One Hundred Years of Certitude

Einstein_CentennialSince the early Summer I’ve been working (with the help of several people at USC*) toward a big event next Friday: A celebration of 100 years since Einstein formulated the field equations of General Relativity, a theory which is one of the top one or few (depending upon who you argue with over beers about this) scientific achievements in the history of human thought. The event is a collaboration between the USC Harman Academy of Polymathic Study and the LAIH, which I co-direct. I chose the title of this post since (putting aside the obvious desire to resonate with a certain great work of literature) this remarkable scientific framework has proven to be a remarkably robust and accurate model of how our universe’s gravity actually works in every area it has been tested with experiment and observation**. Despite being all about bizarre things like warped spacetime, slowing down time, and so forth, which most people think is to do only with science fiction. (And yes, you probably test it every day through your […] Click to continue reading this post

It’s Time

delorean_sketchOk, So I’ve finished prepping my presentation of detailed recipes for how to make time machines. (Sorry, but it does not involve any of the elements depicted in the sketch above.) It is for a special event tonight celebrating the fact that this is the day Marty McFly came forward in time to in Back to the Future II. The question is: Should I really be telling people how to do this? Yikes. ;)

Ok, time to get into my flying car and head off to teach…

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

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

screen_junkies_martianAs promised, the Screen Junkies episode we made is out. It is about The Martian! JPL’s Christina Heinlein (a planetary science expert) also took part, and I hope you find it interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe even funny too! As usual, there’s a lot that was said that was inevitably left on the (virtual) cutting-room floor, but a lot of good stuff made the cut. All in all, I’d say that this film (which I enjoyed a lot!) had a refreshing take on science and engineering for a big studio film, on several scores. (Remaining sentences are spoiler-free.) First, rather than hiding the slow machinations involved in problem-solving, it has a lot of it up front! It’s an actual celebration of problem-solving, part of the heart and soul of science and engineering. Second, rather than have the standard nerd stereotype […] Click to continue reading this post

Get ready for some “movie science” chatter…

hal_cvj_christina_bigYes, I’ve been hanging out with my Screen Junkies friends again, and this time I also got to meet JPL’s Christina Heinlein, who you may recall was in the first of the Screen Junkies “Movie Science” episodes last year. While we were both in it, I’d not got to meet her that time since our chats with host Hal Rudnick were recorded at quite different times. This time, however, schedules meant […] Click to continue reading this post

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


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

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

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

The Universe Lives!

(Seems a highly appropriate title to use when up at 4:00am listening to the excellent violent wind and rain storm that’s going on outside.) This is mostly a note for fans of the show The Universe, on the History channel, or H2, and channels by other names internationally. I just wanted to say that the show is going to carry on, with a new season coming out early next year!

I mention this because it looked for a while (at least a few times) like there wouldn’t be another season (after a solid 7 or 8 seasons over as many years), and then at the last minute they greenlit that short season that aired earlier this year with the subtitle “Ancient Mysteries Explained” or something worrying like that (because it sounds a lot like the “Ancient Aliens” show which, well, I’d rather it did not sound anything like…) Then it was not clear again whether that was just a last hurrah or not…

Well, it was not, since we’ve been shooting for several episodes this last month or so! Looks like there will be at least a short season coming, with the same subtitle. I’ve done some work on a few segments that will appear in two or three episodes. They wanted me to do more but I had a rather busy period coming up and so declined to do any more shooting days after November, so I’ll be somewhat fleeting in my appearances, but hope that the physics I did get to talk about is clear and interesting – assuming they use those bits at all (you can never tell).

My favourite day was when we were out at Zuma Beach, which I think I mentioned in a short post a while back. The episode focuses on contrasts between Astronomy and Astrology, which is certainly a good topic! I came up with a fun analogy with which to explain a certain idea and we enlisted a group […] Click to continue reading this post

A New Shower!

Camelopardalids_2014-Radiant_HD1….Let’s hope it is not equipped with a low-flow shower head though. If you get a chance this evening, find a wide area of sky away from as many lights as you can (it does not have to be perfectly dark, but the darker the better). There is a new meteor shower, the Camelopardalids…. It is new because the comet debris responsible (we’re flying through debris left over from its tail) has not intersected with our orbit before, but things have been changing a bit (apparently due to Jupiter’s gravitational pull) and as a result we’ll go right through it for the first time (as far as records show). It is expected that there’s a good chance that it will be a high event shower, and it has also been said – I forgot where I read this – that the […] Click to continue reading this post

Discovery Clarification

[Update: Over the months following the announcement, doubt was cast over exactly what BICEP2 saw, and now it seems that the signal announced by BICEP2 is consistent with polarisation produced by galactic dust. See here.]

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

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

All Space Considered

You may recall that last month I hosted the First Fridays portion of the Natural History Museum’s day of celebration, where I introduced and steered the questions for JPL’s Adam Steltzner (lead engineer of the the “7 Minutes of Terror” Mars Curiosity landing). A fun event indeed. Well, this month I’ll be at another First Friday event, but for the other wonderful classic science space in the city, the Griffith Observatory.

They have a First Fridays series too – not to clash intentionally, I’ve recently learned upon inquiring – and it is a goal of mine to connect the relevant parties and find ways of having these events and spaces intersect with each other fruitfully, maybe. Perhaps participating in both of them is a good way to start. The “All Space Considered” event is a series where there’s a panel of scientists […] Click to continue reading this post

100th Birthday Bash!

If you’re in town on Sunday 9th June, I strongly recommend coming along to this! The Natural History Museum is having its 100th Birthday celebration with an all day series of events. There’ll be new spaces and exhibits opening, including the new gardens they’ve been building for some time, and so there’s plenty to explore that will be new, and partly outdoors on a (hopefully) lovely day. (See here for an LA Times article on some of the changes.) As the day draws into the evening, there’ll be a real party brewing, with bands, DJs, bars, and so forth (see below). Kicking off the evening part of the proceedings at 6:30pm will be a talk and Q+A with JPL’s Adam Steltzner (of the Mars Curiosity Mission), in a spot hosted by me.

Adam’s a great guy, with lots of interesting things to say and a great sense of […] Click to continue reading this post

Bad Luck for Kepler

Steinn has a nice post about the sudden ending of the Kepler mission, due to a crucial component failure. As he notes:

“Kepler has discovered almost 3,000 planetary candidates, of which about 100 have been confirmed through a variety of techniques, and, statistically, most of the rest are likely to be real planets.

Kepler has not quite found earth like planets in the habitable zone, yet.
It is heartbreakingly close to doing so.”

Sad to see, especially at a time when science is being hurt so badly by continued […] Click to continue reading this post

Chasing Tail…

At around 11:15pm, after driving for a while toward the general area, we spotted it. The tail, poking high above the trees, gas station, and power lines, with people walking purposefully groups with only two flows of pedestrian traffic: to or from something that must be a viewing spot. I quickly (and in retrospect, miraculously) found a nearby parking spot (at a prohibited time for that spot, like for all the other cars, but I figured even the parking enforcers were looking at other things at this time) and we walked over to where we saw the tail to find places where we could see the whole craft. And there it was, the space shuttle Endeavour, the youngest of the fleet of re-useable spaceships, the one from which they did the historic and crucial spacewalk that repaired the Hubble telescope that allowed us to see so much about the universe in which we live… parked next to the Randy’s Donuts donut. After a back view of the engines, we found an even closer view, from the side, where most of the people were, and marveled for a while.

[caption id="attachment_12629" align="aligncenter" width="499"] The Space Shuttle Endeavour on its road trip from LAX to the California Science Center, close to midnight on Friday 12th October. Just about to cross Hwy 405. (Click for a larger view.)[/caption]

(There’s something interesting about the whole business of being in a crowd and […] Click to continue reading this post


[caption id="attachment_12548" align="aligncenter" width="499"] Space Shuttle Endeavour and escort, flying over the California Science Center, its new home where it will soon be on display.[/caption]
Wow, that was amazing. So a group of us (Aimee, Amy, Tameem, and myself) decided to go down to the Rose Garden, across the street from the USC campus and in the grounds of the Califorina Science Center where the Shuttle will be housed. Of all the places in LA where there will be a flyover, surely we ought to get a good view from there. Also, the Rose Garden gives access to a large piece of sky, so even if it does not come super-close, we ought to get a good chance… That was the thinking. (A major landmark here was that this is the most USC people I’ve ever seen in the lovely Rose Garden – not counting people on their way to a game at the Coliseum…)

[caption id="attachment_12549" align="alignleft" width="300"] Shuttle Endeavour and escort, with the Natural History Museum just in view below. It is approaching the California Science Center.[/caption]Well, it worked far better than we imagined. The shuttle eventually appeared from the West, and people began to cheer and wave, and snap pictures and so forth… We all felt very lucky that they did that pass…. you could see the fighter plane (?) escort, and there it was appropriately (sort of) over the buildings where it will live out its days… We’d talked about what it meant to see the very last transport flight of a shuttle, the end of the shuttle program, the future of manned spaceflight, and so forth. We, and the […] Click to continue reading this post

Endeavour to Look Up!

The Space Shuttle Endeavour will fly (or will be flown by its carrier plane) over Los Angeles this morning, paying special attention to various LA landmarks. Don’t forget to look up! I’ve heard it will be around 10:30am, but double check since I might have heard that time incorrectly. I plan to start looking out by 10:00am, down on the USC campus, since the California Science Center (across the street) where the Shuttle will be housed, is one of the places it will specially fly over… More here.


-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Curious about Curiosity?

So, if like many people, you are excited about the (late) weekend landing of Curiosity (the roving Mars Science Laboratory) on Mars, and/or if you want to know more, Kenneth Chang has an article in the New York Times all about it here. (Image right is an artist’s impression done for NASA/JPL.) The sequence of operations that have to go right for Curiosity to, er, stick the landing* is quite amazing, and so let’s all wish them good luck. Have a […] Click to continue reading this post

Happy Birthday Hubble!

It is the 22nd Anniversary of the launch of the Hubble space telescope today! As you know, this instrument has produced a wealth of scientific information over the years, as well as lots of wonderful pictures for everyone that broadened and deepened our sense of wonder about this remarkable universe we find ourselves in. The Hubble site is here.

Phil Plait has re-posted his 2010 post “Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble”, […] Click to continue reading this post

We’ll have a Shuttle!

Space Shuttle EndeavourThere was a rather great piece of news last week that I did not get around to mentioning at the time of the announcement. Not only will we shortly have the Expo line, a new branch of the subway (or light rail) system down at USC and the city’s California Science Center, Natural History Museum, African American Museum, and so forth, all along Exposition, we’ll have…. A Space Shuttle! NASA announced where all its retired space shuttles will go to pasture, and the California Science Center will be one of the museums around the country chosen for this. It’ll be the Endeavour that comes to town. (I like the fact that the spelling with the “u” in it is the official one. Not noticed that before. Excellent.) (Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett.)

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

I, For One, Welcome Our New Arsenic-Replacing-Phosphorus-In-DNA Overlords

mono_lakeYeah! This is just the sort of thing I’d hoped that we (human beings) would find soon, in order to strengthen the idea that in looking for forms of life elsewhere, we be not just open to the idea that the basic chemistry for that life may be very different from what we are used to on earth (easier said than done), but that it is maybe even probable that this is what we could find first. Now, given the news today (announced by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team in a NASA press conference today and reported on in a paper to appear in Science) we know that it is not just a theoretical construction, but already a reality right here on earth. The researchers have identified a life form with a striking difference. The bacterium (which lives in Mono Lake – see NASA image above right) has DNA (and some other important complex molecules) with a major difference from all other forms we know. phosphorus has been replaced by arsenic!

periodic_tableThis works, by the way, because arsenic is in the same chemical family as phosphorus, being directly below it in the periodic table. Note that this is exactly the sort of thing that has been speculated about a lot in the classic days of science/speculative fiction concerned with alien life, remember? :- Silicon based life forms instead of the Carbon based ones that we know and love on earth. Silicon is again in the same column as […] Click to continue reading this post

Time Travel a Click Away

cvj_with_wormholeI just noticed that last week’s episode of The Universe on Time Travel, which I told you about here and here, is available online on their website. Click here to learn more about the ins and outs of it, and I show you how to make one too! Kind of.

It is a difficult subject to explain, and one that must be tempting to […] Click to continue reading this post


hobys_rosette_05 This is a wonderful infrared image (please click on it for lovely larger view) of a region of star formation called the Rosette Nebula.

It comes from the Herschel space observatory, which was launched (along with the Planck observer) by the European Space Agency (ESA) almost a year ago, you may recall.

From the ESA website, here’s a bit more about what this is: […] Click to continue reading this post

Meteorite Men!

meteorite_men Did you watch Meteorite Men last week? If not, you can probably catch a repeat. It is a new series, airing 9pm ET/PT Wednesday nights, on the Science Channel about two guys who search for meteorites. Check your local listings for times. (Photo cheekily snapped from their site. Copyright aerolite meteorites.)

I learned about it from Bob Melisso, my producer/filmmaker friend (and occasional collaborator: see here, here and here) who made the pilot and is the supervising producer for the series. From […] Click to continue reading this post