind.

I strongly recommend the Roth book about what the point […] Click to continue reading this post

I Dare!

sunday_assembly_3(Click photos* for larger view)

Yes. I dare to show equations during public lectures. There’ll be equations in my book too. If we do not show the tools we use, how can we give a complete picture of how science works? If we keep hiding the mathematics, won’t people be even more afraid of this terrifying horror we are “protecting” them from?

I started my Sunday Assembly talk reflecting upon the fact that next year will make 100 years after Einstein published one of the most beautiful and far-reaching scientific works in history, General Relativity, describing how gravity works. In the first 30 seconds of the talk, I put up the equations. Just because they deserve to be seen, and to drive home the point that its not just a bunch of words, but an actual method of computation, that allows you to do quantitative science about the largest physical object we know of – the entire universe!


It was a great audience, who seemed to enjoy the 20 minute talk as part of […] Click to continue reading this post

Secrets of the Earth

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 1.17.23 PMMy guess is that most of you don’t know that you can find original science programming on the Weather Channel. (Just like, say, 8 years ago most of you would not have been tuning to the History Channel for original science programming about how the Universe works, but many of you know better – (and thanks for watching The Universe!)) Well, this week one of the series that they have that does do some science, Secrets of the Earth, comes back for a new season.

I made some contributions to several of the episodes, and I think I appear in at least two of them as a guest. So look at the whole season for some tasty bits of science about the world around you, and if inclined to, do […] Click to continue reading this post