Ships and Knobs…

[Extract from some of my babble that night:] “…”science advisor” which is such a confusing and misunderstood term. Most people think of us (and use us) as fact-checkers, and while I DO do that, it is actually the least good use of a scientist in the service of story-telling. As fact-checkers, usually engaged late in the process of a film being made, we’re just tinkering at the edges of an already essentially completed project. It is as if the main ship that is the movie has been built, has the journey planned out, and the ship has maybe even sailed, and we’re called in to spend an hour or two discussing whether the cabin door handles should be brass or chrome finish…” [I went on to describe how to help make better ships, sent on more interesting journeys..]

Photo from here. Original FB version of this post here. Click to continue reading this post

Speed Dating for Science!

youtubespace panelLast night was amusing. I was at the YouTubeLA space with 6 other scientists from various fields, engaging with an audience of writers and other creators for YouTube, TV, film, etc.

It was an event hosted by the Science and Entertainment Exchange and Youtube/Google, and the idea was that we each had seven minutes to present in seven successive rooms with different audiences in each, so changing rooms each seven minutes.

Of course, early on during the planning conference call for the event, one of the scientists asked why it was not more efficient to simply have one large […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies: Science and Jurassic World

So the episode I mentioned is out! It’s a lot of fun, and there’s so very much that we talked about that they could not fit into the episode. See below. It is all about Jurassic World – a huge box-office hit. movie_science_screen_shotIf you have not seen it yet, and don’t want specific spoilers, watch out for where I write the word spoilers in capitals, and read no further. If you don’t even want my overall take on things without specifics, read only up to where I link to the video. Also, the video has spoilers. I’ll embed the video here, and I have some more thoughts that I’ll put below.

One point I brought up a bit (you can see the beginning of it in my early remarks) is the whole business of the poor portrayal of science and scientists overall in the film, as opposed to in the original Jurassic Park movie. In the original, putting quibbles over scientific feasibility aside (it’s not a documentary, remember!), you have the “dangers of science” on one side, but you also have the “wonders of science” on the other. This includes that early scene or two that still delight me (and many scientists I know – and a whole bunch who were partly inspired by the movie to go into science!) of how genuinely moved the two scientist characters (played by Laura Dern and Sam Neil) are to see walking living dinosaurs, the subject of their life’s work. Right in front of them. Even if you’re not a scientist, you immediately relate to that feeling. It helps root the movie, as does that fact that pretty much all the characters are fleshed […] Click to continue reading this post

On-Screen Fun…

trevor_hal_cvj_screen_junkiesWell, yesterday afternoon was fun! I was at the studios of the people who bring you Screen Junkies, Honest Trailers, and other film-related entertainment. Why? We were recording another fun conversation concerning science at the movies! The new episode will be released on Thursday at 10:00am, and so check back here or go over to the Screen Junkies channel for updates. What’s the subject? Well, I’ll let you guess which huge movie (in theatres near you right now) we discussed – wait until Thursday to find out for sure! (There’s a major clue in the photo.)

The great thing about all of this is that I got to hang out with Hal Rudnick (the host – who was as funny as always – he’s in the centre of the photo), Trevor Valle* (I’ve not seen him in a while so it was good to catch up!) who was my […] 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

Tales from the Industry XXXXI – Puppet Black Hole

Yeah. Not sure how to best title this post or fully explain the picture [edit: Picture taken down temporarily until the show is ready to be promoted]. Let’s just say that I spent a bit of this afternoon explaining some of the science of the Large Hadron Collider to a bright orange puppet that was determined to not believe whatever I told him/it. It was fun, and was done to camera at Los Angeles Center Studios downtown. (I was actually speaking about things that intersect with the subject of yesterday’s post, if you’re interested.) It is for a new show on a channel that I can’t mention yet*, and I’ll let you know as soon as I know what the air date is, etc.

Well, one more thing, in support of the old “It’s a small world after all” saying. I noticed from the call sheet that this morning they were shooting a fun segment that was hosted by my friend Hal Rudnick the host of Screen Junkies! (Have a look at some of the science-meets-movies things we’ve done together here, here and here.) Also, a friend I’d not seen in […] Click to continue reading this post

Earth Not Swallowed!

So, here we are. Still in existence. Hurrah!

cern_LHC_tunnelThe Large Hadron Collider (image right is courtesy of CERN) started a new phase of experimental work today, colliding particles at double the energy it was working at a few years back when the Higgs was discovered. By time I was making breakfast and checking email, their live blog, etc., this morning, it was clear that (contrary to fears expressed by some) the LHC had not created a black hole that swallowed the earth, nor had it created some sort of strange chunk of new vacuum that condensed that of the entire universe into a new phase. (Or if it did either of those things, the effects are hardly noticeable!!)

As I keep emphasising (actually I’ll be talking about this to a puppet character on a TV show tomorrow too – details later) the LHC (or any of the particle collision experiments we’ve ever done) is not doing anything that Nature does not do routinely right here at earth (and most times way more violently and […] Click to continue reading this post

‘t Hooft on Scale Invariance…

Worth a read: This is ‘t Hooft’s summary (link is a pdf) of a very interesting idea/suggestion about scale invariance and its possible role in finding an answer to a number of puzzles in physics. (It is quite short, but think I’ll need to read it several times and mull over it a lot.) It won the top Gravity Research foundation essay prize this year, and there were several other interesting essays in the final list too. See here.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Field Trip – Parks and Recreation

Last Friday’s luncheon for the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities had a double treat. First, it was a field trip to another interesting and exciting Los Angeles space – Clockshop/Elysian, down near the river in Frogtown. Clockshop is a wonderful arts organisation whose concerns fit very neatly with many of ours: From their website:

Clockshop is a multifaceted arts organization that works at the intersection of politics, urban space, and cultural production to explore the forces that shape our lived environment. We program events and screenings, and produce artist projects and conversations. […]

Elysian is an excellent restaurant, the main space where Clockshop events are held, and we were served splendid lunch there while Clockshop director Julia Meltzer told us a little about Clockshop.
LAIH_clockshop_1 [click for larger view]

The second treat was a talk (over coffee and cookies) by Jon Christensen (editor of Boom) entitled “A Century Beyond John Muir: A 21st Century Vision for California Parks”, detailing a project to rejuvenate, expand (and enhance the awareness […] Click to continue reading this post

In Case You Wondered…

Dear visitor who came here (perhaps) after visiting the panel I participated in on Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books. (“Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”) What a fun discussion! Pity we ran out of time before we really began to explore connections, perhaps inspired by more audience questions.

In any event, in case you wondered why I was not signing books at the end at the designated signing area, I thought I’d write this note. I was given the option to do so, but the book that I currently have out is a specialist monograph, and I did not think there’s be much demand for it at a general festival such as the one on the weekend. (Feel free to pick up a copy if you wish, though. It is called “D-Branes”, and it is here.)

The book I actually mentioned during the panel, since it is indeed among my current attempts to grasp the “ineffable” of the panel title, is a work in progress. (Hence my variant of the “under construction” sign on the right.) It is a graphic book (working title “The Dialogues”) pitched at a general audience that explores a lot of contemporary physics topics in an unusual way. It is scheduled for publication in 2017 by Imperial College Press. You can find out much more about it here.

Feel free to visit this blog for updates on how the book progresses, and of course lots of other topics and conversations too (which you are welcome to join).

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

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!

Click to continue reading this post

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!

-cvj 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

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.)

[…] Click to continue reading this post

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