Happy Centennial, General Relativity!

general_relativity_centennial_kip_thorne(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

The New Improved Scooby-Gang? (Part 1)

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

One Hundred Years of Certitude

Einstein_CentennialSince 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

It’s Time

delorean_sketchOk, 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…

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies – The Martian, Science, and Problem-Solving!

screen_junkies_martianAs 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

Get ready for some “movie science” chatter…

hal_cvj_christina_bigYes, 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

Ship Building

agent_carter_team_cvj_aug_2015Last week it was a pleasure to have another meeting with writers, producers, VFX people, etc., from the excellent show Agent Carter! (Photo -click for larger view- used with permission.) I’ve been exchanging ideas about some science concepts and designs that they’re using as springboards for their story-telling and world-building for the show. I can tell you absolutely nothing except that I’m confident that season 2 is going to be really great!

(Season 1, if you’ve not already seen it, is also great. Go get it on your favourite on-demand platform – I rapidly watched all eight episodes back in June to get up to speed so that I could be as useful as possible, and it was a pleasure. It is smart, funny, fresh and ground-breaking, and has a perfect […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies – Fantastic Science!

screen_junkies_fantastic_fourHere, 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.

Enjoy! […] Click to continue reading this post

Upcoming Screen Junkies Episode Alert!

hal_dan_cvj_screen_junkies_augustYes! 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’m not going to tell you what movie we talk about, but I’ll say this. The idea was that this […] Click to continue reading this post

Ships and Knobs…

[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..]

Photo from here. Original FB version of this post here. Click to continue reading this post

Speed Dating for Science!

youtubespace panelLast night was amusing. I was at the YouTubeLA space with 6 other scientists from various fields, engaging with an audience of writers and other creators for YouTube, TV, film, etc.

It was an event hosted by the Science and Entertainment Exchange and Youtube/Google, and the idea was that we each had seven minutes to present in seven successive rooms with different audiences in each, so changing rooms each seven minutes.

Of course, early on during the planning conference call for the event, one of the scientists asked why it was not more efficient to simply have one large […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies: Science and Jurassic World

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. movie_science_screen_shotIf 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

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

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

The Imitation Game – Thoughts

[caption id="attachment_16600" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd. (Photograph: Allstar/Black Bear Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd.)[/caption]

Since this time I don’t think I’ll be getting the call from the folks at Screen Junkies to talk about this one, I’ll do a quick post on my thoughts while they are still fresh. (There are no real spoilers in what follows, but if like me you like to know as little as possible about a film before going to see it, forming your own opinion before having to see the film filtered through those of others, do wait until you’ve seen it before reading beyond the second paragraph.)

I enjoyed the film very much. As a piece of human drama, it was a great story to tell, and frankly it does fill me with dismay that few people seem to know the story, so I am glad it is getting mainstream attention. It was done extremely well, in terms of standard things like all the acting performances (more or less), photography, and the overall tone of the direction. Given the subject matter – its social and historical importance – this was a beyond the ordinary human drama well told. I enjoyed it.

But. BUT

But it missed an opportunity to not just be “beyond the ordinary” but truly exceptional and ground breaking. All we needed was about 5 or so minutes of extra screen time to achieve this. I’m talking about the ironic fact that Interstellar, which is I remind you a science fiction film (which many scientists […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Science at Screen Junkies!

screen_junkies_interstellarAs 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

Hanging out at Screen Junkies!

hal_rudnick_clifford_johnsonJust 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

Interstellar Thoughts

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.

The second point is something I say a lot and needs to be said a lot more: Scientists don’t own science and its concepts and ideas. We should be careful […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Discoveries

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). still_from_interstellar_wiredThe 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

Screen Junkies Chat: Guardians of the Galaxy

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.13.03 PMYou 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

Honest Time Travel?

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

Heaven Help Us

Well it is 6:30pm. It was my plan to take a nap this late afternoon (maybe early evening) but I’m not going to do that anymore. Why? Well turns out I’m appearing in a show this evening. It starts at midnight so I’m a little afraid that I might just sleep all the way through, wake up tomorrow morning and so miss my spot. So while the sleep would do me some good in order to be up so late, and functioning, I think I’ll skip it.

What’s the show? Well it’s a show on stage put on by some of the Upright Citizens Brigade. They asked me to appear as a guest – not as a character, but actually as myself, a scientist. It’ll be in front of a live audience, although they will be taping it later possible broadcast. You know how it goes with me – I especially like an opportunity to put some science out there here it is not expected so this is right up my alley. My understanding is that it’s a comedy […] Click to continue reading this post

New Tool

magnify_toolActually, this new tool is pretty old school, and I love it! There are times when I want to have a change of venue while doing rather detailed work for The Project… perhaps go sit in a cafe for a change, instead of at the drawing desk. But when not at the drawing desk, I could not use the lovely large illuminated magnifying glass […] Click to continue reading this post


lunch_timeWell, since yesterday was all about eating here in the USA (Thanksgiving, in case you missed that), I thought I’d share a partially inked panel from The Project, of a meal in progress. I got a bit of quiet time to work on it this evening, while listening to Jimi Hendrix and then Freddie Hubbard. They helped a lot. It is at times like this I wonder what insanity has come over me […] Click to continue reading this post

Seminar Done

seminar_over Managed to find a little time over the last few days to lay out, draw, and ink a page in The Project. It has been insanely busy for me, so this is a little bit of a triumph in stealing some time back. It’s actually the same seminar that you saw in earlier posts (here and here). Now it is over. It remains a tradition in our field to give a little round of applause after a talk, which I find rather nice and quaint. It was a pleasure to depict that.

It is a wider view of the room, which meant (aaaargh!) drawing even more faces and bodies than before. Then there’s the challenge of doing them in different states of attention, applauding, with different faces, bodies, states of dress, etc. When I come to paint it I’ll be wanting to pick colors that together communicate the right mood for the panel and for the whole page it is part of, and so forth. It can be daunting to do all those faces, bodies, shirts, feet, and […] Click to continue reading this post

Copenhagen Address

copenhagen_address_aLast night’s event was wonderful. The actors had such passion, and it was all done with great pacing and flow. This was a most marvellous play reading – the cast’s performances felt so fully inhabited by the text of the play that it hardly felt like a reading at all.

They (Nike Doukas as Margrethe Bohr, Arye Gross as Neils Bohr, and Leo Marks as Werner Heisenberg) and director Jack Rowe, should be very proud. They did very little rehearsal for this, which is makes it all the more impressive.

I gave an opening address* (and also introduced the evening**, as usual forgetting to introduce myself…) and the text of my address follows:

Good evening and welcome!

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize in Physics was announced. You might recall that it was for the discovery of the mechanism that gives all elementary particles their masses. A profound mystery about the universe was solved. While that’s a wonderful thing, and many people acknowledge that, many people don’t connect anything about that quest to understand the universe to themselves.

[…] Click to continue reading this post

Copenhagen Tonight

I’ve been thinking about the early 20th Century recently, and the development of quantum mechanics, as a result of re-reading Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. There’s going to be a staged reading of it tonight at USC, put on by the School of Dramatic Arts, and I’ll be giving an opening address. I sat in a bar late last night over a fine oatmeal stout, thinking a little bit about what I might say in the address, and I expect I’ll put the finishing touches on the brief sketch of ideas while sitting on the subway to work this morning. We shall see. I’ll try to remember to post the text of it here if it turns out to be not entirely dreadful.

I’ve very clear memories of this play, and my first encounter with it. I was lucky to get to go to a special pre-opening performance of it when it debuted in New York (in the year 2000) I and got to meet and talk to Michael Frayn (and if I recall correctly, Claire Tomalin) about the writing of the play at the after-party at Sardi’s – a very interesting conversation it was too. I also (by a happy coincidence) got to sit next to Freeman Dyson during the performance, and was able to glance over occasionally to see the delight on his face at seeing old acquaintances of his brought back to life. (Well, I learned afterwards that this was the reason for the delight…)


(Image from Playbill.com) Click to continue reading this post

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