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 clichés. 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

Collapse Results From Space

montserrat_dome_collapsePhil over at Bad Astronomy has posted about my childhood cradle (although I am sure he does not know that), the (still beautiful) island of Montserrat. I grew up there for ten years from ages 4 to 14. Many years later, in 1997, a volcano erupted there (in the “Soufrière Hills”) and devastated much of the Southern part (where I grew up) of the island wiping out almost all traces of where I lived. Much of the stuff of my childhood memories is buried under tens of feet of ash. In my more tender moments, this thought still brings me to tears, actually. (Yes, of course I do know that it is much more devastating for those whose lives it affects due to their living there in the present.) On a side note, I always find it slightly chilling that the mountain that erupted was one of a pair that I used to love to sit on a giant rock and stare at, for long periods, when I was in a contemplative mood (as I often was) when I was young. Furthermore, two weeks before the eruption I was actually visiting the island for the first time since I’d left it as a child. And guess what I did? One day I was in a foul mood over an issue, and I went and sat on that rock again and while brooding, looked over at the mountain for a long spell. (Just in case, I try not to get too angry these days… ;) )

It turns out that the volcano has continued to rumble and burp over all these years, sometimes dangerously, with a growing dome that forms on top of the whole […] Click to continue reading this post

Smarter than the Average Panda?

yun-zi-01 Yes, I know: (1) Large head doesn’t make one smarter, but it was just so I could use the post title. (Maybe one or two of you see where it comes from…) (2) The final resort of a busy blogger: – cute animal pictures. Well, I already regularly share pictures with you concerning what I had for dinner, so no change there.

This is Yun Zi, (“Son of Cloud” I hear) who arrived in the public eye (at five months […] Click to continue reading this post

Blue Skies…

I always like an excuse to look for blue skies, and to have others look too, even in the worst of times. I had a great reason to do it today.

Early this morning before sunrise I settled down to write my ten o’clock lecture for my Electricity and Magnetism class. On Tuesday I had ended with a computation that is the essence of the reason the sky is blue, which is a nice enough thing to talk about, but today I wanted to go more in depth on the whole thing, and show that you can in a few steps show that the blueness has a particular pattern to it. I wrote out the final equations in a few steps and looked at them for a moment or two and realized that with the sun rising at that very moment, it was the perfect situation to have! So I went outside to enjoy the beautiful Autumn day and the beauty there is in seeing an equation writ large in the sky – and it really was all there.

It is particularly at times like this that one remembers why it is that it is hard not to just love Physics! (I hope you’ll forgive my unashamed love of what I do.)

Here is the sky I saw, looking toward sunrise, and directly in the opposite direction:

sunrise_scattering_1 sunrise_scattering_2

Oh, you’re wondering what I am talking about..? Why is the sky blue? What pattern in the sky? Thanks for asking! There are two things I’m looking at. First, light from the […] Click to continue reading this post

A. S. Byatt

Following hot on the heels of Margaret Atwood coming to town last week (over at UCLA), we have A. S. Byatt over at USC today! Very exciting. It is actually partly one of our College Commons events as well, and last week as a College Commons event (with a Darwin tinge) we had a viewing of the film of her book Angels and Insects, which I thought was really excellent!

Her lecture is entitled: “The Novel as Natural History”, (and will resonate with some of the themes I talked about in my report on the CC event about Collections) and I expect it is going to be quite wonderful. Details here, and the blurb goes:
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Jane Goodall

jane_goodall_bovardJust went to a marvellous talk by Jane Goodall here on the USC campus, in Bovard auditorium. She’s signing her new book as we speak! Among the many things she said, she emphasized one of my favourite themes with regards the environment (and so many other things, like community, education, etc): Act locally.

Have a look at her roots and shoots organization for example. It is very youth driven […] Click to continue reading this post


Well that was fun! I’m sitting on the bus on the way home [editorial note: I wrote most of this on Thursday afternoon], with the memory of the College Commons event that I just went to still fresh in my mind. (That and the tasty food at the end of the event.)


This event (“Discovering the World: Collections, Curiosity and Evolution”) was all about collecting and collections, from the institutional collections we have in our society today such as museums and libraries, through the “cabinets of curiosity” of earlier centuries, to the sort of obsessive collections of random stuff that sort of becomes a disease (I mentally glance over at the shelves, piles, and boxes of old New Yorkers in my house; I’ve not been able to throw away a single one since I started subscribing in the early 90s. Yes, I know, I know… I know.)

So many of these types of collections (and the resulting books and compendia which they themselves become the objects of collections and subjects of books and so on and so forth) formed the foundations of the culture, the raw material for scientific study, the inspiration for more collections and for more study, and so on…. So the event used that as a basis and dug out some wonderful articles for us to look and marvel at. The digging was done at USC’s own splendid Doheny library (original Audubon volumes, Cook’s journals, etc) the Huntington library (several illustrated tomes of natural history and an actual plate used long ago for printing Audubon illustrations which were then later hand-coloured by artists) and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum across the street. A number of my colleagues who are scholars in areas that these objects pertain to gave short, informative and […] Click to continue reading this post

Pit Visit

I promised a report on last week’s College Commons trip to the Page Museum at the Tar Pits, here in Los Angeles. It was an excellent trip. The usual thing I do for blogging these things is, some time later, as time allows, I sit down and do a sort of brain-dump. I tried to do something different this time, and walk on the tour with my Palm Tungsten (yes, really really old technology, I know) and simply write a sort of narrative into it as I went along. Then I combined the uploaded file with the images I took as I went along, and supplemented with some extra sentences here and there. The overall effect should be a sketchier description of the event than I usually do, which may or may not be an improvement given that everybody seems to skim everything these days anyway. (Click on the photos for larger views.) So, here goes:

tar_pits_trip And so it begins. And it begins well – after a name tag is given out, upon check in for the bus, we are given a little brown paper bag of snacks. Hurrah!

3:39 and we’re off! (We run by the excavations for the Expo line and since it is an elevated bus, I get a nice view of what’s going on for quite a way. Wish I’d had the camera out to make a video for you.)

My colleague David Bottjer, a paleontologist, gives a little run down of the history of the region (both social and paleontological) as we go north on La Brea (appropriately – they are the La Brea Tar Pits… Or given that La Brea means The Tar, they are The Tar Tar Pits…)

4:05 We’re here! Somehow, the little bag of goodies is all empty already. Except for […] Click to continue reading this post


joshua tree at el mirage lake

Today’s shooting circumstances (see previous post) produced an unexpected bonus: Snow. Lots of it! It is always a pleasant surprise to me how quickly you can get from Los Angeles to some good snow cover. I was not expecting to see any snow – or trudge through any – this season, but it turned out that lots of it had fallen where we were scheduled to shoot. So much so that we could not get to where we wanted to […] Click to continue reading this post

The Urban Homestead

many hands at the speakeasy

Oh, boy this was fun. Christine Louise Berry organizes a series she calls The Speakeasy, and I’ll tell you below about the really great one that took place on Sunday. You’ll remember my mentioning Christine’s work earlier. She (the main force behind SmartGals) did that marvellous McArthur Park event with the fragments of plays to be found all over the park, and had the excellent taste to combine it with Mama’s Hot Tamales. A couple of months ago, at a party of hers (to celebrate car-independence in LA!), I met Erik Knutzen, with whom I ended up talking a great deal about lots of things because we seem to be on the same page on many things with regards biking and public transport (he’s part of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition), gardening and sustainability (he’s involved in a lot of land use issues for his day job). So we talked about lots of topics, from composting to the Velib system (and why Los Angeles has essentially already decided not to take that wonderful route, sadly).

Erik, with his partner Kelly Coyne, write a really great blog called Homegrown Evolution (excellent title), which is all about urban gardening, and they are passionate about getting more people to do gardening (as am I, you might have gathered). You’ve probably read my posts on gardening from time to time and thought that it isn’t for you since you’re in a big city in an apartment on the nth floor (where n is some integer greater than one or zero) with no access to garden space. I’ve […] Click to continue reading this post