(Click for larger view.) Well, I’ve already mentioned why today is such an important day in the history of human thought – One Hundred years of Certitude was the title of the post I used, in talking about the 100th Anniversary (today) of Einstein completing the final equations of General Relativity – and our celebration of it back last Friday went very well indeed. Today on NPR Adam Frank did an excellent job expanding on things a bit, so have a listen here if you like.
As you might recall me saying, I was keen to note and celebrate not just what GR means for science, but for the broader culture too, and two of the highlights of the day were examples of that. The photo above is of Kip Thorne talking about the science (solid General Relativity coupled with some speculative ideas rooted in General Relativity) of the film Interstellar, which as you know […] Click to continue reading this post →
This is a group shot from an excellent event I mentioned on here only briefly:
(Click for larger view. Photo from album linked below.) It was on Back to the Future Day… the date (October 21st 2015) that Marty McFly came forward in time to in the second of the BTTF movies… where we found hover boards and so forth, if you recall. The Science and Entertainment Exchange hosted a packed event at the Great Company (in downtown LA) which had several wonderful things and people, including some of the props from the films, the designer of lots of the props from the films, a ballroom done up like the high school prom of the first film, the actor who played George McFly (in the second two films), an actual DeLorean, and so much more. Oh! Also four experts who talked a bit about aspects of the science and other technical matters in the movies, such as […] Click to continue reading this post →
Since the early Summer I’ve been working (with the help of several people at USC*) toward a big event next Friday: A celebration of 100 years since Einstein formulated the field equations of General Relativity, a theory which is one of the top one or few (depending upon who you argue with over beers about this) scientific achievements in the history of human thought. The event is a collaboration between the USC Harman Academy of Polymathic Study and the LAIH, which I co-direct. I chose the title of this post since (putting aside the obvious desire to resonate with a certain great work of literature) this remarkable scientific framework has proven to be a remarkably robust and accurate model of how our universe’s gravity actually works in every area it has been tested with experiment and observation**. Despite being all about bizarre things like warped spacetime, slowing down time, and so forth, which most people think is to do only with science fiction. (And yes, you probably test it every day through your […] Click to continue reading this post →
Ok, So I’ve finished prepping my presentation of detailed recipes for how to make time machines. (Sorry, but it does not involve any of the elements depicted in the sketch above.) It is for a special event tonight celebrating the fact that this is the day Marty McFly came forward in time to in Back to the Future II. The question is: Should I really be telling people how to do this? Yikes.
Ok, time to get into my flying car and head off to teach…
Had to nip over to Joshua Tree National Park yesterday, for my sins.
Why? Well, gravity, of course. I can’t tell you the full details, but I was helping out the folks from the BBC on a documentary program (for the series Horizon, which I loved watching back in the 80s when I was in school!) being made about topics connected to gravity, space travel, mass, energy, and all that good stuff.
You can see me mid-demo in the photo (click for larger view), standing upon a rock somewhere in the park, talking about Newton and Einstein. I also got to be a bit of a stunt driver for a while, being filmed bouncing an SUV along a dirt road several times, which was (I grudgingly admit) a lot of fun!
As promised, the Screen Junkies episode we made is out. It is about The Martian! JPL’s Christina Heinlein (a planetary science expert) also took part, and I hope you find it interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe even funny too! As usual, there’s a lot that was said that was inevitably left on the (virtual) cutting-room floor, but a lot of good stuff made the cut. All in all, I’d say that this film (which I enjoyed a lot!) had a refreshing take on science and engineering for a big studio film, on several scores. (Remaining sentences are spoiler-free.) First, rather than hiding the slow machinations involved in problem-solving, it has a lot of it up front! It’s an actual celebration of problem-solving, part of the heart and soul of science and engineering. Second, rather than have the standard nerd stereotype […] Click to continue reading this post →
Yes, I’ve been hanging out with my Screen Junkies friends again, and this time I also got to meet JPL’s Christina Heinlein, who you may recall was in the first of the Screen Junkies “Movie Science” episodes last year. While we were both in it, I’d not got to meet her that time since our chats with host Hal Rudnick were recorded at quite different times. This time, however, schedules meant […] Click to continue reading this post →
Here, as promised yesterday, is the fun conversation at Screen Junkies. I don’t need to say much, since much of what I wanted to talk about (extra dimensions, other laws of physics, parallel universes, etc) made it to the (awesomely cut, btw!) episode! Embed of video below.
Yes! As you can tell from the photograph, I’ve recorded another episode with the excellent folks at Screen Junkies, and again we’ll be trying to look at some science (or science-related) issues in a movie. That’s presenter Hal Rudnick on the left, and producer/editor/writer Dan Murrell in the middle. The episode will appear tomorrow (Thursday) at around ten am Pacific, and if even a fraction of the fun (and hopefully interesting) stuff we covered makes it to the final cut (we talk for a good amount of time and then it is edited down to something short, because, you know, it’s the internet), I’ll be pleased, since we covered a lot of interesting stuff.
I ran across two excellent Dune-related items in the last fews weeks, and since it is the 50th Anniversary of Frank Herbert’s book “Dune”, I thought I’d share them with you.
The first is on the really excellent website called Pornokitsch, which I’m delighted to introduce you to if you’ve not encountered it before. (Don’t worry about the name – they chose it ironically.) Bookmark it and repeatedly return for more. This piece on Dune was about the David Lynch film, really (and not too much about the book), which is always great to discuss with people since it inspires intense love and hate in people… sometimes both in the same person. I find it a decidedly flawed film with so many delightful charming oddities that I can’t help but enjoy it. A number of regulars weigh in […] Click to continue reading this post →
[Extract from some of my babble that night:] “…”science advisor” which is such a confusing and misunderstood term. Most people think of us (and use us) as fact-checkers, and while I DO do that, it is actually the least good use of a scientist in the service of story-telling. As fact-checkers, usually engaged late in the process of a film being made, we’re just tinkering at the edges of an already essentially completed project. It is as if the main ship that is the movie has been built, has the journey planned out, and the ship has maybe even sailed, and we’re called in to spend an hour or two discussing whether the cabin door handles should be brass or chrome finish…” [I went on to describe how to help make better ships, sent on more interesting journeys..]
So the episode I mentioned is out! It’s a lot of fun, and there’s so very much that we talked about that they could not fit into the episode. See below. It is all about Jurassic World – a huge box-office hit. If you have not seen it yet, and don’t want specific spoilers, watch out for where I write the word spoilers in capitals, and read no further. If you don’t even want my overall take on things without specifics, read only up to where I link to the video. Also, the video has spoilers. I’ll embed the video here, and I have some more thoughts that I’ll put below.
One point I brought up a bit (you can see the beginning of it in my early remarks) is the whole business of the poor portrayal of science and scientists overall in the film, as opposed to in the original Jurassic Park movie. In the original, putting quibbles over scientific feasibility aside (it’s not a documentary, remember!), you have the “dangers of science” on one side, but you also have the “wonders of science” on the other. This includes that early scene or two that still delight me (and many scientists I know – and a whole bunch who were partly inspired by the movie to go into science!) of how genuinely moved the two scientist characters (played by Laura Dern and Sam Neil) are to see walking living dinosaurs, the subject of their life’s work. Right in front of them. Even if you’re not a scientist, you immediately relate to that feeling. It helps root the movie, as does that fact that pretty much all the characters are fleshed […] Click to continue reading this post →
On Wednesday (if I recall correctly – last week is a blur) I spoke on camera to producer Peter Savodnik about challenges involved in mounting space missions to colonise distant planets. It was a fun and short shoot -Peter kept it relaxed and conversational- and it will be part of film that will be released by an online property I’m sure you know well some time in the coming year (I think). I will give you more details when they emerge.
One theme that I kept bringing up that you might find interesting (thoughts welcome): Space is a big place. It takes a long time to get from one place to another – even if you are moving close to the speed of light (and we’ve no foreseeable technology to get us even close to that any time soon). That makes the journey itself a huge challenge, and that is often the part that is most neglected in popular (fictional) films about space travel, and so it also affects our perception of how things must be in the real world of space travel. Result: an under-appreciation of (and possibly false expectations about) the whole business of the journey itself.
Of course, in fiction, much of this business is avoided by inventing propulsion systems that use physics that we’ve no good reason to believe actually exists to shorten the journey – warp drive, hyperspace jumps, wormholes, and the like. That’s all fun, sure, (and I spoke about such things and their place -or lack thereof- in the real world of near future travel) but I think that there can be some really creative challenges for fiction films by focusing on the long […] Click to continue reading this post →
As 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 →
Just 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 →
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.
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). The 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 →
You may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
[…] Click to continue reading this post →
On Tuesday I hung out with some of the Screen Junkies folks who you may know from the hilarious “Honest Movie Trailers” web series (seriously, if you’ve not seen any of them, please go right now and have a look). We had a fun chat about time travel in movies, and presenter Hal Rudnick and I bonded over various movies old and new. The final version of the show is up on YouTube (embed below), and I’m bummed that I did not get to meet the other guest, Christina Heinlein (JPL), who seems fun – and is a descendant of, yes, that Heinlein. I love the idea that she works at JPL, helping make possible the space exploration that Robert Heinlein helped inspire us all about in his writing. Anyway, enjoy the short piece (I wish you could see a bunch of the other material too… we really had a great chat about the ins and outs of time travel, but a lot of it inevitably ended up not making the cut…)
I could not resist talking about my view of this (perhaps growing) trend of using time travel as a means of resetting movie franchises (see Star Trek, X-Men…). It’s a great way of repairing writing and other filmmaking wrong turns. Feel free to imagine your own version of this – Star Wars anyone? Another pass at […] Click to continue reading this post →
I did an interview last week Tuesday with the channel CU@USC. It is a chat show, and so I did the sitting on the couch thing and so forth. All very amusing…
…And hopefully useful. I am spending many hours each day building awareness for this year’s USC Science Film Competition, an annual project you might remember me starting back in 2011, and stressing over a lot. And then again in 2012. It continues to survive for another year. This is year three, and although it has given me many grey hairs, I fight on, because I think it is of value to get students from all fields, whether scientist or engineer, writer or filmmaker, journalist or artist, to learn to collaborate in the art of telling a story that has science content. (Actually, learning to collaborate to tell a story about any issue of even moderate nuance is an important skill, science or not.) Anyway, the interview material is now up online and so you can have a look here. (The site uses flash, so might not work on some devices.)
I speak about the competition and also my own take on bringing science to film both fact and fiction (which for the latter especially is probably different from many others in that I don’t think it is always productive for a scientist in a film project to be […] Click to continue reading this post →
So over a quick lunch of sardines, tomatoes from the garden, and homemade bread*, I decided to glance and the bbc news website. It had a thing in the corner listing the top five stories, and one of them was How to build your own TARDIS.
Well, naturally I looked, because I was not aware that the required technology was available to do this yet. (I was sure we’d still have to wait until last year, or at least to 1985…. But anyhoo….) Turns out it is in the Technology section, so even more interesting, right? Click to continue reading this post →
Well, that was a hugely fun evening! The Cinefamily screening of Primer was sold out to a packed and enthusiastic audience. (That alone was worth it…) I met Shane Carruth back stage for a few minutes and immediately was impressed. I like people who take the time to think carefully about what they are going to say before saying it, visibly carefully weighing what was just said in the conversation and then adding to it in an interesting way. He’s one of those people. So I knew that the panel discussion was going to be great.
[caption id="attachment_13780" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_13782" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption]
We started off with an introduction from the executive director of Cinefamily, Hadrian Belove, who introduced us and asked me to say a few words before the film began. I kept it brief, and started by congratulating Cinefamily on doing the Science on Screen series, saying that it is an important thing to do (which it is -it is part of a Sloan funded national program; more here) and then went on to say […] Click to continue reading this post →
Just as I left for my shootingtrip last week, I had a moment of indecision. I wanted to take something to read during airport and airplane downtime, but wanted to travel light. The books I wanted to take felt a bit big in my bag, somehow, largely because I could not decide what I was in the mood for and so was in danger of bringing more than one. Then I remembered that I was behind on New Yorkers, and was taking my iPad anyway. So I made sure the New Yorker was updated on it, and what did I see waiting for me to delve into on the plane? The special issue on Science Fiction!
It is an excellent issue, with contributions from lots of authors, including several short reflective pieces from legendary authors like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and William Gibson and newer authors like China Miéville and Karen Russell talking about things like how they found their way into fiction and science fiction, and its role as a gateway to the larger literary world. Of course, there are also the usual reflections about the snobbery and separation into high and low culture that existed in the early days (and that still persists today) for literature as well as film and TV when it comes to science fiction (see a related discussion here), many of which are humorously done, and will be familiar to many readers from their childhood…. I strongly recommend getting that issue if you do not already subscribe. It may well still be on magazine stands…
Yeah! This is just the sort of thing I’d hoped that we (human beings) would find soon, in order to strengthen the idea that in looking for forms of life elsewhere, we be not just open to the idea that the basic chemistry for that life may be very different from what we are used to on earth (easier said than done), but that it is maybe even probable that this is what we could find first. Now, given the news today (announced by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team in a NASA press conference today and reported on in a paper to appear in Science) we know that it is not just a theoretical construction, but already a reality right here on earth. The researchers have identified a life form with a striking difference. The bacterium (which lives in Mono Lake – see NASA image above right) has DNA (and some other important complex molecules) with a major difference from all other forms we know. phosphorus has been replaced by arsenic!
This works, by the way, because arsenic is in the same chemical family as phosphorus, being directly below it in the periodic table. Note that this is exactly the sort of thing that has been speculated about a lot in the classic days of science/speculative fiction concerned with alien life, remember? :- Silicon based life forms instead of the Carbon based ones that we know and love on earth. Silicon is again in the same column as […] Click to continue reading this post →
Some of you will recognize the blue box in the picture on the left that I took recently while travelling. I have two things to mention in connection with it, but first let me mention that it is indeed what you think it is, but not really. In other words, it is in London (Earl’s Court), and it is a classic Police box (well, a modern relaunch), but it is not (as far as I am aware) also a disguised remarkable time machine owned by a somewhat eccentric renegade Time Lord. Ok?
Ok, thing number one. I don’t get the BBC America channel, but they kindly were dumping on to On Demand the episodes of the new season of Dr. Who, with the new writer and the new actor, so one day I thought I’d have a look. Just to get myself annoyed, because (sorry fans of its recent years) over the years I usually get ridiculously annoyed at how utterly stupid the show is, with lots of pointless running, and overacting, and cheap, crappy, silly plots and sets and so forth, and get even more annoyed when I remember it is mostly deliberate – we are supposed to enjoy the hokeyness in the spirit of nostalgia for the time many decades ago when it was on a super low budget but was ahead of its time. And I get more annoyed when I think that people abroad are watching this and thinking it is a prime example of great British television. Then I turn it off and ignore it for a year or two, and then do it all again. So anyway, I did that this time, back in the Spring. And guess what? […] Click to continue reading this post →
Ah. Well, I was reserving the title of this post for a followup post to an earlier post about physics research. But, the film I went to last night at the wonderful Vista theatre was so engaging, and so excellently done – on the themes of dreams and memory – that I thought I’d use it.
Christopher Nolan has done it again! Inception (both written and directed by him) is yet another (remember my discussion of the Dark Knight two years back) example that shows that it is possible to make a big budget Summer Blockbuster that does not treat the audience as idiots. It tells you from the opening frames that you’re going to have to pay attention and think during the film, and that interesting ideas and themes are going to be explored, and it certainly lives up to that promise right through to the end. It is thrilling on all sort of levels, and for those who don’t care about ideas, there’s plenty of stuff blowing up and crashing into stuff to keep them happy.
(Well, in the Ion Micrograph category, you understand.)
Sometimes extreme geekery is charming. (As you may know, I do not use the word “geek” lightly.) I spotted this on Phil’s Bad Astronomy Blog. You know what shape it is trying to evoke, I presume. Know also that this structure is 8.8 micro meters across, and that the subject was magnified some 5000 times normal size to make the image. I’ve no idea how they […] Click to continue reading this post →
Forgive me for starting the year with an article on environmental problems, but it was Isaac Asimov’s birthday (at least the official one) on Saturday (I learned that here), and I found an excellent video of him talking wonderfully about global warming, united world action on such matters, and other issues back in 1988. It is below. I read a ton of Asimov back when I was a teenager. While not the greatest writing in a literary sense, it was full of wonderful ideas and compelling stories, and was quite inspiring for me at the time.
It is a pity that it was yesterday I switched on the little robot I use weekly to help me fight the good fight against dusty floors (see above right; the company that makes them is called iRobot, by the way – hardly any doubt that an Asimov reader was […] Click to continue reading this post →
I’ve been wondering why over the last day or two I’ve been getting email about various apocalyptic scenarios. I’ve now figured out why, I think. On Tuesday, several scientists, myself included, played with the idea of how to destroy the earth! Well, it was on the History Channel in an episode of the show the Universe, (it was recorded back in June and July) entitled “Ten Ways to Destroy the Earth”. Of course, these are not scenarios we envision happening any time soon, but rather an excuse to talk about various kinds of science (from spontaneous symmetry breaking and the early universe, through planetary science, solar physics, and of course black holes and more). We list various favourite ways that were chosen to be discussed, and each physicist (although they called me an astrophysicist) picks a favourite. Fun stuff.
Forgot to report on this email exchange from last semester:
From one of the staff in the physics office:
Subject: 499 Syllabus
Date: Thu, 09 Jul 2009 14:01:38 -0700
To: Clifford V. Johnson
I was reading the syllabus you sent over for the 499 class. I am not sure if this is a type-o but in the Extra Books section it reads “/Black *_hoes_* and Time Warps: Einstein’s outrageous Legacy/” should it read
“/Black *_holes_* and Time Warps: Einstein’s outrageous Legacy/”.