Advising on Genius: Helping Bring a Real Scientist to Screen

Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you about this for some time, but I’ve been distracted by many other things. Last year I had the pleasure of working closely with the writers and producers on the forthcoming series on National Geographic entitled “Genius”. (Promotional photo above borrowed from the show’s website.)The first season, starting on Tuesday, is about Einstein – his life and work. It is a ten episode arc. I’m going to venture that this is a rather new kind of TV show that I really hope does well, because it could open the door to longer more careful treatments of subjects that usually are considered too “difficult” for general audiences, or just get badly handled in the short duration of a two-hour movie.

Since reviews are already coming out, let me urge you to keep an open mind, and bear in mind that the reviewers (at the time of writing) have only seen the two or three episodes that have been sent to them for review. A review based on two or three episodes of a series like this (which is more like a ten hour movie – you know how these newer forms of “long form TV” work) is akin to a review based on watching the first 25-35 minutes of a two hour film. You can get a sense of tone and so forth from such a short sample, but not much can be gleaned about content to come. So remember that when the various opinion pieces appear in the next few weeks.

So… content. That’s what I spent a lot of time helping them with. I do this sort of thing for movies and TV a lot, as you know, but this was a far […] Click to continue reading this post

Quick Oceanside Art…

So an unexpected but very welcome message from my publisher a while back was a query to see if I’d be interested in doing the cover for my forthcoming book. Of course, the answer was a very definite yes! (I knew that publishers often want to control that aspect of a book themselves, and while some time ago I made a deliberately vague suggestion about what I thought the cover might be like, I was careful not to try to insert myself into that aspect of production, so this was a genuine surprise.) I’m focusing on physics research during this part of my sabbatical, so this would have to be primarily an “after hours” sort of operation, but should not take long since I had a clear idea of what to do. I worked up two or three versions of an idea and sent it along to see that they liked where I was going and once they picked one (happily, the one I liked most) I set it aside as a thing to work on once I got finished with a paper (see last post) and the (prep for as well as the actual) trip East to give a physics colloquium (see the post I never got around to doing about that trip).

Then I had terrible delays on the way back that cost me the better part of an extra day getting back. So I worked up some of the nearly final art and layout […] Click to continue reading this post

News from the Front, XIII: Holographic Heat Engines for Fun and Profit

I put a set of new results out on to the arxiv recently. They were fun to work out. They represent some of my continued fascination with holographic heat engines, those things I came up with back in 2014 that I think I’ve written about here before (here and here). For various reasons (that I’ve explained in various papers) I like to think of them as an answer waiting for the right question, and I’ve been refining my understanding of them in various projects, trying to get clues to what the question or questions might be.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I seem to have got into the habit of using 21st Century techniques to tackle problems of a 19th Century flavour! The title of the paper is “Approaching the Carnot limit at finite power: An exact solution”. As you may know, the Carnot engine, whose efficiency is the best a heat engine can do (for specified temperatures of exchange with the hot and cold reservoirs), is itself not a useful practical engine. It is a perfectly reversible engine and as such takes infinite time to run a cycle. A zero power engine is not much practical use. So you might wonder how close a real engine can come to the Carnot efficiency… the answer should be that it can come arbitrarily close, but most engines don’t, and so people who care about this sort of thing spend a lot of time thinking about how to design special engines that can come close. And there are various arguments you can make for how to do it in various special systems and so forth. It’s all very interesting and there’s been some important work done.

What I realized recently is that my old friends the holographic heat engines are a very good tool for tackling this problem. Part of the reason is that the underlying working substance that I’ve been using is a black hole (or, if you prefer, is defined by a black hole), and such things are often captured as exact […] Click to continue reading this post

BBC CrowdScience SXSW Panel!

They recorded one of the panels I was on at SXSW as a 30 minute episode of the BBC World Service programme CrowdScience! The subject was science and the movies, and it was a lot of fun, with some illuminating exchanges, I had some fantastic co-panellists: Dr. Mae Jemison (the astronaut, doctor, and chemical engineer), Professor Polina Anikeeva (she researches in materials science and engineering at MIT), and Rick Loverd (director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange), and we had an excellent host, Marnie Chesterton. It has aired now, but in case you missed it, here is a link to the site where you can listen to our discussion.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Some Panellists…

SXSW panel groupMy quick trip to South by Southwest was fruitful, and fun. I was in three events. This* was the group for the panel that was hosted by Rick Loverd, who directs the Science and Entertainment Exchange. We had lots of great discussion about Science in Film, TV, and other entertainment media: – Why it is important to make films more engaging with richer storytelling, to help build broader familiarity with science and scientists, and so on. There were insights from both sides of the “aisle”: I spoke about what the kind of work I do in this area, coming from the science side of things and Samantha Corbin-Miller and Stephany Folsom discussed things form their points of view of writers of TV and Film. (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I’d recently (last Summer) looked at Stephany’s work in detail: She wrote the upcoming movie Thor: Ragnarok, and I had studied and written notes on the screenplay and met with the production team and director to give them some help […] Click to continue reading this post

Upcoming Panels at SXSW

(Image credit: I borrowed this image from the SXSW website.)

It seems that even after finishing the manuscript of the graphic book and turning it in to the publisher*, I can’t get away from panels. It’s a poor pun, to help make an opening line – I actually mean a different sort of panel. I’ll be participating in two (maybe three) of them this Saturday at the South By SouthWest event in Austin, Texas. I’ll give you details below, and if you happen to be around, come and see us! This means that I’ll not get to see any of the actual conference itself since two (maybe three) events is enough to wipe out most of the day, and then I jump on a plane back to LA.

They’re about Science and the media. I’ll be talking about the things I’ve […] Click to continue reading this post

Sandwich Bag Graffiti

A little while back, toward the end of December last year, I did a long stretch of days where I needed to change my routine a bit to take advantage of a window of time that came up that I could use for pushing forward on the book. I was falling behind and desperately needed to improve my daily production rate of finished art in order to catch up. So, I ended up ditching making a sandwich in the morning, instead leaving very soon after getting up to head to my office. I then stopped taking my sandwich altogether when I ran out of bread and did not make the time in the evening to bake a fresh batch, as I do once a week or so, because I was just coming back home and falling into bed.

The USC catering outlets were all closed that week. This meant that I ended up seeking out a place to buy a sandwich near my office. I found a place […] Click to continue reading this post


Hands have become almost as important as faces for helping communicate both ideas and emotions in the book. I’ve become a fan of constructing hands in various positions. In fact, I like it to an almost perverse degree, some might think, especially given how little people might even look at them. But then again, I’m known for actually enjoying -even looking forward to- dentist visits, so maybe this was predictable.

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

Another Signing!

Now here’s an interesting coincidence! I came on to write a post about something I did earlier today – signing a contract for publishing The Book, with an exciting new publisher(!) – and then I was reminded of a post I did here exactly two years ago: it was about signing a contract with the previous publisher (who I later parted ways with – see this post).

Anyway, I had a picture in that post (have a look) of me signing the actual paper contract (in triplicate) that had been sent over the ocean on nice paper by pony and so forth, and then I sent it back over the ocean by return pony, and then a countersigned copy was sent over again by yet another pony… Instead, all I have to show you (above) is a screen shot of the electronic signing process I did this morning. Minutes later the countersigned version came back and all was done.

Anyway, in brief, because I should be working on the book (trying to finish a remarkable four pages of art today in one long 15 hour session in the office…), the back story is as follows: […] Click to continue reading this post


The connector between the blog and Facebook and twitter has been broken and I’ve not been able to make the time to fix it. It looks like I might have to install a whole new system and I’ve not found one that works as well as the old (now unsupported) one, so that’s (partly) why I’ve not posted any updates on anything much. Also, I’ve been very focussed on trying to do more on the book with even less time than I’d planned for the final months on it. (The reasons for the less are actually positive, but […] Click to continue reading this post