Pleasant Discovery

So I don’t know about you, but I’ve been really enjoying the new series of Star Trek. I started watching Star Trek Discovery because I was one of the science advisors they talked with from the early writing stages to finish, building some of the science ideas, concepts, and tone for their reimagining of the Star Trek universe.

Over many months after the initial meeting with all the writers, I would take calls from individual writers and researchers and give them ideas or phrases they could use and so forth. But much of the work was done blind, which is to say I had very little context for most of what they were asking for advice for. I think they do it this way because they wanted to protect a lot of the material from leaking because, well, it’s Star Trek! Yes, you’ll know from my various writings and interviews about science advising that this is not usually my preferred way of working as an advisor, but I was happy to help in this case and make an exception because after all of this is a huge show that has a tradition of inspiring people about science over many generations. so it could be of value, just by virtue of some of the little science ideas that I helped sprinkled in there, however accurately or inaccurately. The bottom line is that Star Trek just isn’t about accuracy, it’s about inspiration and dreams.

Well, needless to say, when it came out I was curious to see how they used […] Click to continue reading this post


Are you going to watch the Luke Cage series that debuts today on Netflix? I probably will at some point (I’ve got several decades old reasons, and also it was set up well in the excellent Jessica Jones last year)…. but not soon as I’ve got far too many deadlines. Here’a a related item: Using the Luke Cage character as a jumping off point, physicist Martin Archer has put together a very nice short video about the business of strong and tough (not the same thing) materials in the real world.


Have a look if you want to appreciate the nuances, and learn a bit about what’s maybe just over the horizon for new amazing materials that might be come part of our every day lives. Video embed below: […] Click to continue reading this post

Space at the Movies

first_fridays_nhm_space_movies_eventWell, that was a fun event. Here’s a photograph* of Sean Carroll and me as guests of the always-excellent host Patt Morrison at the Natural History Museum as we talk about aspects of the science of space (and time) as it appears in the movies, how we go about giving advice to filmmakers, and so forth. It was part of the First Fridays series which has a special focus on […] Click to continue reading this post

In Other Science meets Entertainment news…

sundance_logoVariety and other such entertainment news sites are abuzz with the news that Sundance has now announced its list of who’s on the various Juries for prizes at the festival this year. As you may know, the Sloan Foundation gives a prize there for science in feature film, and I’ll be on the Jury this year. It should be fun – watching all those films will be a bonus, but I’m most looking forward to talking with Kerry Bishé and Shane Carruth about science/engineering and film. Kerry plays a computer engineer character on AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire”, and in my view really helps set a new high standard for the level of depth and nuance you can bring to such a character while staying well away from every tedious engineer/scientist character trope that actors usually are expected to bring to […] Click to continue reading this post

PBS Shoot Fun

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

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


Turns out that there’s a wide range of wildlife, large and small, trudging around on the […] Click to continue reading this post

Ian McKellen on Fresh Air!

Ian McKellen twitter profile imageI had a major treat last night! While making myself an evening meal I turned on the radio to find Ian McKellen (whose voice and delivery I love so very much I can listen to him slowly reading an arbitrarily long list of random numbers) being interviewed by Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air. It was of course delightful, and some of the best radio I’ve enjoyed in a while (and I listen to a ton of good radio every day, between having either NPR or BBC Radio 4 on most of the time) since it was the medium at its simple best – a splendid conversation with an interesting, thoughtful, well-spoken person.

They also played and discussed a number of clips from his work, recent (I’ve been hugely excited to see Mr. Holmes, just released) and less recent (less well known delights such as Gods and Monsters -you should see it if you have not- and popular material like the first Hobbit film), and spoke at length about his private and public life and the intersection between the two, for example how his coming out as gay in 1988 positively affected his acting, and why…. There’s so much in that 35 minutes! […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXX – Relative

relativity_shoot_1(Click images for larger view.)
Last Tuesday was a bit unusual. I’ve been chatting for a while with the people making a new BBC/PBS(NOVA) special in celebration of it being 100 years since Einstein’s presentation of the field equations of General Relativity, and that was the day we’d arranged to have an interview of me saying a few ideas to camera, and also doing a demo or two for fun. It was a very tight schedule, and a lot had to be arranged since one of the demos involved me sitting on the back of a flat bed truck at a desk (apparently in an office), looking up and explaining something, only to have the camera reveal the larger context in which the conversation was taking place. Well, the office set and desk were abandoned for various reasons, and then we got held up for almost two hours because the campus safety people turned out to have been confused (?) by the director’s careful notes in advance of the shoot and did not realise that the flatbed truck with me and the furniture and the cameraman would actually be moving. Even though it was intended to move at only a snail’s pace, it violates their safety rules to not have everything strapped down with safety harnesses. It qualifies as a “stunt”, and they were not expecting one. So there was a lot of back and forth over walkie talkies and in person and so forth, and persons with little golf carts coming and going, until some of the crew dashed off to Autozone to buy several cargo straps that, after application, seemed to make everyone happy.

I climbed up and allowed myself to be strapped in too. Before it all got started I asked about how exactly I was to unstrap myself if for some reason the flatbed […] 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

Playing with Planets

Somewhere in all the craziness (that has partly been responsible for the light posting of late), yesterday I had time to rush over to a lab to do some demonstrations for a new TV show that is upcoming. It went rather well, since some time was found to prepare all the logistics for it, and one of our lab demo experts, Angella, did a great job of sourcing the things needed and testing it out beforehand. My job (after helping with the logistics of getting the operation off the ground and connecting some of the dots to make the shoot happen) was to show up and talk about the science and do the demonstrations.

It was about conditions on some of our popular neighbouring planets, and so in addition to holding models of the dear things and talking a bit about them to camera, I engaged in some demonstrations. The demos were simple enough – showing how to boil water at room temperature by simply dropping the pressure, and showing how sulphuric acid wreaks havoc with sugar by sucking the water out of it, making an impressive black column of carbon… fun!

I was glad to be doing some science discussion for public consumption again as we did not shoot any new episodes for The Universe this Summer (as in previous years)… They are still working through the backlog of shows we shot from last year, apparently. Part of the recent craziness was dashing off to another part of town last week to shoot some segments for another show entirely (some online material for a […] Click to continue reading this post

On Screen!

I had a pleasant surprise yesterday. I went along to the public lecture of Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Science, since on the one hand his talk was entitled “Contemporary Climate Change as Seen Through Data”, so it was interesting to me, and on the other hand I was to be part of a group taking him to dinner later on. I went into the auditorium and lo and behold there was Rosie Wyse (Aspen Center for Physics President) up on the screen…! They were showing the film (what film? see e.g. here, here, and here) in the time leading up to the start of the lecture, as people were arriving. It was nice to see it up on a large screen being enjoyed by an audience…

Overall, the reports back are that everyone seems to love it, and that it has been […] Click to continue reading this post


9:30am, my office. Phone rings. I get it on the first ring.


Oh. Is that… Professor… Johnson?


Oh! I was not expecting to… Well I’m watching this program, and had some questions…

I see.

Well, when you say…

Well, who am I talking to?

Oh, I’m [name].


Hi… So, when you say millions of years, even billions of years in these programs… do you mean earth years? or, um, do you mean space years?

Oh, that’s a good question. I mean the regular years. Earth years, if you like.

Oh. So these things are really that old.

Oh, yes. They are.

I have one more question.

Of course, please go ahead.

Michio Kaku says that the universe is full of many things and all you have to do is ask for something and you’ll get it. How do you go about doing that?

Uh… Well… I’m not sure I understand what that means…

Well, you know we come from supernovae…. and… we’re from space… and there are maybe lots of gods out there that we can ask for things…Kaku says we can just ask the universe. How does one do that?

Well… I am not sure what he had in mind. It might be…. might be best to ask him…. But maybe what he meant is that the universe is a very big place, with lots of things going on, and maybe he meant that there are all sorts of things you could find out there because it is so big and diverse… But perhaps he did not have in mind that a particular person could go out and get any of those things… but you might want to ask him. I can’t say for sure.

Oh, ok.

But I can tell you what I think. I think that while the universe is a big and exciting diverse place, it is still the case that a given individual only has limited access to all those things in it. It is a big place, and so you mostly only have access to what you can get to locally. Travelling around it takes a long time…

Oh, I see. Well, thank you.

And… thank you, by the way, for watching the program. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Yes, I love these programs.

I’m glad to hear that. I hope you continue watching and do tell your friends about them too. All the best.



I enjoyed that chat. I love it when people are inspired to step away from their […] Click to continue reading this post


Well, it is a week full of premieres, it seems, all with a little personal flavour for me, but possibly of wider interest. I’m talking about two TV shows and a movie.

The movie is going to be out in theatres at the end of the week, and it is called “Being Elmo”, co-directed by Phillip Shane and co-written by Phillip Shane and Justin Weinstein, two friends of mine who are flying into LA for the premiere. It is about Kevin Clash, the guy who operates the Elmo muppet. In short, it is a film that people seem to be really enjoying (it won the special jury prize at Sundance, and was a finalist for the Humanitas prize), and I can’t wait to see it! I worked with Phil on a two hour Einstein special that aired on the History Channel a while back (see Equation Wrangler), and so I know his working style a bit, and the results are great – so I think this’ll be really good!

The new Nova mini-series based on Brian Greene’s second book “The Fabric of the Cosmos” begins this week. They do a very good job, working closely with Brian to produce a show of rather high quality. I hope they do a good job (as you can see from the picture, they’ve got Brian to reveal his superpowers on screen – we’re not supposed to do that Brian!). It should be interesting to see, I think. I can’t recall if I mentioned, but I filmed some contributions for it last year, and some of that will be in the first episode (and I think the fourth). (You may recall that they extracted some of my interview […] Click to continue reading this post

Multiverse Musings

As you may know already there’ll be a new NOVA series on PBS in the Fall, based on one of Brian Greene’s books, The Fabric of the Cosmos. Last Fall I did some a shoot with them for my role in it (I’ve no idea how much they will use), and I learned a short while ago that they’ll be using some of it on the NOVA website too. They extracted some parts of the on-camera interview segments I did concerning the idea of multiple universes and transcribed them into something you can read online. Have a look here. I touch on the idea in a fragmented way, mostly being led by the questions I was asked, but it’s a fun topic to chat about, and may lead you in interesting directions should you wish to learn more, so have a look.

A word on the picture they are using (er…see above left). It seems to be one that the […] Click to continue reading this post