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

Metro Goes for All the Science Tropes

science_metro_poster I think the people at LA Metro were trying to go for all of the visual science tropes in one cliché-filled glance! I’m a big fan of LA Metro, as you know from several posts about it here, so don’t misunderstand my poking fun at their ad I spotted on a bus stop bench. I think it is to do with helpful apps for your phone – presumably they help you use the system more easily, because of…science? More generally, I’d love to believe that people will take the train more because scientists are involved in designing the logistics, but there’s so much evidence against this on both counts, like having the Blue line and the Expo line – that share the same main platform – both boast BLUE as their colours. But put that all aside for now, and let’s simply count off all the sure-fire imagery that will [...] Click to continue reading this post

A Monday Interview

On Monday 28th April at 8 PM Eastern time (5 PM Pacific) I’ll take part in a live radio interview that you might want to listen to, on a show called Alpha Centauri and Beyond. I guess I’m in the “Beyond” bit? I don’t really know anything about the show except that they like to bring people on to discuss ideas, and when I get a call to come and help sprinkle a bit of science, you know I’m likely to say yes if I can spare the time.

You can see a link to the details here, and you can listen online. As you can see it is advertised as being about me explaining string theory. Well of course that billing is nothing to do with me – I can’t hope to explain any complicated subject like that in the time available – but if asked I will do my best to try and motivate some of the ideas behind the subject. I hope it will be a fun interview and that [...] Click to continue reading this post

Discovery Clarification

I’m actually in hiding and silence for a week. It is Spring Break and I have locked myself away in a seaside town to do some writing, as I did last year. But I must break my silence for a little while. Why? Well there’s been a really great announcement in physics today and while being very happy that it is getting a lot of press attention – and it should since the result is very important and exciting – I’ve been stunned by how confusingly it has been reported in several news reports. So I thought I’d say a few things that might help.

But first, let me acknowledge that there’s a ton of coverage out there and so I don’t need to point to any press articles. I will just point to the press release of the BICEP2 collaboration (yes, that’s what they’re called) here, and urge you once you’ve read that to follow the link within to the wealth of data (images, text, graphs, diagrams) that they provide. It’s fantastically comprehensive, so knock yourself out. The paper is here.

I keep hearing reports saying things like “Scientists have proved the Big Bang”. No. The Big Bang, while an exciting and important result for modern cosmology, is very old news. (You can tell since there’s even a TV comedy named after it.) This is not really about the Big Bang. This is about Inflation, the mechanism that made the universe expand rapidly from super-tiny scales to more macroscopic scales in fractions of a second. (I’ll say more about the super-tiny below).

I also hear (slightly more nuanced) reports about this being the first confirmation of Inflation. That’s a point we can argue about, but I’d say that’s not true either. We’ve had other strong clues that Inflation is correct. One of the key things that pops out of inflation is that it flattens out the curvature of universe a lot, and the various observations that have been made about the Cosmic Microwave Background over the years (the CMB is that radiation left over from when the universe was very young (about 380,000 years old – remember the universe is just under 14 million years old!)) have shown us that the universes is remarkably flat. Another previous exciting result in modern cosmology. Today’s result isn’t the first evidence.

So what is today’s exciting news about then? The clue to the correct [...] Click to continue reading this post

No, That’s the Other Guy…

sam_jackson_tvNo, I’m not Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, we both talk about science on TV. Yes, we both happen to be black… but no, we are not the same guy. Also: No, I am not Jim Gates. He also sometimes shows up on TV talking about physics, and he is also black.. but no, he isn’t either me (Clifford) or Neil… He’s Jim.

This attempt at humour is inspired (in part) by real conversations I’ve had (less so in recent years, thank goodness – people are maybe better about googling first?). But mostly it is inspired by this (familiar) sad, funny, and stunningly awkward conversation from Monday* (the first 2 minutes 10 seconds): [...] Click to continue reading this post

Summing Numbers in a Small World

So here’s a slightly weird thing. So there’s been all this excitement over the web about the old old “shocker” that the sum of the positive integers is -1/12. You know, not even an integer, and not even positive. Apparently there have been articles in the New York Times and Slate and goodness knows where else… and I’ve been ignoring it all since I’m tired of what it often leads to: People wilfully using it as a device to manipulate people’s ignorance about subtleties with infinite processes to make the tired point that string theory is somehow wrong since it is based on “funny math”. I called Lawrence Krauss (who should have known better) out about it some years ago when he did that at an event I happened to attend. It’s a bit tedious, not the least because it is actually part of a wonderful field of mathematics that can get misrepresented, and of course because it has nothing to do with string theory.

So I ignored it all. Then some students in my class asked me about it. And I explained why it is interesting and so forth… Then I carried on ignoring it all.

Then a day or two ago a mathematician colleague emailed me to ask what [...] 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

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 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!)

Embed below:

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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

Fail Lab Episode 7: Tribalism

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Fail Lab, the web series on Discovery’s TestTube channel that I’ve been telling you about, is growing in popularity. People are hearing about its unusual charms as an edgy, funny, quirky, smart vehicle for some food for thought and are going to see. That’s great. There was a review on VideoInk today that seems to “get” series creator Patrick Scott’s “Zoochosis” point of view that informs his particular style of filmmaking, and that was good to see (although I don’t agree that the hard science can get lost sometimes – this is the online world where the viewer can take charge – if you miss an idea, just scroll back and watch it again. That creates opportunity for density in making intelligent programs, and hopefully steers us away from shallow, lowest-common-denominator programming).

Anyway, episode seven is now up, and fueled by a remarkable video it delves into ideas about how we relate to each other, within and without social groups. Here’s the embed: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Big History is Coming!

big_history_promo_still

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

Weinberg on Physics Now

I just spotted (a bit late) that Steven Weinberg (one of the giants of my field) has written a piece in the New York Review ofBooks entitled “Physics: What We Do and Don’t Know”. I recommend it. He talks about astronomy, cosmology, particle physics, and by casting his eye over the arc of their recent (intertwined) histories of ideas, experiments and discoveries, tries to put the Standard Models of particle physics and of cosmology into perspective.

The article is […] 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

Fail Lab Episode 5 – Rodents!

Tuesday means there’s a new episode of Fail Lab, the online series on the Discovery channel Test Tube that I’ve told you about! (See several previous posts, listed below.)

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Today’s excellent episode is about rodents. This is a subject I care about a bit since I’m in constant battle with them in the garden, as some of you who follow that part of the blog know… This might be why I think the actual “fail” video this episode is based on is hilarious!! Have a look at the episode, which is a lot of fun:
[...] Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode Four!

fail_lab_ep_4_stillThis is by far the most provocative (and cleverly playful with your expectations) of the episodes so far. See my earlier posts for background on this creative, playful, and grown-up web science series. (List of posts below.) Have a look at the new episide, and stick with it all the way through before passing judgement. Warning – if you’re of the squeamish persuasion, maybe don’t look at it over lunch.

Well done, once again, everyone involved!

Episode embedded 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

So episode 1 of the new show I told you about, Fail Lab, is live!

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And now I can tell you what it is about.

I think the core concept is a nice idea. You know all those “fail videos” that are so popular online? It’s all about laughing at people who’ve been filmed with something going wrong… they’ve been trying a trick that fails and they get hurt, or an accident happens, or something like that. Well, rather than just laugh about it and make fun of the people in the video, Tosh.0 style, the show is (in a fun, and yes, decidedly edgy, way) built around trying to find a bit of science in the fail video. In fact, the idea is that at the end of the segment, presenter Crystal Dilworth (a smart young scientist on the neuroscience PhD program at Caltech) discusses (and in some instances, argues) with the guest scientist presenter about whether the video is a success or a fail, and sometimes it is a success for showing science! Each week on Discovery’s new(ish) TestTube Channel (excellent name) there’ll be a new episode (Tuesdays around 9:00am) coming up, so stay tuned. Episode 1 is here.

It’s fun (with puppets, dancing, music, and a great eccentric set for the lab!), and will be definitely playing on the edge for some (perhaps too much for those who are skittish about mixing sexuality with science), but from what I’ve seen, the show looks to be on [...] Click to continue reading this post

Coming (Very) Soon…

fail_lab_poster Fail Lab is coming in five days.

Reportedly it’ll be “a new kind of science series”, so we shall see!

That’s all I know so far as regards the launch.

More when I know more.

By the way, it relates to this, and indeed that is Crystal Dilworth, the presenter, in the poster.

Er, the picture/poster is blatantly borrowed/stolen from writer/director Patrick Scott’s twitter feed.)

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXX – Comedy Moments and More

crystal_D_and_cvjWhat happened here? Who is that, and what exactly made her so annoyed? Read on!

There are a number of new things coming out on screens near you (or may have already aired) that might interest you. For fans of the History Channel’s The Universe (thanks so much for all the emails with kind remarks, and so forth, by the way) there’s a new show in the works that’ll mix science and history (and other disciplines) in an interesting way. I’ve no idea when it is set to air though, and frankly I’m very confused as to what is on History and what is on H2, the companion channel, so I’ll just say watch out for that. We shot a lot of material for that earlier this year, and I hope you enjoy the show overall, despite my mumbling mug appearing on your screen a bit!

Apparently the many of the Weather Channel’s science-y segments were shown, in a series called “Deadly Space Weather”, which imagines what would happen on earth if you brought various prevailing conditions on other planets back here. Yeah, I know… but actually it’s a good opportunity to think about science ideas, at least in principle. You’ll recall that I did some demos for that which were rather fun – and hopefully interesting too. I saw a piece of one of them online (10:44 or so), and got rather annoyed at one point. There’s a segment where I demonstrate – with real sulphuric acid – the effect it has on organic compounds, using sugar. It is quite spectacular. And of course quite dangerous, so I’m actually wearing a lab coat (yes, there are occasions where real [...] Click to continue reading this post

Franklin Vs Watson and Crick

Wow! This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been hoping to see more of! When the report on this started on NPR about having students do music and video about science topics, I groaned a bit (while making breakfast) when I heard the Watson and Crick mentions in the clip in the background, saying to myself that it is so unfair that once again, Rosalind Franklin is being forgotten and a whole bunch of kids will miss the opportunity to learn about the nuances involved in doing science, and miss that she did such crucial work on this most important discovery…. I continued making my coffee, listening to the report with half an ear…. and then! …more of the clip was played and a girl’s voice came on, singing a bit about Rosalind Franklin, and then I realized that this was exactly the story they were telling in the video*. The whole NPR report, by Adam Cole, is here, with a short video doc. It is about not just the Rap B.A.T.T.L.E.S. doing songs and videos about various science topics, but also about other programs as well, started by people such as Christopher Emdin at Columbia, and others. Excellent.

I’ve embedded the Franklin/Watson/Crick video below. It was made by students in the Bay area, guided by Tom McFadden at Stanford. I think this is great piece of work since they did a great job on production, particularly with casting and costuming everyone to play the principals, cutting in reaction shots and so forth… It’s a real film! And for a change, for a popular rap about science that a wide variety of young people might be attracted to, this time the music is actual contemporary rap (which usually means well thought out lyrics combined with rhythmic devices that are definitely post 1980s, and not just a bunch of lines recited over a corny background beat – see another excellent example at the end of this post) which is great! An amusing and poignant extract:
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TED Youth Talk – Hidden Structures of the Universe

cvj_TED_YouthYou might recall that last year I gave a talk at TED Youth, in their second year of short TED talks aimed at younger audiences. You’ll recall (see e.g. here and here) I made a special set of slides for it, composed from hundreds of my drawings to make it all in graphic novel style, and somehow trying to do (in 7 minutes!!) what the TED people wanted.

They wanted an explanation of string theory, but when I learned that telescopesI was the only person in the event talking about physics, I kind of insisted that (in a year when we’d discovered the Higgs boson especially!) I talk more broadly about the broader quest to understand what the world is made of, leaving a brief mention of string magnifytheory at the end as one of the possible next steps being worked on. Well, they’ve now edited it all together and made it into one of the lessons on the TED Ed site, and so you can look at it. Show it to friends, young and old, and remember that it is ok if you don’t get everything that is said… it is meant to invite you to find out more on your own. Also, as you see fit, use the pause button, scroll back, etc… to get the most out of the narrative.

I’m reasonably pleased with the outcome, except for one thing. WHY am I rocking [...] Click to continue reading this post

Congratulations!

In other interesting announcements today, the great physicist Alexander Polyakov has been given the Fundamental Physics Prize. (See the announcement here.) There was a remarkable award ceremony in Geneva yesterday, hosted by Morgan Freeman, and with lots of Physicists and others celebrating great work in various areas of physics. Polyakov has been a key and brilliant leader in many areas of theoretical physics, and influenced so many ideas and techniques that have fed into the whole field, and so this is a well deserved recognition.

I must note that it is a bit sad (to say the least) to do a google search on the news about this prize and see so many articles with a lot of just plain stupid focussing on a big prize going to a “string theorist”, as though this is somehow negative or ironic, and also missing the fact that Polyakov’s contributions are so broad and far-reaching [...] Click to continue reading this post