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

Metals are Shiny


“Metals are shiny.” That’s one of my favourite punchlines to end a class on electromagnetism with, and that’s what I did today. I just love bringing up a bit of everyday physics as a striking consequence of two hours worth of development on the board, and this is a good one for that. I hope the class enjoyed it as much as I did! (Basically, as you can’t see in the snapshot of my notes in the photo, those expressions are results of a computation of the […] Click to continue reading this post

Thomas and Fermi

thomas-fermiThe other day the Thomas-Fermi model (and its enhancements by Dirac and others) wandered across my desk (and one of my virtual blackboards as you can see in the picture) for a while. Putting aside why it showed up (perhaps I will say later on, but I cannot now), it was fun to delve for a while into some of these early attempts in quantum mechanics to try to understand approximation methods for treating fairly complicated quantum systems (like atoms of various sizes). The basic model showed up in 1927, just a year after Schrodinger’s […] Click to continue reading this post

Moon Line

(Click for larger view.) This was a heartening reminder that people still care about what’s going on in the sky far above. This is a snap I took of a very long line of people (along the block and then around the corner and then some more) waiting for the shuttle bus to the Griffith Observatory to take part in the moon viewing activities up there tonight. (I took it at about 6:00pm, so I hope they all made it up in time!) The full moon is at close approach, and there was a total lunar eclipse as well. Knowing the people at the Observatory, I imagine they had arranged for lots of telescopes to be out on the lawn in front of the Observatory itself, as well as plenty of people on hand to explain things to curious visitors.

I hope you got to see some of the eclipse! (It is just coming off peak now as I type…)

-cvj Click to continue reading this post


negative_mass_thoughtsSnapshot of my doodles done while talking on the phone to a BBC producer about perhaps appearing in a film discussing anti-gravity*. I explained lots of things, including why General Relativity does not seem to like negative mass, partly because they have something called a “naked singularity”, which is a big problem. Only after the call ended did I recall that in 1999 I co-authored a paper in which we discovered […] Click to continue reading this post

PBS Shoot Fun

pbs_shoot_selfieMore adventures in communicating the awesomeness of physics! Yesterday I spent a gruelling seven hours in the sun talking about the development of various ideas in physics over the centuries for a new show (to air next year) on PBS. Interestingly, we did all of this at a spot that, in less dry times, would have been underwater. It was up at lake Piru, which, due to the drought, is far below capacity. You can see this by going to google maps, looking at the representation of its shape on the map, and then clicking the satellite picture overlay to see the much changed (and reduced) shape in recent times.

There’s an impressive dam at one end of the lake/reservoir, and I will admit that I did not resist the temptation to pull over, look at a nice view of it from the road on the way home, and say out loud “daaayuum”. An offering to the god Pun, you see.


Turns out that there’s a wide range of wildlife, large and small, trudging around on the […] 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

Compton Delight

compton_effectI forgot to mention that I saw some skywriting two days ago over Los Angeles that I took to be – of course – a celebration of the Compton effect. You know, when a photon scatters off a charged particle and loses energy? That. It’s so good to see physics being celebrated so exuberantly in the public sphere**.straight_outta_physics_2


**My wife, who I was with at the time, suggested to me that it was to do with someone called Dr. Dre, but I’m pretty sure that it was Dr. Compton who discovered that phenomenon, so I gently explained the discovery to her. Click to continue reading this post

Almost Done

So Tuesday night, I decided that it was imperative that I paid a visit to one really good restaurant (at least) before leaving Santiago. My duties at ICMP2015 were over, and I was tired, so did not want to go too far, but I’d heard there were good ones in the area, so I asked the main organizer and he made a recommendation.

imageIt was an excellent choice. One odd thing: the hotel is in two separate towers, and I’d noticed this upon arrival and started calling it The Two Towers in my mind for the time was there. Obviously, right? Well, anyway, the restaurant is right around the corner from it plus a two minute walk, and…. Wait for it…it is called Le Due Tonni, which translates into The Two Towers, but apparently it has nothing to do with my observation about the hotel, since it got that name from a sister restaurant in a different part of town, I am told. So… An odd coincidence.

I will spare you the details of what I had for dinner save to say that if you get the fettuccini con salmon you’re on to a sure thing, and to warn that you don’t end up accidentally ordering a whole bottle of wine instead of a glass of it because you’re perhaps used to over-inflated wine prices in LA restaurants (caught it before it was opened and so saved myself having to polish off a whole bottle on my own)… Another amusing note is that one of my problems with getting my rusty Spanish out for use only occasionally is that I get logjams in my head because vocabulary from Spanish, French, and Italian all come to me mid sentence and I freeze sometimes. I’d just been getting past doing that by Tuesday, but then got very confused in the restaurant at one point until I realized my waiter was, oddly, speaking to me in Italian at times. I still am not sure why.

It was a good conference to come to, I think, because I connected […] Click to continue reading this post

Goodbye Nambu

nambu-gotoOne of the towering giants of the field, Yoichiro Nambu, passed away a short while ago, at age 94. He made a remarkably wide range of major (foundational) contributions to various fields, from condensed matter through particle physics, to string theory. His 2008 Nobel Prize was for work that was a gateway for other Nobel Prize-winning work, for example 2012’s Higgs particle work. He was an inspiration to us all. Here’s an excellent 1995 Scientific American piece (updated a bit in 2008) about him, which nicely characterises some of his style and contributions, with comments from several notable physicists. Here is a University of Chicago obituary, a Physics World one, one by Hirosi Ooguri, and one from the New York Times. There are several others worth reading too.

Since everyone is talking more about his wonderful work on symmetry-breaking (and rightly so), I’ve put up (on the board above) instead the Nambu-Goto action governing the motion of a relativistic string (written with a slight abuse of notation). This action, and its generalisations, is a cornerstone of string theory, and you’ll find it in pretty much every text on the subject. Enjoy.

Thank you, Professor Nambu.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post


No expense spared on astronomy graphics here, you’ll notice. (This is the Pluto-less hanging mobile that amuses my son every morning when he wakes up. At least I think it is supposed to represent our Solar system in some vague way… in any case, it is a very pleasant object to look at for both him and me.)

Just in case you’ve not been following the exciting news, let me remind you to look out for the new information arriving from the New Horizons mission to Pluto. tn-p_lorri_fullframe_color The craft has done its closest approach now, and later tonight will start sending the best of the images and other data about the Pluto system. A huge amount has been learned already in the days leading up to today, as you can get a sense of by looking here. Earlier today, the lovely image to the right (credit: NASA/APL/SwRI – click for larger view) […] Click to continue reading this post

Marginal Activity

The last couple of weeks have seen me fiddling with another important task for the book: rethinking the page dimensions. This gets me into things like crop points, safe areas, bleeds, and so forth. It is sort of crucial that I worry about this now and not later because for the kind of book I am working on, every single page is a unique self contained entity that must be designed individually, while at the same time each page still depends on all the other pages to be just right. So a change in page dimensions is a huge deal in the process. This is not like writing large blocks of prose in the form of chapters and paragraphs, where the page dimensions are less crucial since your words will just flow and re-flow automatically to adjust to the new shape of container (the page), newly spilling over to the next page if need be. Instead, graphic elements -the drawings- all must work together on a number of different levels on the page, their relative positioning being crucial, and any text that is present must also respect that layout… In fact, text is really just another graphic element on the page, and is not as malleable as it is in a prose book.

sample_exp_iv (Random sample from a story I’ve just completed the roughs for in the new dimensions. You can see the red guide lines I work to to make sure that the page comes out fine at the printer, the inner being the “safe area” beyond which you don’t put any crucial elements like text in case they are cut off. The outer is the line where the page should end. Some of my pages have “bleeds” which means the art will flow all the way past that outer line so that when cropped that part of the page is covered entirely with art instead of it stopping due to a panel border…)

I say all this because it is an issue close to my heart right now. Back when I did all the art for the prototype story (some years ago now), and right up to last year, I did not yet have a publisher for the book, so therefore of course no idea what the final page dimensions might be. Different publishers have different favourites, print capabilities, and so forth. So I made the best decision […] 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

Calling Shenanigans 

I hadn’t realized that I knew some of the journalists who were at the event at which Tim Hunt made his negative-stereotype-strengthening remarks. I trust their opinion and integrity quite a bit, and so I’m glad to hear reports from them about what they witnessed. This includes Deborah Blum, who was speaking in the same session as Hunt that day, and who was at the luncheon. She spoke with Hunt about his views and intentions. Thanks, Deborah for calling shenanigans on the “I was only joking” defense so often used to hide behind the old “political correctness gone mad” trope. Read her article here, and further here.


(Spoof poster imaged is by Jen Golbeck) Click to continue reading this post

On-Screen Fun…

trevor_hal_cvj_screen_junkiesWell, yesterday afternoon was fun! I was at the studios of the people who bring you Screen Junkies, Honest Trailers, and other film-related entertainment. Why? We were recording another fun conversation concerning science at the movies! The new episode will be released on Thursday at 10:00am, and so check back here or go over to the Screen Junkies channel for updates. What’s the subject? Well, I’ll let you guess which huge movie (in theatres near you right now) we discussed – wait until Thursday to find out for sure! (There’s a major clue in the photo.)

The great thing about all of this is that I got to hang out with Hal Rudnick (the host – who was as funny as always – he’s in the centre of the photo), Trevor Valle* (I’ve not seen him in a while so it was good to catch up!) who was my […] Click to continue reading this post

Space Travel Thoughts…

opinions_about_space_travelOn 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

Tales from the Industry XXXXI – Puppet Black Hole

Yeah. Not sure how to best title this post or fully explain the picture [edit: Picture taken down temporarily until the show is ready to be promoted]. Let’s just say that I spent a bit of this afternoon explaining some of the science of the Large Hadron Collider to a bright orange puppet that was determined to not believe whatever I told him/it. It was fun, and was done to camera at Los Angeles Center Studios downtown. (I was actually speaking about things that intersect with the subject of yesterday’s post, if you’re interested.) It is for a new show on a channel that I can’t mention yet*, and I’ll let you know as soon as I know what the air date is, etc.

Well, one more thing, in support of the old “It’s a small world after all” saying. I noticed from the call sheet that this morning they were shooting a fun segment that was hosted by my friend Hal Rudnick the host of Screen Junkies! (Have a look at some of the science-meets-movies things we’ve done together here, here and here.) Also, a friend I’d not seen in […] Click to continue reading this post

Earth Not Swallowed!

So, here we are. Still in existence. Hurrah!

cern_LHC_tunnelThe Large Hadron Collider (image right is courtesy of CERN) started a new phase of experimental work today, colliding particles at double the energy it was working at a few years back when the Higgs was discovered. By time I was making breakfast and checking email, their live blog, etc., this morning, it was clear that (contrary to fears expressed by some) the LHC had not created a black hole that swallowed the earth, nor had it created some sort of strange chunk of new vacuum that condensed that of the entire universe into a new phase. (Or if it did either of those things, the effects are hardly noticeable!!)

As I keep emphasising (actually I’ll be talking about this to a puppet character on a TV show tomorrow too – details later) the LHC (or any of the particle collision experiments we’ve ever done) is not doing anything that Nature does not do routinely right here at earth (and most times way more violently and […] Click to continue reading this post

‘t Hooft on Scale Invariance…

Worth a read: This is ‘t Hooft’s summary (link is a pdf) of a very interesting idea/suggestion about scale invariance and its possible role in finding an answer to a number of puzzles in physics. (It is quite short, but think I’ll need to read it several times and mull over it a lot.) It won the top Gravity Research foundation essay prize this year, and there were several other interesting essays in the final list too. See here.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

In Case You Wondered…

Dear visitor who came here (perhaps) after visiting the panel I participated in on Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books. (“Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”) What a fun discussion! Pity we ran out of time before we really began to explore connections, perhaps inspired by more audience questions.

In any event, in case you wondered why I was not signing books at the end at the designated signing area, I thought I’d write this note. I was given the option to do so, but the book that I currently have out is a specialist monograph, and I did not think there’s be much demand for it at a general festival such as the one on the weekend. (Feel free to pick up a copy if you wish, though. It is called “D-Branes”, and it is here.)

The book I actually mentioned during the panel, since it is indeed among my current attempts to grasp the “ineffable” of the panel title, is a work in progress. (Hence my variant of the “under construction” sign on the right.) It is a graphic book (working title “The Dialogues”) pitched at a general audience that explores a lot of contemporary physics topics in an unusual way. It is scheduled for publication in 2017 by Imperial College Press. You can find out much more about it here.

Feel free to visit this blog for updates on how the book progresses, and of course lots of other topics and conversations too (which you are welcome to join).

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Beyond the Battling Babes

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 14.03.58The recent Babe War (Food Babe vs Science Babe) that probably touched your inbox or news feed is a great opportunity to think about a broader issue: the changing faces of science communication. I spoke about this with LA Times science writer Eryn Brown who wrote an excellent article about it that appears today. (Picture (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times) and headline are from the article’s online version.)

(By the way, due to space issues, a lot of what we spoke about did not make it to the article (at least not in the form of quotes), including: […] Click to continue reading this post