Look Up In the Sky…!

graduate_electromagnetism_class_sky_watchingYesterday’s graduate class in electromagnetism had a bit of extra fun. We did a particular computation in some detail, and arrived at a pair of results. We thought about the main features of the equations we’d derived and I then asked the class if they could think of an example. An example with those equations essentially written all over it. It was the sky. Not just the blueness of the sky (for which the result supplies a partial answer) but the pattern of blueness on the sky, especially when looking through your polarised sunglasses. (You know how you tilt your head when wearing them and you can darken or lighten the sky a bit? Well, that effect is way more effective if you are looking in a direction at right angles to the sun as opposed to either toward or away from the sun.)

So I took the class outside to gaze upon the sky in person, rather than just sit and talk about it. Actually, a little bit of knowledge about the pattern of blue in the sky is useful in a lot of ways. For example it is amusing to me to see how often architects and their artist collaborators get the sky wrong in renderings of […] 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

I Dare!

sunday_assembly_3(Click photos* for larger view)

Yes. I dare to show equations during public lectures. There’ll be equations in my book too. If we do not show the tools we use, how can we give a complete picture of how science works? If we keep hiding the mathematics, won’t people be even more afraid of this terrifying horror we are “protecting” them from?

I started my Sunday Assembly talk reflecting upon the fact that next year will make 100 years after Einstein published one of the most beautiful and far-reaching scientific works in history, General Relativity, describing how gravity works. In the first 30 seconds of the talk, I put up the equations. Just because they deserve to be seen, and to drive home the point that its not just a bunch of words, but an actual method of computation, that allows you to do quantitative science about the largest physical object we know of – the entire universe!

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It was a great audience, who seemed to enjoy the 20 minute talk as part of […] Click to continue reading this post

Secrets of the Earth

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 1.17.23 PMMy guess is that most of you don’t know that you can find original science programming on the Weather Channel. (Just like, say, 8 years ago most of you would not have been tuning to the History Channel for original science programming about how the Universe works, but many of you know better – (and thanks for watching The Universe!)) Well, this week one of the series that they have that does do some science, Secrets of the Earth, comes back for a new season.

I made some contributions to several of the episodes, and I think I appear in at least two of them as a guest. So look at the whole season for some tasty bits of science about the world around you, and if inclined to, do […] Click to continue reading this post

Save “Krulwich Wonders”!

As readers of this blog who appreciate the idea of putting science into the daily routine for a balanced diet, of mixing in sketches here and there, of good humour and a wondering eye on the world…. you’ll agree with me that we need to raise our voices and call out to NPR to Save “Krulwich Wonders”. According to Robert Krulwich, they are planning to cancel his blog as part of cost-cutting… this would be a big blow for the (always in danger) mission to improve the public understanding of science. Many suggestions are in the comments to that post I liked above, so feel free to read them and follow the ones that make sense to you! [Update: I’ve put a hashtag #savewonderNPR into the accompanying tweet of this post, so feel free to use that in your own raising awareness efforts on this…]

Act fast to let your voice be heard. The axe is on its way down!*

-cvj

*I learned this from the blog Nanoscale Views.
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Dusting off Last Spring’s Excitement

There has been quite a bit of discussion of the realisation that the exciting announcement made by the BICEP2 experiment back in March (see my post here) was based on erroneous analysis. (In brief, various people began to realise that most, if not all, of what they observed could be explained in terms of something more mundane than quantum spacetime fluctuations in the ultra-early universe – the subtle effects of galactic dust. A recent announcement by another experiment, the Planck team, have quantified that a lot.)

While there has been a bit of press coverage of the more sober realisations (see a nice June post on NPR’s blog here), it is (as with previous such cases) nowhere near as high profile as the initial media blitz of March, for better or worse. I think that “worse” might be the case here, since it is important to communicate to the public (in a healthy way) that science is an ongoing process of discovery, verification, and checking and re-checking by various independent teams and individuals. It is a collective effort, with many voices and the decentralised ever-sceptical scientific process itself, however long it takes, ultimately building and broadening the knowledge base. This self-checking by the community, this reliance on independent confirmation of […] Click to continue reading this post

Meanwhile, Somewhere Down South…

hotel_down_south_1st_Sept_2014So while at a hotel somewhere down South for a few days (pen and watercolour pencil sketch on the right), I finally found time to sit and read Graham Farmelo’s book “The Strangest Man”, a biography of Dirac. (It has a longer subtitle as well, but the book is way over in the next room far from my cosy spot…) You may know from reading here (or maybe even have guessed) that if I were to list a few of my favourite 20th century physicists, in terms of the work they did and their approach and temperament, Dirac would be a strong contender for being at the top of the list. I am not a fan of the loudmouth and limelight-seeking school of doing physics that seems all so popular, and I much prefer the approach of quietly chipping away at interesting (not always fashionable) problems to see what might turn up, guided by a mixture of physical intuition, aesthetics, and a bit of pattern-spotting. It works, as Dirac showed time and again.

I’ve read a lot about Dirac over the years, and was, especially in view of the title of the book, a little wary of reading the book when I got it four years ago, as I am not a fan of going for the “weren’t they weird?” approach to biographies of scientists since they serve too […] Click to continue reading this post

Making and Baking….

Back in LA, I had an amusing day the other day going from this* in the TV studio…
photo_laser_mirage_shoot_small involving a laser and liquid nitrogen (so, around -320 F, if you must use those units), to this in the kitchen:
tasty_things_1 involving butter, flour, water and shortening… (and once in the oven, around +350 F) which ultimately resulted in this: […] Click to continue reading this post

Fireworks!

It is the 4th of July, and I hope you who are celebrating it have a good time today!
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I can’t really let the day pass without sharing with you the episode of Fail Lab in which we examine fireworks and pyrotechnics with an appropriate cautionary note, and a dash of humour. Enjoy it again if you’ve seen it before, and don’t forget to check out all twelve episodes. You can read my discussion of the whole series (excellently made by Patrick Scott) starting here, and there’s more here. Click below for the episode: […] Click to continue reading this post

Young Author Meeting!

20140413-110946.jpgIt is nice to see the variety of authors at a book fair event like this one, and it’s great to see people’s enthusiasm about meeting people who’ve written works they’ve spent a lot of time with. The long lines for signings are remarkable! As you might guess, I’m very much a supporter of the unsung authors doing good work in their own small way, not anywhere near the spotlight. An interesting booth caught my notice as I was wandering… The word “science” caught my eye. Seems that a mother and daughter team wrote a science book to engage children to become involved in science… Hurrah! So Jalen Langie (the daughter, amusingly wearing a lab coat) gets to be […] Click to continue reading this post

Under Silk Road Skies

I’m doing a disturbing amount of speechifyin’ this month. One of the occasions is tomorrow, and is open to the general public. Have you been to the Natural History Museum’s “Traveling the Silk Road” exhibition yet? I went to have a look a couple of days ago and it is rather nice. I recommend it. There are even live silk worms!

griffith observatory city view at nightI’ve been coorganizing an event as part of their series of lectures that accompanies the event and I am delighted to announce that I have connected two of the most awesome spaces and institutions in the city for this one. The Griffith Observatory will team up with the Natural History Museum for this one, with a lecture and Q+A session, and then (weather permitting) a bit of stargazing in the new gardens! Please spread the word and come along: […] Click to continue reading this post

Collecting the Cosmos

i_2014_01_24_CollectCosmos_150x200Don’t forget that on the USC campus on Friday at 4:00pm, we’ll be kicking off the Collecting the Cosmos event! It will be in the Doheny library, and there’ll be a presentation and discussion first, and then a special opening reception for the exhibition. Be sure to get yourself on the waiting list since there’s some chance that you’ll get in even if you have not RSVPed yet. (The image is from the Visions and Voices event site, and includes parts of the artworks – by artists Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada – to be included in the exhibition, so come along and see.) The event description says, in part: […] Click to continue reading this post

The Universe Lives!

universe_shoot_16_01_2014Many people have been asking me whether the show The Universe on the History Channel and its sister channel H2, (now the longest-running science show on commercial TV in the US) has come to an end, and I’ve not actually known the answer (but have been assuming so). Well, the good news is that there are some new episodes being made! I know this since I was involved in some filming for a few segments on two episodes on Thursday. I spent the lunchtime session talking about novae and supernovae, and the […] Click to continue reading this post

Not Struck…

…by lightning or anything. Yay.

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It was fun! (See previous post for what I’m talking about.) The audience seemed to like it. I got to explain that being curious and doing experiments and forming hypotheses is somehow preferable (to some) to sitting back and saying “God did it”, and that there are a lot of nice side effects of that curiosity. (You know, increased food supply, improved medicine, better communications, travel, overall quality of life, and so forth…) We even got to talk a tiny bit about physics (somehow I got on to neutrinos…. not sure why, but then… why not?). […] 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

Fail Lab Episode 12 – Finale

fail_lab_ep_12_still….In which Crystal and many of the crew chill out on the sofa after a long hard season of shows and express some of their gut feelings about the whole business. Well done on an excellent series of shows, Crystal, Patrick, James, and all the other behind the scenes people! (Warning: – This episode may not be for the squeamish!)

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Dining

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

Fail Lab Episode 11 – Failure

crystal_adam_cvj_patrickThis episode of Fail Lab gets down to the bone of the matter: Failure. The whole point of this excellently conceived series was to look at the fail videos all over the web (as everyone does) and instead of just laughing at the people in them (as most people do), take a different path and try to see the positive in the failure. Sometimes with humour, and/or with tongue in cheek, but with an eye on looking at things a bit differently. Now this special episode turns and looks the issue directly in the eye. I have the honor of being a co-presenter of this one again, again with the excellent Crystal Dilworth, and this time we break the pattern and have yet a third person as a co-presenter – Adam Steltzner from JPL, the chief engineer of the landing stage of the Mars Curiosity mission, you might recall. Crystal and Adam are on the left. (You might also recall that we teamed up for an event earlier this year at the Natural History Museum…)

Together, we talk in the episode about the whole idea of failure, making mistakes, and of course, experimentation. We highlight how it underpins all innovation, scientific, technological, artistic… all corners of human […] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 9 – Aggression

fail_lab_ep_9_stillFail Lab Episode Nine, all about Aggression, is now online. See earlier posts (listed below) for thoughts about this excellent series on Discovery’s Test Tube.

(By the way, (spoiler alert) in the video they analyze this week, that looks like a bit like a Wing Chun move (and stance) to me… albeit a tad sloppy. And I note that it was used to end the aggression. A win for positive use of martial arts!)

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Why Do I Study Physics?

why_do_I_study_physics_stillI was sent* this delightful short film recently. It is by Shixie (Xiangjun Shi) done as a graduation project at Rhode Island School of Design. It seems that it won prizes – quite understandably! – at a number of short film festivals, including one about science communication (which reminds me of the one I run). The film is entitled “Why Do I Study Physics?” and it is a lovely piece of writing and hand drawn simple animation that’s very […] Click to continue reading this post

Big History is Coming!

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You’ll recall that I was in New York a short while ago to film some promotional material for a new TV series. It is called Big History, and it will be on History Channel’s H2 channel (and eventually on various international channels, but I’ve no idea which – similar ones to where you find the other show I’ve mentioned a bit, The Universe, I expect).

Rather than be primarily about astronomical and cosmological things, the show will focus each week on one of a list specific items that have affected our history, and take the long view about that item. How long a view? The longest known possible! So take something like Salt, and examine its role in civilization and culture, bringing in historians, anthropologists, etc… and physical scientists to trace that object back to its roots in the early universe… (the big bang, the cores of stars, etc.) Update: For you Breaking Bad fans, note that it’ll be narrated by Bryan Cranston, by the way.

Here’s one of the promo videos:

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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

Fail Lab 6: Pyrotechnics!

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Fail Lab Episode 6 has a lot of things blowing up, so that’s good, right? We actually had a lot of fun mixing in a little bit of comedy with the science. (See an earlier post I did after shooting this episode.) I hope you have fun watching it! As a bonus, everybody’s favourite, petal the brain dog, makes an appearance again. Well done once again, director/writer/producer Patrick and his team for their work on making it such a visual treat – and James, it was fun to write with you and Crystal!

Embed below: […] 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

Fail Lab Episode Three!

Fail Lab Episode 3 is up at Discovery’s Test Tube channel. This week talks about electricity a little bit, again in the context of an online fail video that we unpack a little. I say “we” since this time I’m on the show (accidentally showing off my energy-manipulating powers in public again – I really need to stop doing that).

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It was a lot of fun to help out with the show that day, and (for better or worse!) there’s a bit more with me on the way, and of course lots more of the whole Fail Lab series to look forward to.

Here’s the embed (direct link to Test Tube version here): Click to continue reading this post

Big Apple

20130928-005314.jpgI find myself in New York for a few days. (Sorry for the gap in blogging this week!) The blurry picture summarizes one of my favourite things to immerse myself in when in the city. A great upstairs bar on the corner of 2nd street and avenue A, and a great band of young jazz players that gives one hope that the art is not dead.

My main business was earlier today, at a studio in Brooklyn, shooting some promo material for the new big documentary show on the History Channel (probably on H2) that will air later this Fall. I’m not sure if it is out there what the new show is so I will hold off until I know what I can tell you. Needless to say it involvs science, and I think it mixes science and other topics together in a nice way that makes for a nice concept for a show. More later, I hope. Here’s a shot with me in the middle of the setup*! Charmingly made up to give he impression of a star field, perhaps, when viewed through the A and B cameras: […] Click to continue reading this post

No more comments at Popular Science

Interesting (and not surprising) decision over at the Popular Science website* concerning comments on articles. It’ll probably remind you a little bit of my post from a few days ago about the kinds of behaviour surrounding blog discussions of research in my field. At some point, especially for a complex subject and in times when people are not inclined to really dig deeply to learn the issues, it all can get very counterproductive.

-cvj

*Thanks Mia! Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode Two – Sexual Selection!

fail_lab_ep_2_stillEpisode two of Fail Lab is up now! (I told you quite a bit about this new series on the Discovery web channel Test Tube last week.) This is another excellent quirky and fun one, talking about the dynamics of sexual selection that’s going in all those fail videos you see online, where the guys are making a pig’s ear of some trick or other. This week you get to see the show’s brain on display too!

Embed below. Enjoy! […] Click to continue reading this post

Quantum Physics for Everyone

Last year I mentioned the fantastic work of Julien Bobroff and his collaborators in developing an impressive science outreach program that does wonderful demos of the physics of the quantum world, using superconductors (and other things). He gave a talk about it at the Aspen Center for Physics and took part in some discussions about outreach at a nearby conference that David Pines had organized. Well, he’s written an article about the program and it appears in this month’s Physics Today and it seems that you can get it for free if you go here. I strongly recommend it since it might give you some ideas about how you might go about explaining some of the science you do to people (if you’re a scientist) or it might excite you to learn more about the science if you are not already familiar with it. Maybe even a show featuring science that might be coming near you one day, and/or go to a science fair.

THe great thing about the article is that it is passing on lessons learned – sharing both good and bad news. One of the the frustrations for me about the whole science outreach effort that is done by so many of us is that we’re largely reinventing the wheel every time we decide to do something, and moreover it isn’t actually always the wheel. We’re trying stuff and we’re not measuring its effectiveness, and we’re not sharing much about what works and what does not, so the outreach effort goes only so far, largely. It is one of the reasons you read me writing a lot about trying to do different things beyond just the usual- putting science where you don’t always expect it, since most of what is done is picked up by people who are already predisposed to pay attention to the science, which does not expand the reach of the outreach very much. Julien picks up on an aspect of this issue nicely. Quoting […] Click to continue reading this post