In Case You Wondered…

Dear visitor who came here (perhaps) after visiting the panel I participated in on Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books. (“Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”) What a fun discussion! Pity we ran out of time before we really began to explore connections, perhaps inspired by more audience questions.

In any event, in case you wondered why I was not signing books at the end at the designated signing area, I thought I’d write this note. I was given the option to do so, but the book that I currently have out is a specialist monograph, and I did not think there’s be much demand for it at a general festival such as the one on the weekend. (Feel free to pick up a copy if you wish, though. It is called “D-Branes”, and it is here.)

The book I actually mentioned during the panel, since it is indeed among my current attempts to grasp the “ineffable” of the panel title, is a work in progress. (Hence my variant of the “under construction” sign on the right.) It is a graphic book (working title “The Dialogues”) pitched at a general audience that explores a lot of contemporary physics topics in an unusual way. It is scheduled for publication in 2017 by Imperial College Press. You can find out much more about it here.

Feel free to visit this blog for updates on how the book progresses, and of course lots of other topics and conversations too (which you are welcome to join).

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Festival Panel

father and son at LA Times Festival of BooksDon’t forget that this weekend is the fantastic LA Times Festival of Books! See my earlier post. Actually, I’ll be on a panel at 3:00pm in Wallis Annenberg Hall entitled “Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”, with Pat Levitt and Elyn Saks, chaired by the Science writer KC Cole. I’ve no idea where the conversation is going to go, but I hope it’ll be fun and interesting! (See the whole schedule here.)

Maybe see you there!

Click to continue reading this post

Beyond the Battling Babes

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 14.03.58The recent Babe War (Food Babe vs Science Babe) that probably touched your inbox or news feed is a great opportunity to think about a broader issue: the changing faces of science communication. I spoke about this with LA Times science writer Eryn Brown who wrote an excellent article about it that appears today. (Picture (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times) and headline are from the article’s online version.)

(By the way, due to space issues, a lot of what we spoke about did not make it to the article (at least not in the form of quotes), including: […] Click to continue reading this post

Excellent Witten Interview!

ooguri_witten_kavli_ipmuI just learned of an excellent interview with Edward Witten, one or our field’s grandmasters, or rather: the grandmasters’ grandmaster. I strongly recommend reading it. (This is for technically equipped people working in the field, most likely – I believe that it is not intended for the general public, although you are welcome to read it too!)

There’s a lot of discussion (of among other things like his current work) of that golden period during the 1990s that I had the privilege to work in during my postdoc years (some of them under the guidance of Witten) that remain one of […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Luncheon with Amy Parish

LAIH_Amy_Parish_10_April_2015_2 For Friday’s Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities luncheon we had a presentation from anthropologist/primatologist Amy Parish (an LAIH Fellow) on the work she’s been doing with bonobos at a zoo in Stuttgart. She updated us on how bonobo societies work (of all the apes, bonobos are our closest cousins, genetically), and then told us about recent experiments she’s been doing with getting them to watch films, giving them control over what they watch, and observing the effects of this on social patterns. (There’s a brief article here about Amy’s recent work.) It was an excellent talk, well attended, with lots of laughter – the result of a pretty potent mixture of food, sex, and humour!

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXX – Relative

relativity_shoot_1(Click images for larger view.)
Last Tuesday was a bit unusual. I’ve been chatting for a while with the people making a new BBC/PBS(NOVA) special in celebration of it being 100 years since Einstein’s presentation of the field equations of General Relativity, and that was the day we’d arranged to have an interview of me saying a few ideas to camera, and also doing a demo or two for fun. It was a very tight schedule, and a lot had to be arranged since one of the demos involved me sitting on the back of a flat bed truck at a desk (apparently in an office), looking up and explaining something, only to have the camera reveal the larger context in which the conversation was taking place. Well, the office set and desk were abandoned for various reasons, and then we got held up for almost two hours because the campus safety people turned out to have been confused (?) by the director’s careful notes in advance of the shoot and did not realise that the flatbed truck with me and the furniture and the cameraman would actually be moving. Even though it was intended to move at only a snail’s pace, it violates their safety rules to not have everything strapped down with safety harnesses. It qualifies as a “stunt”, and they were not expecting one. So there was a lot of back and forth over walkie talkies and in person and so forth, and persons with little golf carts coming and going, until some of the crew dashed off to Autozone to buy several cargo straps that, after application, seemed to make everyone happy.

I climbed up and allowed myself to be strapped in too. Before it all got started I asked about how exactly I was to unstrap myself if for some reason the flatbed […] Click to continue reading this post

Getty Visit

LAIH_luncheon_getty_2Every year the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities has a luncheon at the Getty jointly with the Getty Research Institute and the LAIH fellows get to hang out with the Getty Scholars and people on the Getty Visiting Scholars program (Alexa Sekyra, the head of the program, was at the luncheon today, so I got to meet her). The talk is usually given by a curator of an exhibition or program that’s either current, or coming up. The first time I went, a few years ago, it was the Spring before the launch of the Pacific Standard Time region-wide celebration of 35 years of Southern California art and art movements (’45-’80) that broke away from letting New York and Western Europe call the tunes and began to define some of the distinctive voices of their own that are now so well known world wide… then we had a talk from a group of curators about the multi-museum collaboration to make that happen. One of the things I learned today from Andrew Perchuck, the Deputy Director of the Getty Research Institute who welcomed us all in a short address, was that there will be a new Pacific Standard Time event coming up in 2018, so stay tuned. This time it will have more of a focus on Latino and Latin American art. See here.


Today we had Nancy Perloff tell us about the current exhibit (for which she is […] Click to continue reading this post

Framed Graphite

framed_graphiteIt took a while, but I got this task done. (Click for a slightly larger view.)Things take a lot longer these days, because…newborn. You’ll recall that I did a little drawing of the youngster very soon after his arrival in December. Well, it was decided a while back that it should be on display on a wall in the house rather than hide in my notebooks like my other sketches tend to do. This was a great honour, but presented me with difficulty. I have a rule to not take any pages out of my notebooks. You’ll think it is nuts, but you’ll find that this madness is shared by many people who keep notebooks/sketchbooks. Somehow the whole thing is a Thing, if you know what I mean. To tear a page out would be a distortion of the record…. it would spoil the archival aspect of the book. (Who am I kidding? I don’t think it likely that future historians will be poring over my notebooks… but I know that future Clifford will be, and it will be annoying to find a gap.) (It is sort of like deleting comments from a discussion on a blog post. I try not to do that without good reason, and I leave a trail to show that it was done if I must.)

Anyway, where was I? Ah. Pages. Well, I had to find a way of making a framed version of the drawing that kept the spirit and feel of the drawing intact while […] Click to continue reading this post

Festival of Books!

what_are_you_reading(Click for larger view of 2010 Festival “What are you reading?” wall.)
So the Festival of Books is 18-19th April this year. If you’re in or near LA, I hope you’re going! It’s free, it’s huge (the largest book festival in the USA) and also huge fun! They’ve announced the schedule of events and the dates on which you can snag (free) tickets for various indoor panels and appearances since they are very popular, as usual. So check out the panels, appearances, and performances here. (Check out several of my past posts on the Festival here. Note also that the festival is on the USC campus which is easy to get to using great public transport links if you don’t want to deal with traffic and parking.)

Note also that the shortlist for the 2014 LA Times Book Prizes was announced (a while back – I forgot to post about it) and it is here. I always find it interesting… for a start, it is a great list of reading suggestions!

By the way, apparently I’m officially an author – not just a guy who writes from time to time – an author. Why? Well, I’m listed as one on the schedule site. I’ll be on one of the author panels! It is moderated by KC Cole, and I’ll be joining […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Luncheon with Jack Miles

LAIH_Jack_Miles_6_march_2015_2 (Click for larger view.)
On Friday 6th March the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH) was delighted to have our luncheon talk given by LAIH Fellow Jack Miles. He told us some of the story behind (and the making of) the Norton Anthology of World Religions – he is the main editor of this massive work – and lots of the ins and outs of how you go about undertaking such an enterprise. It was fascinating to hear how the various religions were chosen, for example, and how he selected and recruited specialist editors for each of the religions. It was an excellent talk, made all the more enjoyable by having Jack’s quiet and […] Click to continue reading this post

LA Marathon Route Panorama!

sky_spots_marathon_pano_stitch_cvj_13_march_2015(Click for much larger view.)
Sunday is the 30th LA Marathon. In celebration of this, giant spotlights were set up at various points along the route (from Dodger stadium all the way out to Santa Monica… roughly a station each mile, I read somewhere) and turned on last night for about an hour between around 9 and 10. I stood on a conveniently placed rooftop and had a go at capturing this. See the picture (click for much larger view). It involved pushing the exposure by about two stops, […] Click to continue reading this post

Layout Design

Rough layout design. Text suppressed because… spoilers. Feel free to supply your own dialogue… share it here if you like!


(Click image for larger view.) In case you’re wondering, I’m trying here and there to find a bit of time to do a bit of rough (but less rough than last pass) layout design for the book. Sample above. This helps me check that all the flow, layout, pace, and transitions are […] Click to continue reading this post

Thankful for UnThanks

On the strength of Becky Unthank’s guest appearance on a wonderful and heart-rending song (“So to Speak”) on Sting’s fantastic 2013 album “The Last Ship”, I decided to hear more. Wonderful… It is impossible to properly describe Becky’s voice and the (sometimes terrifying) shivers it sends down my spine when she brings out certain aspects of it that somehow constitute a vocal embodiment of a warm sea breeze: rich, complex, open, vast, with shades of gentleness and power at the same time. I can’t explain it, which frustrates me since I am usually reasonably good at that. And Rachel’s voice is wonderful too, in a different way. And then the two together produce that other fantastic indescribable vocal phenomenon – sibling harmonies! See e.g. here.

And taken altogether (and with Sting’s album), they remind me fondly of the North East of England that I got to know for a while…the people of Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland and surrounding villages…Sigh*.


(*and reawaken a nostalgia for a time (of shipbuilding and the sea) that I really never knew. ) Click to continue reading this post


So here’s a funny thing. I had to renew my driver’s licence the other day, in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). It was time to get a new picture and have my eyes tested. Somehow, because I’ve not found time to get to the optometrist for some time beyond when I was due, the ‘eyes tested’ part began to worm its way into my mind. What is the standard? (I could not recall from last time, it has been so long.) What if my vision is not as clear as it should be? Will they withhold the renewal? With recent events at home, this is the worst time to not have a license, etc. This all began as a low murmur in my mind but it steadily rose in amplitude as I got to the DMV, waited in the appointment line, got my waiting ticket, and sat down to meet my assigned official.

I actually love sitting in places in DMVs for while. (I know, it is weird. I also like dentist’s visits, although for different reasons, but that’s another story. You get it – I’m odd, let’s move on…) There’s something about the slice of life one gets in such places where almost everyone, regardless of walk of life, has to go at some point. There are all sorts of people, interactions, arrangements of workspaces, fascinating little stations for different functions, and signs, endless signs hanging on walls and from ceilings reminding people of things, reminding me of little village post offices in Britain. …It is all very interesting, and full of sketching opportunities. I prepared to get out my notebook and a pen. But then I noticed the set up for eye testing. There were charts up above each group of DMV office stations. They seemed very close to where the applicant would stand, so I imagined there was some arrangement with mirrors I could not yet see that would make them be visually further away. Surely.


I need not have worried, on two counts. The first is that the letters are remarkably, (almost ridiculously, it seemed to my worried mind) close. The second is hilarious to me. As you can see from the picture (click for larger view), FLEPT each line you are supposed to read is a permutation of the same five letters! F-L-E-P-T […] Click to continue reading this post

dublab at LAIH

(Click for larger view.)

Mark (“Frosty”) McNeill gave us a great overview of the work of the dublab collective at last Friday’s LAIH luncheon. As I said in my introduction:

… dublab shows up as part of the DNA of many of the most engaging live events around the City (at MOCA, LACMA, Barnsdall, the Hammer, the Getty, the Natural History Museum, the Hollywood Bowl… and so on), and dublab is available in its core form as a radio project any time you like if you want to listen online.

[…] dublab is a “non-profit web radio collective devoted to the growth of  positive music, arts and culture.”

Frosty is a co-founder of dublab, and he told us a bit about its history, activities, and their new wonderful project called “Sound Share LA” which will be launching soon: They are creating a multimedia archive of Los Angeles based […] Click to continue reading this post

Simulated meets Real!

Here’s a freshly minted Oscar winner who played a scientist surrounded by… scientists! I’m with fellow physicists Erik Verlinde, Maria Spiropulu, and David Saltzberg at an event last month. Front centre are of course actors Eddie Redmayne (Best Actor winner 2015 for Theory of Everything) and Felicity Jones (Best Actress – nominee) along with the screenwriter of the film, Anthony McCarten. The British Consul-General Chris O’Connor is on the right. (Photo was courtesy of Getty Images.)

[…] Click to continue reading this post

Pre-Oscar Bash: Hurrah for Science at the Movies?

It is hard to not get caught up each year in the Oscar business if you live in this town and care about film. If you care about film, you’re probably just mostly annoyed about the whole thing because the slate of nominations and eventual winners hardly represents the outcome of careful thought about relative merits and so forth. The trick is to forget being annoyed and either hide from the whole thing or embrace it as a fun silly thing that does not mean too much.

british_film_oscar_bash_smaller_05 This year since there has been a number of high profile films that help raise awareness of and interest in science and scientists, I have definitely not chosen the “hide away” option. Whatever one thinks of how good or bad “The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game” and “Interstellar” might be, I think that is simply silly to ignore the fact that it is a net positive thing that they’ve got millions of people taking about science and science-related things while out on their movie night. That’s a good thing, and as I’ve been saying for the last several months (see e.g. here and here), good enough reason for people interested in science engagement to be at least broadly supportive of the films, because that’ll encourage more to be made, an the more such films are being made, the better the chances are that even better ones get made.

This is all a preface to admitting that I went to one of those fancy pre-Oscar parties last night. It was put on by the British Consul-General in Los Angeles (sort of a followup to the one I went to last month mentioned here) in celebration of the British Film industry and the large number of British Oscar […] Click to continue reading this post

Ahead of Myself…

(In which I talk about script work on the graphic book, and a useful writer’s tool for you writers out there of all kinds.)


I’ve been easing my brain back into thinking regularly about the book project and getting momentum on it again. [As you recall, I’ve been distracted by family things, and before that, focussed on finding a publisher for it.) The momentum part is not easy because… newborn. (I’ve been saying that a lot: “because …newborn.” I am tempted to make a (drool-covered) t-shirt with that as a slogan, but the trouble with that idea is that I do not wear t-shirts with things written on them if I can help it. Uh-huh, I’m weird.] My plan is to finish writing the scripts for the book, including storyboarding/thumbnailing the whole thing out to get the page designs right. In essence, flesh out the book with enough of the main stuff of it so that I can then work on tinkering with structure, etc. This involves not just moving words around as you would a prose book, but planning how the words work on the page in concert with the drawings. I’ve often done this by just scribbling in a notebook, but ultimately one wants to be able to have everything in a form one can refer to easily, revise, cut and paste, etc. That’s where this marvellous tool called a computer comes in. A lot of writers in comics use the same sorts of software that is used for plays or screenplays (Final Draft and the like). People have even written comics script templates for such programs. They allow for page descriptions, panel descriptions, etc.

(At this point I should acknowledge that the typical reader probably did not know that comics and graphic books had scripts. Well, they do. There’s a lot more to say about that, but I won’t do that here. Google it.)

Over the years I’ve been slowly putting my scribblings into a piece of software […] Click to continue reading this post

Coming Along Nicely, Broadly Speaking

Coming soon next to one of my favourite buildings…


Probably a new favourite building, the Broad Museum for Comtemporary Art. (Click for larger image.) It has been a while since I’ve been down there during the day (mostly been at Disney Concert Hall (on the right) at nights the last few months, for concerts) and so I was happy to pass by it yesterday on a […] Click to continue reading this post

Has Hubble found the Culprit?

Recall that some years ago the Hubble telescope found a rude message in the sky:

Carina Hubble Image

It is said that many were offended by this sign. Some even thought it may have been left by their God as a sort of crude final message for those seeking meaning in the skies. Other, perhaps less imaginative people just figured it’s a random combination of shapes people are projecting onto.

Well, after much more searching through the sky for the perpetrator of the crime, it seems that the Hubble instrument may have caught a suspect on camera:
A smiling lens

Of course, until the entity is brought in for questioning, it should be granted the presumption of innocence. (And even if it was its hand, it may have all been a big celestial misunderstanding…)


P.S. The first NASA/ESA Hubble image is from a detail of gas clouds in the Carina nebula, and more can be found out about it here.

In the second NASA/ESA Hubble image the arcs of a circle that form the “head” shape are actually a gravitational lensing effect. 100 years ago this year Einstein published his General Relativity which shows, among other things, […] Click to continue reading this post

Sometimes there is Smoke without Fire

…Or at least, not always the fire you’re looking for. So, as suspected for several months now, the signal seen by BICEP2 experiment and dubbed “a smoking gun” type of direct evidence for cosmic inflation (for which we have lots of strongly suggestive indirect evidence, by the way) is likely an artefact of the effects of galactic dust. I spoke about this in a post a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here. What everyone has been waiting for has been the results of a joint analysis between the BICEP2 people and the ESA’s Planck mission. The Planck satellite, you may recall from reading here or elsewhere, is also designed toPlanck_view_of_BICEP2_field_node_full_image_2 carefully study the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background (the earliest light to shine in the universe), and so can (through thorough analysis of the effects of dust that it has measured independently) help rule in or out whether there is a signal. Planck studies essentially the whole sky, not just the patch that BICEP2 was carefully looking at, and one of […] Click to continue reading this post