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!

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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

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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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Interstellar Discoveries

I’m a fan of Chris Nolan’s work so I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar. I’ve also been fascinated by the McConaussance – the transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor of considerable stature in a series of excellent films (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, etc…), so I’ve been doubly interested in seeing how he works in a film under Nolan’s direction. Same for the always amazing Casey Affleck. All quite exciting to see.

But then to my surprise it turns out there’s another reason to be interested. Kip Thorne. Some years ago, at a party when I last saw him, Kip told me that he had been working on some film or other with a major studio, but I did not know of the details. Then I ran into a mutual friend a couple of months ago who said something a long the lines of “Kip’s movie is coming out soon…”, and I learned that it was something to do with Interstellar! But I did not know any details.

Then I got sent* this Wired story, and then** this story, and I finally got around to looking. The Wired story has a lot of interesting detail, including a special film (that I ought to look at at) with interviews and behind the scenes material (the still to the right is a screen shot from it). still_from_interstellar_wiredThe film will apparently feature a black hole and a wormhole in some way (I don’t want to know more – I like films to unfold in front of me in the theatre). Kip has been working with the visual effects people to get right exactly how such objects really look, an issue that has not really been fully addressed, it seems. He, like a number of us interested in science and film, is keen to help filmmakers really do a good job of representing some of these fascinating objects as accurately as possible. (Not, in my view, in order to stifle filmmakers’ imagination, as it so often seems when you hear scientists out there pontificating about what’s wrong in one film or another, but because the actual science is so very often far more interesting and full of delights and possibility than a visual effects kluge can be…) So apparently he wrote down […] Click to continue reading this post

Reading Storm…

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 09.55.07For a while back there earlier this week I was in a storm of reading duties of the sort that I hope not to see again in a while. A lot of it had to be put off at the end of the week before because I wanted to prepare my talk for Sunday, which took a little more time than I’d planned since I wanted to do some drawings for it. All of it had a deadline. Monday was to see me participating in a podcast at the USC Bedrosian Center to discuss the book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, by Michael S. Roth. I had the book for about six weeks, and started reading it when I first got it… but found that I was getting through it too fast too early and wanted to have it fresher in my mind for the podcast, so I held off until closer to the date. Unfortunately, this then clashed with two promotion dossiers that got scheduled for a Tuesday meeting, both from book-heavy fields, and so that added three books on language, representation, business and history (tangled up in a fascinating way) that I can’t tell you about since the proceedings of the relevant committee are confidential. Then I remembered that a Ph.D. thesis exam had been moved from the previous week to that same Tuesday (and I had put off the reading) and so I had a thesis to read as well. (Not to mention all the dossier letters, statements, committee reports, and so forth that come from reading two promotion dossiers…)

A lot of the reading is also fun, but it’s certainly hard work and one is reading while taking careful notes for later reference, in a lot of the instances. I always end up surprising myself with how much fun I have learning about topics far beyond my field when I read promotions dossiers for other areas. I’m certainly not an expert (and that is not why I’m called into service in such cases) so I’m reading with an eye on seeing what the quality of scholarship is, and what the voice of the person writing is like. These are things that (if you are not of the tedious point of view that your own field of inquiry is somehow king of the disciplines (a view we physicists all too often seem to have)) can be glimpsed and sometimes firmly perceived by wading deep into the pool of their work and keeping an open mind.

I strongly recommend the Roth book about what the point […] Click to continue reading this post

I Dare!

sunday_assembly_3(Click photos* for larger view)

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

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

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

Secrets of the Earth

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

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

Sunday Assembly – Origin Stories

Sorry about the slow posting this week. It has been rather a busy time the last several days, with all sorts of deadlines and other things taking up lots of time. This includes things like being part of a shooting of a new TV show, writing and giving a midterm to my graduate electromagnetism class, preparing a bunch of documents for my own once-every-3-years evaluation (almost forgot to do that one until the last day!), and so on and so forth.

Well, the other thing I forgot to do is announce that I’ll be doing the local Sunday Assembly sermon (for want of a better word) this coming Sunday. I’ve just taken a step aside from writing it to tell you about it. You’ll have maybe heard of Sunday Assembly since it has been featured a lot in the news as a secular alternative (or supplement) to a Sunday Church gathering, in many cities around the world (more here). Instead of a sermon they have someone come along and talk about a topic, and they cover a lot of interesting topics. They sound like a great bunch of people to hang out with, and I strongly [..] Click to continue reading this post

On the Road, with Whiskey…

I’m on the road. I gave a seminar at the University of Michigan yesterday, and spent the working day chatting with various physicists at the department there, exchanging ideas, catching up on what people are up to, etc. The seminar itself went ok. I’ve been talking about extended gravitational thermodynamics, the subject of all my papers so far this year. I think I paced things a bit poorly (trying to squeeze in results from two papers while at the same time being pedagogical about the basic material since it is not familiar to most), so had to rush at the end, but I got the main points in. Lots of good questions.

At the end of the day, I was pleasantly surprised by the offer of whiskey in the break room. Apparently it is a Friday tradition. I began to wonder, and made some inquiries and found out to my delight that it is a direct decendant of a tradition that I (co-) started back in the mid-90s in Santa Barbara!

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It was a long time ago, so I am hazy on who the core people were who regularly kept […] Click to continue reading this post

STEM Keynote

keynote_at_stem_divide_cvjAs I mentioned, a couple of Saturdays ago I gave the keynote address at a one-day conference designed to introduce STEM Careers to underrepresented students from various neighboring schools. The event* was co-sponsored by the Level Playing Field Institute, but sadly the details of it seem to have vanished from their site now that the event has passed, which is unfortunate. It was good to see a room full of enthusiastic students wanting to learn more about such careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and I tried to give some thoughts about some of the reasons that there’s such poor representation by people of color (the group I was asked to focus on, although I mentioned that many of my remarks also extended to women to some extent) in such fields, and what can be done about it. Much of my focus, as you can guess from the issues I bring up here from time to time, was on battling the Culture: The perception people have of who “belongs” and who does not, and how that perception makes people act, consciously or otherwise, the images we as a society present and perpetuate in our media and in our conversations and conventions throughout everyday life, and so on. I used my own experience as an example at various points, which may or may not have been helpful – I don’t know.

My experience, in part and in brief, is this: I went a long way into being excited […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies Chat: Guardians of the Galaxy

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.13.03 PMYou may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Meanwhile, Somewhere Down South…

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

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

And Back…

subway_sketches_27_08_2014It is a new semester, and a new academic year. So this means getting back into the routine of lots of various aspects of the standard professor gig. For me this also involves being back in LA and taking the subway, and so this means getting (when it is not too busy as it seems to get a lot now) to sketch people. The guy with the red sunglasses was on his way to USC as well, and while he was reading or playing a game on his phone (such things are a blessing to sketchers… they help people hold in a fixed position for good stretches of time) I was able to get a quick sketch done in a few stops on the Expo line before we all got off. The other guy with the oddly trimmed beard was just briefly seen on the Red line, and so I did not get to make much of him…

I’m teaching electromagnetism at graduate level again this semester, and so it ought to be fun, given that it is such a fun topic. I hope that the group of […] Click to continue reading this post

Making and Baking….

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

Mountain Sketch

I went for a little hike on Sunday. Usually when I’m here visiting at the Aspen Center for Physics I go on several hikes, but this year it looks like I will only do one, and a moderate one at that. I had a bit of a foot injury several weeks ago, so don’t want to put too much stress on it for a while. If you’ve looked at the Aspen Center film (now viewable on YouTube!) you’ll know from some of the interviews that this is a big component of many physicist’s lives while at the Center. I find that it is nice to get my work to a point where I can step back from a calculation and think a bit more broadly about the physics for a while. A hike is great for that, and in all likelihood one comes back from the hike with new ideas and insights (as happened for me on this hike – more later)… maybe even an idea for a new calculation.

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So I took the bus up to the Maroon Bells and hiked up to Crater Lake and a bit beyond into the West Maroon Valley, hunting a few wildflowers. I will share some pictures of those later. (I’ve heard that they are great up at Buckskin pass, and I was tempted to push on up to there, but I resisted the temptation.) I brought along several pens, watercolour pencils, and a water brush (for the watercolour pencils) because I’d decided that I would do some sketches at various points… you know, really sit with the landscape and drink it in – in that […] Click to continue reading this post

Café Talk

cafe_sketch_27_06_14 Here’s a quick sketch I did while in Princeton last month, at a new café, Café Vienna. (See earlier posts here and here for sketches in an older Princeton Café. I’m using a thicker marker for this one, by contrast, giving a different feel altogether, more akin to this one.) This new café promises to recreate the atmosphere of the Cafés of Vienna and so I kind of had to have coffee there before I left. Why?

Well, two reasons, one obvious and the other less so: […] Click to continue reading this post

Triply Dyonic

dyon_phase_diagramsI thought I’d mentioned this already, but I could not find anything after a search on the blog so somehow I think I must have forgotten to. It is a cute thing about a certain favourite solution (or class of solutions) of Einstein’s equations that I’ve talked about here before. I’m talking about the Taub-NUT solution (and its cousin, Taub-Bolt). Taub-NUT is sort of interesting for lots of reasons. Many, in fact. One of them concerns it having both mass M and another parameter called “nut charge”, N. There are several ways to think about what nut charge is, but one curious way is that is is sort of a “magnetic” counterpart to the ordinary mass, which can be thought of as an “electric” quantity.

The language is based on analogy with electromagnetism, where, in the usual […] Click to continue reading this post

Hey, You…

page_extract_27_07_2014_2Today (Sunday) I devoted my work time to finishing an intensely complicated page. It is the main “establishing shot” type page for a story set in a Natural History Museum.

This is another “don’t do” if you want to save yourself time, since such a location results in lots of drawings of bones and stuffed animals and people looking at bones and stuffed animals. (The other big location “don’t do” from an earlier post was cityscapes with lots of flashy buildings with endless windows to draw. :) )

Perhaps annoyingly, I won’t show you the page_extract_27_07_2014_1 huge panels filled with such things, and instead show you a small corner panel of the type that people might not look at much (because there are no speech bubbles and so forth). This is seconds before our characters meet. A fun science-filled conversation will follow…(Yes these are the same characters from another story I’ve shown you extracts from.)

[Update: I suppose I ought to explain the cape? It is a joke. I thought I’d have a […] Click to continue reading this post

Pot Luck

pot_luck_25_04_14_6Here in Aspen there was a pleasant party over at the apartment of one of the visiting physicists this evening. I know it seems odd, but it has been a while since I’ve been at a party with a lot of physicists (I’m not counting the official dinners at the Strings conference a fews weeks back), and I enjoyed it. I heard a little about what some old friends were up to, and met some spouses and learned what they do, and so forth. For the first time, I think, I spoke at length to some curious physicists about the graphic book project, and the associated frustrating adventures in the publishing world (short version: most people love it, but they just don’t want to take a risk on an unusual project…), and they were excited about it, which was nice of them.

pot_luck_25_04_14_1It was a pot luck, and so although I was thinking I’d be tired and just take along a six-pack of beer, by lunchtime I decided that I’d make a little something and take it along. Then, as I tend to do, it became two little somethings…and I went and bought the ingredients at the supermarket nearby and worked down at the centre until later. Well, first I made a simple syrup from sugar and water and muddled and worried a lot of tarragon into it.

pot_luck_25_04_14_2 Then in the evening, there was a lot of peeling and chopping. This is usually one of my favourite things, but the knives in the apartment I am staying in are as blunt as sticks of warm butter, and so chopping was long and fretful. (And dangerous… don’t people realise that blunt knives are actually more dangerous than sharp ones?) […] Click to continue reading this post

74 Questions

open_questions_cvjHello from the Aspen Center for Physics. One of the things I wanted to point out to you last month was the 74 questions that Andy Strominger put on the slides of his talk in the last session of the Strings 2014 conference (which, you may recall from earlier posts, I attended). This was one of the “Vision Talks” that ended the sessions, where a number of speakers gave some overview thoughts about work in the field at large.

Andy focused mostly on progress in quantum gravity matters in string theory, and was quite upbeat. He declines (wisely) to make predictions about where the field might be going, instead pointing out (not for the first time) that if you look at the things we’ve made progress on in the last N years, most (if not all) of those things would not have been on anyone’s list of predictions N years ago. (He gave a specific value for N, I just can’t recall what it is, but it does not matter.)

He sent an email to everyone who was either speaking, organising, moderating a session or similarly involved in the conference, asking them to send, off the […] Click to continue reading this post

Fireworks!

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

It’s Dynamical Cosmological Constant Day!

airline_sketch_28_06_2014As you may know from three previous recent posts on research (here, here, and here), I’ve been thinking and calculating a lot in the area of dynamical cosmological constant – concerning mostly (but not entirely) thermodynamics and quantum gravity. Specifically, the cosmological constant becomes the pressure variable in the thermodynamics. I think it is important, and will teach us something about things like gauge/gravity duality, string theory, black holes, and perhaps even cosmology, but I am not sure what yet. I’ve made some suggestions in recent papers, and computed some interesting things along the way.

Anyway, the larger community has not been following this story much, since: (1) It means a break with some powerful and still very fruitful frameworks where the cosmological constant being fixed is a given – like AdS/CFT – and it is not clear what that means yet, so the motivation is not super-strong; and (2) Let’s be honest, there’s no superstar working on it, so it is not going to get anyone any points. So I’ve been trying to shout about it in my little way from the periphery, as I think it might be useful, and since several people have been doing really good and interesting work on this issue for many years and it is worth more people seeing what they’ve been up to.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I looked on the listing of new papers on the arXiv for today and saw three (!) papers on the subject, moving things forward in various ways. (They all seem to have noticed some of what I’ve […] Click to continue reading this post

Strings Talks

20140627-080640-29200119.jpgThe conference is really rather good, with a varied program involving topics and speakers from all over the map. This includes the parallel sessions we had on Wednesday, which were held down at the Institute. Those were a lot of fun, because of the dodging back and forth between different auditoria at the IAS to get to talks of interest. I was chairing one of the sessions, and so did not get to dodge about in the first 90 minutes, and had to miss some interesting talks, but did a little talk-surfing in the second 90 after the break.

It had been many years ago now since I began to talk about there being a need for parallel sessions at strings conferences. Some people would object to them, saying that it would somehow be damaging to the field’s connected nature, where everyone is following many strands and topics in the field. To me that concern was always balanced by the problem of only having a small cluster of people and ideas represented each year due to the constraints of only having five days to present the activity of such a diverse population of researchers in the field. The main objection to having parallel sessions were, to my mind, based on a view of the field left over from when the field was smaller in terms of both people and thriving ideas. I think the conference organizers this year found a way of combining the two models rather well, with the single afternoon of parallel sessions, along with well chosen sets of half hour talks for the main sessions where we all sit together, roughly grouped by themes. There were three one hour big marquee plenary/summary talks. Theses are really useful. If I were to make a change, I’d perhaps have four or five of those, putting the two half hour talks that were displaced into the parallel section.

There is a two hour session of “Vision Talks” this afternoon. Should be interesting to hear what is said. We will perhaps get some good discussion going about where various ideas may be headed. I hope there is a lot of audience participation.

Poster sessions and the “gong show” were also great things to have as part of […] Click to continue reading this post