Baby Mothra!!!

So I discovered a terrifying (but also kind of fascinating and beautiful at the same time) new element to the garden this morning. We’re having a heat wave here, and so this morning before leaving for work I thought I’d give the tomato plants a spot of moisture. I passed one of the tomato clusters and noticed that one of the (still green) tomatoes had a large bite taken out of it. I assumed it was an experimental bite from a squirrel (my nemesis – or one of them), and muttered dark things under my breath and then prepared to move away the strange coiled leaf that seemed to be on top of it. Then I noticed.

It wasn’t a leaf.


It was a HUGE caterpillar! Enormous! Giant and green with spots and even a red horn at one end! There’s a moment when you’re unexpectedly close to a creature like that where your skin crawls for a bit. Well, mine did for a while […] Click to continue reading this post

Coral Forest

crochet_forest_7Given that you read here at this blog, you may well like to keep your boundaries between art and science nicely blurred, in which case you might like to learn more about the coral reef forests made of crochet spearheaded by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The pieces mix crochet (a hand-craft I know and love well from my childhood – I got to explore my love for symmetry, patterns, and problem-solving by making doilies) with mathematics – hyperbolic geometry in particular – as well as biology (mimicking and celebrating the forms of corals – and drawing attention to their destruction in the wild). You can read much more about the projects here. I’ve mentioned the work here before on the blog, but the other day I went along to see a new set […] Click to continue reading this post

Cloudy with a chance of Physics

I don’t know. That’s a bit of a desperate title. But in exchange, a rather nice cloud formation, don’t you think?


This was from the sky over Los Angeles yesterday evening (a shot of the sky in the other direction is to the right – click for larger), and my first thought was “what’s the physics behind these beautiful structures?” There’s enough regularity here to expect there to be a mechanism, but I do not know what it is. Some combination of atmospheric conditions like wind speed, clouds_3_3_2014_2temperature, perhaps some layering of different bodies of air, and so forth, resulted in this and I’d love to know more. What factors set the roughly regular size of the structures, their pretty uniform distance apart, etc? (These are typical physicist’s questions, in case you’re […] Click to continue reading this post

Before Sunrise

before_sunrise_7th_Jan_2014_clifford_v_johnson_1Staying on the weather/climate theme a little bit, I should mention that we’ve been having some rather splendid sunrises these last few days. Spectacular colour combinations are run through in a matter of minutes as the sun emerges. I captured this image two days ago, stopping down a bit to get the cloud colours right, silhouetting a palm tree in the foreground to give a bit of context (also cropping some of the bottom off for better balance). Within a few minutes of taking this all the red had gone, pushing rapidly through yellow to white as the bright sun emerged.

By contrast, this morning was all billowing fog. The resulting visual range was […] Click to continue reading this post

TED Youth Talk – Hidden Structures of the Universe

cvj_TED_YouthYou might recall that last year I gave a talk at TED Youth, in their second year of short TED talks aimed at younger audiences. You’ll recall (see e.g. here and here) I made a special set of slides for it, composed from hundreds of my drawings to make it all in graphic novel style, and somehow trying to do (in 7 minutes!!) what the TED people wanted.

They wanted an explanation of string theory, but when I learned that telescopesI was the only person in the event talking about physics, I kind of insisted that (in a year when we’d discovered the Higgs boson especially!) I talk more broadly about the broader quest to understand what the world is made of, leaving a brief mention of string magnifytheory at the end as one of the possible next steps being worked on. Well, they’ve now edited it all together and made it into one of the lessons on the TED Ed site, and so you can look at it. Show it to friends, young and old, and remember that it is ok if you don’t get everything that is said… it is meant to invite you to find out more on your own. Also, as you see fit, use the pause button, scroll back, etc… to get the most out of the narrative.

I’m reasonably pleased with the outcome, except for one thing. WHY am I rocking […] Click to continue reading this post

Critter Battles

I seem to be having a bit of friction with Nature right now. Need to sort this out. Monday, waking up in the desert (family visit – staying in a house not a tent), I put my hand on my pants to put them on and go out into the world. There was a strikingly sharp and hard jab, as though I’d grabbed a needle with my finger. I thought it odd, not having had a needle or other pointed object in my clothing. I decided to have a look… There, partly visible in one of the pockets was a scorpion! I thought about this for a few seconds and tried to recall whether there was some kind of venomous variety in this area, and whether this was one of them. Pausing for a while, I felt slightly dizzy for a tiny moment and then decided that was my imagination, and then I carried the pants out to the kitchen to discuss the matter with one of my hosts. After some research (and his rapid dispatching of the unfortunate beast), I decided that it was the wrong sort, and moreover, at only a few inches in length, probably too juvenile. Also, my finger showed no signs of distress, and so I got on with the day.

Last night, back home in Los Angeles, I discovered an unwelcome visitor in my crawl […] Click to continue reading this post

Tomato Bounty

I stopped off in LA after Amsterdam, to recharge and to just be home for a bit. The garden is now bursting with tomatoes of various types, I’m happy to report, and you only need to wait a day or two in order to pick a variety pack such as the lovely one above. (Click for larger view.) I brought a bunch of them to Aspen with me, and continue to work through them, in cooking, sandwiches like the ones I’m just about to eat for lunch, and so forth.

I’ve had none of the rodent problems with the tomatoes this year, since I […] Click to continue reading this post

The Ride Down from Maroon

Well, after an hour and a half or so of struggle up (see previous post), a rest, some picture taking, and so forth, I headed back down from the Maroon Lake area, leaving the magnificent view of the Maroon Bells behind and coasting down back to Aspen on the Brompton. I found a nice way of mounting the camera on the bike bag near the handle and so made a video of the descent, so that you can share in the view. Guess who ran out of charge on the battery before getting to the end? Never mind… the most scenic bits are captured. Best to turn down the sound of the air rushing past […] Click to continue reading this post


flowers_at_joshua_tree_1_1I was in Joshua Tree for a couple of days on the weekend, camping and hanging with some friends. It was a very pleasant time indeed, with groups of us taking turns making meals, and with bouts of talking and walking here and there, and sleeping in our tents listening to the evening wind howling at times.

Here’s a closeup (click for larger view) of a flower bundle of the Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens ), which is just a stunning plant.

The whole bush is pictured below.

[…] Click to continue reading this post

‘Tis the Season

There are a lot of silly, ill-informed things said about Los Angeles, mostly in the form of lazy clich├ęs. Sometimes said by people who are otherwise quite sensible, but the power and groove of a truism is hard to resist, even when it is an untrue one. One of them is that there are “no seasons” here. This is just a silly thing that people say in place of saying that they are used to seasons from a different climate and they have not taken the time to listen and watch for the march of the seasons that is evident here. (I think also that we have it amplified by popular culture that the standard symbols of the Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter cycle involving snow and red and gold leaf colours and bare trees and jack frost nipping at your nose and so forth are “the way things are supposed to be”.) A friend of mine has in her email signature the slogan “I have a life. It is just different from yours”, and so I will retool it here: “We have seasons. They are just different from yours.”

jasmine_in_bloomJust like anywhere else, the seasons wink or call (sometimes even shout) at you through certain combinations of colours, smells, temperatures, and so on. I think people miss a lot of cues in Los Angeles because they don’t get out of their cars and walk the streets very much. Even a few gardens or hedgerows passed along the way can show a lot about the mood of the season the city is in. For me, colours and smells are very big cues in Los Angeles, and there are times when large parts of the city seem to be dominated by a single plant’s smell or colour or sometimes both. For me, it is the Jasmine time of year now. This is when the night-blooming jasmine bushes (cestrum nocturnum, apparently) of the city all seem to work in concert and fill the air with a great scent, and lovely clumps of creamy […] Click to continue reading this post

Rain, Dear. Games. (1)

double_rainbow_small So today’s rain-storm-driven activities involved staring out of the windows at various impressive downpours and marveling at the lightning and thunderclaps. This latter formed an interesting coincidence since I was reviewing grant proposals this morning, and one of them was about the science of certain types of high energy phenomena associated with lightning bolts. They were good to see, since Southern California (at least the LA part) has relatively few and relatively lame offerings in the way of thunderstorms. I miss them terribly.

In the early afternoon, we finally decided to go off to a museum. A good indoor activity. However, we got caught in a downpour between parking and museum and decided that, despite the two giant umbrellas we had deployed, our coverage was wanting and we were all too damp to continue. So we returned home. It was a good […] Click to continue reading this post