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

Gravity on the Horizon!

joshua_tree_shoot_horizon_2Had 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!

After the shoot […] 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

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

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


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

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

Has Hubble found the Culprit?

Recall that some years ago the Hubble telescope found a rude message in the sky:

Carina Hubble Image

It is said that many were offended by this sign. Some even thought it may have been left by their God as a sort of crude final message for those seeking meaning in the skies. Other, perhaps less imaginative people just figured it’s a random combination of shapes people are projecting onto.

Well, after much more searching through the sky for the perpetrator of the crime, it seems that the Hubble instrument may have caught a suspect on camera:
A smiling lens

Of course, until the entity is brought in for questioning, it should be granted the presumption of innocence. (And even if it was its hand, it may have all been a big celestial misunderstanding…)


P.S. The first NASA/ESA Hubble image is from a detail of gas clouds in the Carina nebula, and more can be found out about it here.

In the second NASA/ESA Hubble image the arcs of a circle that form the “head” shape are actually a gravitational lensing effect. 100 years ago this year Einstein published his General Relativity which shows, among other things, […] Click to continue reading this post

Sometimes there is Smoke without Fire

…Or at least, not always the fire you’re looking for. So, as suspected for several months now, the signal seen by BICEP2 experiment and dubbed “a smoking gun” type of direct evidence for cosmic inflation (for which we have lots of strongly suggestive indirect evidence, by the way) is likely an artefact of the effects of galactic dust. I spoke about this in a post a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here. What everyone has been waiting for has been the results of a joint analysis between the BICEP2 people and the ESA’s Planck mission. The Planck satellite, you may recall from reading here or elsewhere, is also designed toPlanck_view_of_BICEP2_field_node_full_image_2 carefully study the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background (the earliest light to shine in the universe), and so can (through thorough analysis of the effects of dust that it has measured independently) help rule in or out whether there is a signal. Planck studies essentially the whole sky, not just the patch that BICEP2 was carefully looking at, and one of […] 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

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