Festival Panel

father and son at LA Times Festival of BooksDon’t forget that this weekend is the fantastic LA Times Festival of Books! See my earlier post. Actually, I’ll be on a panel at 3:00pm in Wallis Annenberg Hall entitled “Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”, with Pat Levitt and Elyn Saks, chaired by the Science writer KC Cole. I’ve no idea where the conversation is going to go, but I hope it’ll be fun and interesting! (See the whole schedule here.)

Maybe see you there!

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Beyond the Battling Babes

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 14.03.58The recent Babe War (Food Babe vs Science Babe) that probably touched your inbox or news feed is a great opportunity to think about a broader issue: the changing faces of science communication. I spoke about this with LA Times science writer Eryn Brown who wrote an excellent article about it that appears today. (Picture (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times) and headline are from the article’s online version.)

(By the way, due to space issues, a lot of what we spoke about did not make it to the article (at least not in the form of quotes), including: […] Click to continue reading this post

Excellent Witten Interview!

ooguri_witten_kavli_ipmuI just learned of an excellent interview with Edward Witten, one or our field’s grandmasters, or rather: the grandmasters’ grandmaster. I strongly recommend reading it. (This is for technically equipped people working in the field, most likely – I believe that it is not intended for the general public, although you are welcome to read it too!)

There’s a lot of discussion (of among other things like his current work) of that golden period during the 1990s that I had the privilege to work in during my postdoc years (some of them under the guidance of Witten) that remain one of […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Luncheon with Amy Parish

LAIH_Amy_Parish_10_April_2015_2 For Friday’s Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities luncheon we had a presentation from anthropologist/primatologist Amy Parish (an LAIH Fellow) on the work she’s been doing with bonobos at a zoo in Stuttgart. She updated us on how bonobo societies work (of all the apes, bonobos are our closest cousins, genetically), and then told us about recent experiments she’s been doing with getting them to watch films, giving them control over what they watch, and observing the effects of this on social patterns. (There’s a brief article here about Amy’s recent work.) It was an excellent talk, well attended, with lots of laughter – the result of a pretty potent mixture of food, sex, and humour!

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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

Getty Visit

LAIH_luncheon_getty_2Every year the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities has a luncheon at the Getty jointly with the Getty Research Institute and the LAIH fellows get to hang out with the Getty Scholars and people on the Getty Visiting Scholars program (Alexa Sekyra, the head of the program, was at the luncheon today, so I got to meet her). The talk is usually given by a curator of an exhibition or program that’s either current, or coming up. The first time I went, a few years ago, it was the Spring before the launch of the Pacific Standard Time region-wide celebration of 35 years of Southern California art and art movements (’45-’80) that broke away from letting New York and Western Europe call the tunes and began to define some of the distinctive voices of their own that are now so well known world wide… then we had a talk from a group of curators about the multi-museum collaboration to make that happen. One of the things I learned today from Andrew Perchuck, the Deputy Director of the Getty Research Institute who welcomed us all in a short address, was that there will be a new Pacific Standard Time event coming up in 2018, so stay tuned. This time it will have more of a focus on Latino and Latin American art. See here.


Today we had Nancy Perloff tell us about the current exhibit (for which she is […] Click to continue reading this post

Simulated meets Real!

Here’s a freshly minted Oscar winner who played a scientist surrounded by… scientists! I’m with fellow physicists Erik Verlinde, Maria Spiropulu, and David Saltzberg at an event last month. Front centre are of course actors Eddie Redmayne (Best Actor winner 2015 for Theory of Everything) and Felicity Jones (Best Actress – nominee) along with the screenwriter of the film, Anthony McCarten. The British Consul-General Chris O’Connor is on the right. (Photo was courtesy of Getty Images.)

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Pre-Oscar Bash: Hurrah for Science at the Movies?

It is hard to not get caught up each year in the Oscar business if you live in this town and care about film. If you care about film, you’re probably just mostly annoyed about the whole thing because the slate of nominations and eventual winners hardly represents the outcome of careful thought about relative merits and so forth. The trick is to forget being annoyed and either hide from the whole thing or embrace it as a fun silly thing that does not mean too much.

british_film_oscar_bash_smaller_05 This year since there has been a number of high profile films that help raise awareness of and interest in science and scientists, I have definitely not chosen the “hide away” option. Whatever one thinks of how good or bad “The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game” and “Interstellar” might be, I think that is simply silly to ignore the fact that it is a net positive thing that they’ve got millions of people taking about science and science-related things while out on their movie night. That’s a good thing, and as I’ve been saying for the last several months (see e.g. here and here), good enough reason for people interested in science engagement to be at least broadly supportive of the films, because that’ll encourage more to be made, an the more such films are being made, the better the chances are that even better ones get made.

This is all a preface to admitting that I went to one of those fancy pre-Oscar parties last night. It was put on by the British Consul-General in Los Angeles (sort of a followup to the one I went to last month mentioned here) in celebration of the British Film industry and the large number of British Oscar […] Click to continue reading this post

Ahead of Myself…

(In which I talk about script work on the graphic book, and a useful writer’s tool for you writers out there of all kinds.)


I’ve been easing my brain back into thinking regularly about the book project and getting momentum on it again. [As you recall, I’ve been distracted by family things, and before that, focussed on finding a publisher for it.) The momentum part is not easy because… newborn. (I’ve been saying that a lot: “because …newborn.” I am tempted to make a (drool-covered) t-shirt with that as a slogan, but the trouble with that idea is that I do not wear t-shirts with things written on them if I can help it. Uh-huh, I’m weird.] My plan is to finish writing the scripts for the book, including storyboarding/thumbnailing the whole thing out to get the page designs right. In essence, flesh out the book with enough of the main stuff of it so that I can then work on tinkering with structure, etc. This involves not just moving words around as you would a prose book, but planning how the words work on the page in concert with the drawings. I’ve often done this by just scribbling in a notebook, but ultimately one wants to be able to have everything in a form one can refer to easily, revise, cut and paste, etc. That’s where this marvellous tool called a computer comes in. A lot of writers in comics use the same sorts of software that is used for plays or screenplays (Final Draft and the like). People have even written comics script templates for such programs. They allow for page descriptions, panel descriptions, etc.

(At this point I should acknowledge that the typical reader probably did not know that comics and graphic books had scripts. Well, they do. There’s a lot more to say about that, but I won’t do that here. Google it.)

Over the years I’ve been slowly putting my scribblings into a piece of software […] Click to continue reading this post

Sometimes there is Smoke without Fire

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

LAIH Field Trip: The Natural History Museum!

LAIH_NHM_Field_Trip_3On Friday the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities went on another field trip. This time we went to the Natural History Museum. (Click the image for a larger panorama from one of the dinosaur halls.) If you’ve not been there for a while, this is not the museum you remember. It has been transformed, under the leadership of Jane Pisano (President and Director of the Museum, who gave us a splendid talk over lunch), adding several new spaces, a special garden, and new foci in its programming (such as special displays and research programs highlighting urban ecosystems – featuring coyotes, rats, squirrels, possums, Cooper’s hawks, doves, skunks, parrots, etc., (basically my back garden on a typical day, as you know from this blog), along with snakes, bedbugs, termites… The Nature all around us in the city of Los Angeles – fascinating actually.)

We had a tour of some of the spaces, breaking up into two groups (there were around 40 of us) and taking turns on two mini-tours (as we did for the Clark Library in December), one looking at the new dinosaur halls, the other the space dedicated to the urban environments I mentioned above. We learned a lot from our guides about what’s going on in the forefront of research in both […] Click to continue reading this post

The Visitors

jim_gates_talk_usc_26_jan_2015_smallYesterday I sneaked on to campus for a few hours. I’m on family leave (as I mentioned earlier) and so I’ve not been going to campus unless I more or less have to. Yesterday was one of those days that I decided was a visit day and so visit I did. I went to say hi to a visitor to the Mathematics Department, Sylvester James Gates Jr., an old friend who I’ve known for many years. He was giving the CAMS (Center for Applied Mathematical Sciences) distinguished lecture with the title “How Attempting To Answer A Physics Question Led Me to Graph Theory, Error-Correcting Codes, Coxeter Algebras, and Algebraic Geometry”. You can see him in action in the picture above.

I was able to visit with Jim for a while (lunch with him and CAMS director Susan Friedlander), and then hear the talk, which was very interesting. I wish he’d had time to say more on all the connections he mentioned in the title, but what he did explain sounded rather interesting. It is all about the long unsolved problem of finding certain kinds of (unconstrained, off-shell) representations of extended supersymmetry. (Supersymmetry is, you may know, a symmetry that […] Click to continue reading this post

In Print…!

graphic_novel_event_postcard_picture_ofHere’s the postcard they made to advertise the event of tomorrow (Tuesday)*. I’m pleased with how the design worked out, and I’m extra pleased about one important thing. This is the first time that any of my graphical work for the book has been printed professionally in any form on paper, and I am pleased to see that the pdf that I output actually properly gives the colours I’ve been working with on screen. There’s always been this nagging background worry (especially after the struggles I had to do to get the right output from my home printers) that somehow it would all be terribly wrong… that the colours would […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Luncheon – Ramiro Gomez

Yesterday’s Luncheon at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, the first of the year, was another excellent one (even though it was a bit more compact than I’d have liked). We caught up with each other and discussed what’s been happening with over the holiday season, and then had the artist Ramiro Gomez give a fantastic talk (“Luxury, Interrupted: Art Interventions for Social Change”) about his work in highlighting the hidden people of Los Angeles – those cleaners, caregivers, gardeners and others who help make the city tick along, but who are treated as invisible by most.


As someone who very regularly gets totally ignored (like I’m not even there!) while standing in front of my own house by many people in my neighbourhood who […] Click to continue reading this post

A Special Graphic Novel Panel!

graphic_novel_event_postcardI’ll be on family leave this semester (because… see here), so that means I’ll be intensely busy with other matters most of the time, and will be doing a lot less in the areas of teaching, events, committees, etc. But there will be some things here and there, including things that I’d promised to do before I knew I’d be taking leave. One of them is a discussion on graphic novels for the Harman Academy of Polymathic Study here at USC. (While sitting up bleary-eyed with a very small person in the wee hours of Monday morning I designed the graphics for the postcard they will use for advertising the event. They kindly asked me if some samples of my work could be used, and so the graphic above is what I came up with (they added the logos and event info), made from parts of pages of the work-in-progress book.)

In various ways, the graphic novel is a nice example of the confluence of lots of disciplines and different modes of communication, and as such is a good “polymathic” topic to discuss with the students of the academy (part of the point of the enterprise is for them to learn about how going beyond the narrow constraints of subject or discipline can be of tremendous value, so they study people and creative endeavours that have benefited from that approach – see their website for more). I’ll be joined on the panel by Professor Henry Jenkins (from the Schools of Communication, Cinematic Arts, and Education), and Professor Dana Johnson (from the Department of English), both of whom are real experts in the graphic novel – they are involved in teaching the form, and […] Click to continue reading this post

Time to Plan…

Happy New Year! So, it is the second of January. You’ve spent all of the day yesterday recovering from the euphoria (and perhaps revelry) of New Year’s Eve, and so today it is time for the traditional next thing on the new calendar: Planning what you’ll do next New Year’s Eve, of course!

acp_stillBefore doing that however, if you are a research physicist, I’d like to invite you to consider doing something else: Plan your Summer research travel. What I am really trying to do is to make you aware that the end of this month is the deadline for applying to attend the Aspen Center for Physics during some period inside the Summer operating dates Memorial Day (in May) to around Labor Day (September). Now, a lot of people (too many, in my and the opinion of others who care about the ACP) just assume that the place is not for them, for a number of reasons that are really not good ones. So let me address one or two quickly right now.

First, it is not an old boy’s country club. It is for everyone, working in all* fields of physics. Don’t apply and you have zero chance of getting in. Apply and there is […] 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

Grabbing Fun Shapes

culver_city_building_8th_dec_2014_smallA quick sketch of a building in Culver City, done while waiting for a meeting to finish (I was in my occasional role as chauffeur). A very classic and pleasing combination of shapes for Southern California. (I splashed on ink and colour later on, once home).

In other news, I’m all ready for the last teaching event of 2014. I’ve written, typeset, and checked (multiple times) the final exam for the graduate electromagnetism class. There are some interesting things on there. I hope they like it!

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LAIH Field Trip: The Clark Library!

laih_clark_library_visit_2014_07One of the things I want the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH) to do more of is field trips – Exploring the city together! We’re an LA resource (as I’ve said in earlier posts) and so we should visit with and strengthen our relationships with some of those other LA resources, whether they be physical places, or groups of people (like us), etc.

Friday saw us take a wonderful field trip to the William A. Clark Memorial Library. It is another of those classic LA things – an amazing gem hidden away that you pass every day and don’t see. It is not far from USC, and in fact a number of USC faculty I know have used it regularly for research, since it has several important collections of papers and rare books of various sorts (Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, etc).

A lot of these were put out for us to see by Head Librarian (and LAIH Fellow) Victoria Steele and her staff, and they gave us a guided tour. During the tour […] Click to continue reading this post

Einstein Papers on Film…

A quick note I made over on facebook, concerning the recently released public archive of Einstein papers…

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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

Luncheon Reflections

LIAH_Hawthorne_luncheonYou know, I never got around to mentioning here that I am now Director (co-directing with Louise Steinman who runs the ALOUD series) of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH), a wonderful organisation that I have mentioned here before. It is full of really fascinating people from a range of disciplines: writers, artists, historians, architects, musicians, critics, filmmakers, poets, curators, museum directors, journalists, playwrights, scientists, actors, and much more. These LAIH Fellows are drawn from all over the city, and equally from academic and non-academic sources. The thing is, you’ll find us throughout the city involved in all sorts of aspects of its cultural and intellectual life, and LAIH is the one organisation in the city that tries to fully bring together this diverse range of individuals (all high-acheivers in their respective fields) into a coherent force.

One of the main things we do is simply sit together regularly and talk about whatever’s on our minds, stimulating and shaping ideas, getting updates on works in progress, making suggestions, connections, and so forth. Finding time in one’s schedule to just sit together and exchange ideas with no particular agenda is an important thing to do and we take it very seriously. We do this at […] Click to continue reading this post

Chalkboards Everywhere!


I love chalkboards (or blackboards if you prefer). I love showing up to give a talk somewhere and just picking up the chalk and going for it. No heavily over-packed slides full of too many fast moving things, as happens too much these days. If there is coloured chalk available, that’s fantastic – special effects. It is getting harder to find these boards however. Designers of teaching rooms and other spaces seem embarrassed by them, and so they either get smaller or disappear, often in favour of the less than magical whiteboard.

So in my continued reinvention of the way I produce slides for projection (I do this every so often), I’ve gone another step forward in returning to the look (and […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Science at Screen Junkies!

screen_junkies_interstellarAs promised on Tuesday, below you will find my Screen Junkies interview where I chat with Hal Rudnick about some of the science in Interstellar. We covered a lot of topics and went into a lot of detail, but a lot of that is on the cutting room floor in order to make a svelte (but relatively generous) ten minute cut. I hope you enjoy it. (See my earlier thoughts on why I think scientists need […] Click to continue reading this post

Subway Glances


Just a few grabs of parts of faces of people who I see on the subway journey to and from USC each day. Sometimes I get a good look, other times not… Sometimes they disappear before I get anywhere. I’ve been busy on other things (like prepping lectures and reading endless books and files for one duty or another) and so have not got as many done as I like to. This collection is about three weeks’ worth. Also, when travelling in rush hour I seldom get a […] Click to continue reading this post

Hanging out at Screen Junkies!

hal_rudnick_clifford_johnsonJust finished another enjoyable hour of chatting about movies and science with the Screen Junkies guys! You’ll recall the fun results of the last two (see here on Time Travel and here on Guardians of the Galaxy). We were talking about… wait for it… Interstellar! Their legions of fans have been shouting at them to do something about the science in Interstellar for weeks now, and they heard them, and called me in to chat. In the course of an hour we talked about a lot of fun things, but remember – they’ll cut it all down to 5 minutes or so, and so we won’t get to a lot of things. I do not know what bits will be used… (It will be different from my spoiler-free recent Interstellar discussion.)

In my previous visits there I’d never got to see the famous Screen Junkies wall in front of which they have conducted so many fun interviews (see their site […] Click to continue reading this post

Podcast on “Beyond the University”

That podcast from the Bedrosian Center series that I contributed to is now live! I mentioned it here, remember, and talked a bit about the book we discussed, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, by Michael S. Roth. In the discussion I chatted with the Center’s Director Raphael Bostic, who also hosts, Deborah Natoli, and David Sloane, all in the USC Price School of Public Policy. It was a fun discussion, and I hope you find it interesting and useful. As I said in the previous post:

It is by no means a perfect book, as we discuss in the podcast, but it is in my view a book that is worth reading since it lays out rather nicely the history of the conversation that has been going on about this issue in America dating back to Jefferson and before. This is, to my mind, a conversation we will always need to have, an issue that is self-renewing and that has to be revisited, and we should all be part of it whether we are educators, parents, students, potential students, or employers. (Frankly, I think every new faculty member at a university that claims to be giving a liberal education should be given a copy of this book (or a book like it) in their arrival package. Existing faculty as well, if possible! Why? To get everyone involved in education thinking about the point of what it is they are doing, if nothing else.)

The podcast can be found on Soundcloud, iTunesU, and iTunes podcasts, but I’ll point to it on the Center’s page here since there are other […]

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