Interview about Science and Film

cuatusc_interviewI 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

Strange Omission

tardis_earls_courtSo 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

Science on Screen – Primer

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

Science Fiction Special

Just as I left for my shooting trip 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…

In related news, Ray Bradbury died on Monday, I heard on the radio yesterday. This is [...] Click to continue reading this post

I, For One, Welcome Our New Arsenic-Replacing-Phosphorus-In-DNA Overlords

mono_lakeYeah! 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!

periodic_tableThis 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

I Gotta Get Me One O’ These!

p-2048-1536-a738e2a5-eaa1-450b-9a0a-ed526300dc23.jpegSome 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

But is it Real? (Part Two)

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.

escher_penrose_stairsChristopher 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.

I am going to say absolutely nothing more about it (more or less) since one of the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Best in Show

ion2003 (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

Amazing Asimov

Happy New Year, dear Reader!

my_robotForgive 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

Doomsday Fun and Games

the_universeI’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.

I chose putting a huge amount of antimatter at the core of the earth and letting it [...] Click to continue reading this post

Oops!

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
From: Beverly
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/”.

Thanks,

My response: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Lost Lessons

lost_universityI’m sitting here recovering from last night’s event (more later), which, when you clear away the details (and the large amount of left over food, huge number of dirty dishes, glasses, pots, pans, etc.), was all about science, filmmaking and the media. There’s something else that is being discussed a lot recently that is about that too.

It seems to be all over the blogosphere (e.g., here), since apparently Lost is a very popular show, and so I’ll mention it here. You can now enroll in Lost University as part of the DVD/Blueray release of Lost’s Season 5. What you’ll be able to do (it says on their website), is enroll and take courses in Psychology, Foreign Language, Jungle Survival, Philosophy, History, and Physics. The Physics part is all about time travel. Classes are being “taught” by real professors. I mean actual people, not characters. I know this since I’m one of these professors.

Who knew I’d end up being faculty at another university teaching such a popular [...] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry XXVIII – Angels, Demons, and Antimatter

So, apparently there is physics in the upcoming huge film Angels and Demons (and presumably the book). Lots of it. I did not know that until recently. So imagine my surprise a few months ago when I got a message from a producer (Natalie Artin of Prometheus Pictures) of a documentary about it, asking if I’d like to contribute, talking about aspects of the physics.

They wanted me to talk about anti-matter. This is as a result of finding a blog post of mine over on Correlations, entitled “Not Science Fiction”, which starts:

Anti-matter. Seeing the previous word, you immediately glance back at the title, right? Strangely, it has been 80 years since the discovery of anti-matter, and we use it routinely in our technology. Nevertheless, anti-matter is still thought of as something from science fiction (and mostly bad science fiction at that).

dirac_equation It all goes back to one of my favourite theoretical physicists, Paul Dirac, and you might like how he found it (roughly). He essentially did it by [...]

I agreed to talk, if I could focus on one of the main issues of my post: That anti-matter is not weird stuff of science fiction, but actual routine science…. so routine that it is used commonly in medical diagnosis, for example. The “P” in PET scans stands for “positron”. The positron is the anti-electron. (The “E” does not [...] Click to continue reading this post

Tales From The Industry XXVI – Science and Entertainment Exchange

Well, I probably am not worthy of the press credentials I was carrying around with me on Wednesday, as several days later I had still not done my “report” on the event. Well, here it is.

science  entertainment exchange

I went to a press conference and a symposium that relates directly to the issues I was talking about in my Tuesday post and its comment stream. All the things I was talking about with regards better contact between the science community and the filmmaking community so as to make films (and shows) that better represent science and scientists more accurately through something closer to a collaborative mode were brought up in these meetings and discussions. It was great to see this issue being taken seriously, and a well-meant effort being made. The core of the idea is to set up an office that will coordinate things – acting as a sort of clearing house that will put filmmakers (of all aspects of the process whether screenwriter or director) in touch with willing scientists who can be helpful in various topics. This is the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

A key thing that I have mentioned here many times before is the issue of it being about more than just fact-checking near-completed work. If scientists are involved at [...] Click to continue reading this post

Sci-Fi Science

I got this cute postcard from the people at Workaholic Productions. (Click for larger view.)sci-fi science poster You may recall a post I did some time ago about some things I was doing in a demo lab here at USC for a pilot for a new TV show. (Or, you may not. That’s what the archive is for – browse several of the Tales From The Industry” series here.) At the time I did not tell you about the show in detail, since I don’t like to reveal details of show ideas and so forth when things are still in development.

Anyway, the show is done. It’s a pilot, and so with your support, they may well get the go ahead to make more. So if you’re inclined, go and have a look. What is it about? Well, the idea is to start off with some standard (pulp) sci-fi scenario (alien invasion in this case) that you might see in a movie or tv show, and then through the course of the show examine aspects of what you see to investigate the science behind it. They have actual scientists (and engineers, since a lot of can be really about technology) come on and discuss things, explain science, do demonstrations, and so on and so forth.

This particular show, the pilot, has a lot of the standard alien invasion combat weaponry on display – shooting of ray guns, casting of lightning-bolt-like bursts of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Help Me! Heeelp Meee!

the fly operaSorry. Didn’t mean to cry wolf, but I always think of that great (as in camp and amusing) ending scene when I think of The Fly. The movie, anyway. (That’s in the original 1958 movie version – clip at bottom of this post.) Now there’s an opera! I am not joking. David Cronenberg has teamed with composer Howard Shore to create an opera. (You know the work of both of them rather well, actually, from film work together, and separately – Shore did the wonderful music for films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Cronenberg the film director needs no introduction.) I love the play on Da Vinci’s iconic drawing for the production’s publicity and so forth. See above right.

The artists are of the opinion (and I agree, in principle) that the themes visited in the story are powerful and resonant enough for an opera. Science, science ethics, new technology, fear of same, mercy killing… and presumably devotion to a cause, [...] Click to continue reading this post

On “Do-Overs”

I love “do-overs”. Not because I want to change anything in particular about my life, but because they are so rare, and so interesting. On my way to Vancouver on Monday, I got to do one.

We (myself and the other passengers) boarded our flight at Denver. I usually get on the plane early, and so have the change to watch people go through their routines of boarding and all that entails. After that was all, the plane full of passengers waited for the plane to get ready, doors to close, and so forth. It did not happen. After a while, the pilot came on and explained that they were trying to fix the radio, and it would be another half an hour. So we waited. After another long while, the pilot came on and said that they did not expect that the radio would get fixed in a timely manner after all, and so they were going to try something else. We would “de-plane” (a word I hate by the way – what is wrong with the perfectly good word “disembark”?) and all make our way to another gate where eventually another plane would arrive, and we’d take that one. It would be exactly the same type of plane. We would keep our ticket stubs and just re-board an hour and a half later.

I wandered for a bit, found something not too repulsive to nibble on (seems to get harder and harder in some airports), was disappointed by the meagre bookstore once again, and otherwise killed some time. Then the boarding started again. A “do-over”. Everybody would be going back to the same seats, it would be exactly the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Ferrous Thoughts

I spent an awful lot of time as a child and teenager tinkering with various projects. I’d have lots of projects on at any one time, brewing in my head for a while, and making their way to notebooks and scraps of soldering iron, meter, …paper, then to elaborate drawings showing the technical details, and ultimately to some sort of realization in the real work, some percentage of the time. In the Summer time, I would probably have one Big Project and that would occupy my thoughts for a great deal of time, and would involve a lot of hiding away doing things. Lots of these projects would involve electronics (increasingly as time went by and I Learned more and my various part time jobs could support more) and there’d be lots of tinkering with all sorts of items, and a constant feature would be the soldering iron, one not so different from the one that you see to the right.

Well, one of the many things I liked about the Iron Man movie (yes, I was right there to [...] Click to continue reading this post

We Interrupt This Broadcast…

One of my favourite topics to think about, since I was very young, is the effect that direct contact with intelligent alien life would have on our society. It would be transformative, I think, whether it be initially seen as for good or ill. Of course, most imaginings of such an event usually considers the “ill” aspect. I was chatting about the issue recently with a friend of mine while hiking the other day and then I recalled that I forgot to do a blog post on last week’s Sunday night radio listening, part of which was about just this very topic!

war of the worlds tripod illustrationThe show was in two parts (both good… more on the second later) and the first was a 1994 recreation of the classic War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. You know the one, I hope… It was a CBS radio broadcast by the Mercury Theater company, masterminded and led by Orson Welles, and was a Howard Koch radio adaptation of the 1898 H. G. Wells novel. As you may know, the radio show created a huge panic among the listening audiences at the time, brought on by a combination of the relative newness of the medium (it was done in the style of a series of on-the-scene breathless news reports) and the general atmosphere in world politics at the time. (There’s a rather good Wikipedia collection of information about it here.)

All of this puts me in a nostalgic mood, since during some of my school days I loved that War of the Worlds rock musical concept album by Jeff Wayne from 1978 (I knew of it only in the early to middle 80s), with a star-studded cast of musicians (Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington, David Essex and Chris Thompson), and the wonderful voice of Richard Burton as the main protagonist (a journalist). Anybody else remember that? From so many listenings to it, I used to be able to sing along to every note and word of that album! Probably still can, even though I’ve not heard it in so long. Altogether now – Uuuu-Laaaa!!!, or Come on Thun-der-child!!… Here’s a Wikipedia link.

Anyway, I highly recommend the recreation of the broadcast. Find an hour and curl up next to your computer and pretend it’s a warm old valve radio. Leonard Nimoy plays [...] Click to continue reading this post

Consider the Alternatives

multiple parallel branes, often used as central idea of alternative universesTomorrow I’m shooting all day for a TV show that is going to focus on the idea of alternative universes (or parallel universes, if you prefer). Should be fun. The setting at least will be interesting (more on that later) and it ought to be interesting to see how the writer puts all the material together into a coherent narrative. Part of my job will be to try to emphasize that while parallel/alternative universes show up a lot in actual scientific discussions (and have done for a long time), we have not yet had anything like a good observational or experimental reason to believe in their existence anywhere other than in our imaginations. It’s vital to get this across (I hope they don’t just edit it out) because people are so willing to believe in many half-baked fanciful ideas – and this is one of them – and when they show up in a science documentary (this is (again) for the History Channel’s “The Universe” series, which has been very good) with actual scientists being quoted, one should be especially careful (as we were on the “Cosmic Holes” episode (with different filmmakers), which has proven to be rather popular, and is full of speculative ideas like travel using wormholes and time machines right alongside equally fantastic-sounding things, like black holes, which are in fact a scientific reality). The rest of my job will be to talk about some of the places where the idea shows up in modern thought, some of the reasons why, and some of the opportunities for solving various challenging problems (and maybe creating a host of others!!) can be afforded by such ideas.

All that aside, this reminds me of something else entirely – Do you ever have those days when you feel like you’ve accidentally stepped sideways into an alternative universe? I do. Recently, I had a huge dose of it. Sit back and I’ll tell you the story…[...] Click to continue reading this post

Law Vs Law

A silly lawsuit vs the search for physical law, that is. What’s the story?* An attempt to stop the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva from operating over fears that the experiment will destroy the earth by creating a black hole that will swallow it up. Or some other bogeyman. Article by Dennis Overbye here, or here, and there’s a Fox News story by Paul Wagenseilhere.

The lawsuit, filed March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. It names the federal Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and CERN as defendants.

Quite an entertaining read can also be found at the two plaintiffs’ website. The main [...] Click to continue reading this post

Greg Bear on Correlations

Over on Correlations, my co-blogger Damon Gambuto has started a new series: “Science Fiction Friday”, and guess who is featured for the first one? Greg Bear!

I’ve really enjoyed his writing over many years, starting with the first books of his I read in quick succession (“Legacy”, and “Forge of God”, along with their follow-up works), right up to the very good “Darwin’s Radio”. I’ve not read anything more recent of his yet.

Anyway, the interview (which will be in several parts) looks really good and interesting [...] Click to continue reading this post

Warped Ambitions?

Just spotted this in the Guardian:

starship enterprizeNext Thursday, the British Interplanetary Society is bringing together physicists for a conference entitled Faster than Light: Breaking the Interstellar Distance Barrier. “The main purpose is to raise awareness of this obscure field of research within general relativity and quantum field theory and attract new and particularly young researchers to work on the technical problems,” said organiser Kelvin Long.

Wow! I had no idea there was such a meeting. Did anyone reading go?! What is the British Interplanetary Society? From their site I found this quote: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Even More for my Reading List

Aha. I’ve been meaning to get around to some Doris Lessing for a long time. The Academy is trying to tell me something:

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2007 is awarded to the English writer Doris Lessing “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.

Do you have any favourites of hers you recommend?

Here are some passages from her biography on the Nobel site, talking about some of the works that really got her a great deal of wider recognition, emphasizing her important intersection with other genres such as feminism and science fiction (to pick [...] Click to continue reading this post

LHC Podcasts: Science Meets Science Fiction

Confession: I’ve no idea what Torchwood is, and I find the current Dr. Who shows annoying overall (there have been some good episodes that I’ve seen, but they’re swamped in a sea of such poorly thought through and simply phoned-in crappy episodes that I find it too annoying to take the risk of wasting an hour I could have better spent with my head in the oven…) Feel free to disagree with me, and I have not seen the most recent season, so maybe things are better.

LHC You TubeBut anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Someone called John Barrowman (apparently one of the stars on those shows? He plays a scientist? I honestly don’t know, but you will, if you’re a fan) took a visit to CERN (the particle physics lab in Europe you often read about here and elsewhere) to better inform himself about the intersection between science and science fiction. One of the resulting jumpy noisy and (reportedly) fun videos can be found on YouTube here. There are some somewhat interesting animations alongside some of the, er…jolly madcap fun, illustrating the physics. Following the particles along the beam-pipe to the collision is not a view I’ve seen before, I’ll admit.
Much more interesting is something they mention at the end. A series of podcasts on the LHC (the big experiment at CERN we’re all interested in and excited about). This is driven by Brian Cox (no, not that one, this one, the physicist), and seems to be in a [...] Click to continue reading this post

Back To the Future

fifties science fiction spaceshipThe BBC Radio 4 program Archive Hour was just brilliant on the weekend. Here is the synopsis:

Adam Hart Davies looks at some of the predictions made in the past by scientists, programme-makers and politicians about how future society and technology would develop. He explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from mankind’s thirst for new inventions, new technologies and new ways of life.

(Image right: Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. See more art from that era at this excellent site.)

It brings to the issue a lot of archival footage of interviews, debates, and other material. There are interviews with many interesting people, including scientists and science fiction writers. The role of science fiction (the really good stuff, not the stuff that’s purely space opera… although sometimes it is hard to know which is which without the benefit of hindsight) is discussed quite a bit too.

There are the usual discussions about mobile phones, communications satellites, and the like, well-known things that were anticipated by writers of fiction, but the programme is much more interesting than that, reflecting upon the impact of various technologies and medical techniques (e.g. heart transplants) and how they were regarded and debated at the time, since they were often seen as either assaults on, or enhancements of (depending upon point of view) our humanity. This discussion is all in aid of reflecting upon us in the present. (Consider carefully the face transplant, for example, and how people react to what that means…)

There’s also very interesting discussion of the moral/ethical responsibility of the [...] Click to continue reading this post