So here’s a funny thing. I had to renew my driver’s licence the other day, in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). It was time to get a new picture and have my eyes tested. Somehow, because I’ve not found time to get to the optometrist for some time beyond when I was due, the ‘eyes tested’ part began to worm its way into my mind. What is the standard? (I could not recall from last time, it has been so long.) What if my vision is not as clear as it should be? Will they withhold the renewal? With recent events at home, this is the worst time to not have a license, etc. This all began as a low murmur in my mind but it steadily rose in amplitude as I got to the DMV, waited in the appointment line, got my waiting ticket, and sat down to meet my assigned official.

I actually love sitting in places in DMVs for while. (I know, it is weird. I also like dentist’s visits, although for different reasons, but that’s another story. You get it – I’m odd, let’s move on…) There’s something about the slice of life one gets in such places where almost everyone, regardless of walk of life, has to go at some point. There are all sorts of people, interactions, arrangements of workspaces, fascinating little stations for different functions, and signs, endless signs hanging on walls and from ceilings reminding people of things, reminding me of little village post offices in Britain. …It is all very interesting, and full of sketching opportunities. I prepared to get out my notebook and a pen. But then I noticed the set up for eye testing. There were charts up above each group of DMV office stations. They seemed very close to where the applicant would stand, so I imagined there was some arrangement with mirrors I could not yet see that would make them be visually further away. Surely.


I need not have worried, on two counts. The first is that the letters are remarkably, (almost ridiculously, it seemed to my worried mind) close. The second is hilarious to me. As you can see from the Click to continue reading this post

dublab at LAIH

(Click for larger view.)

Mark (“Frosty”) McNeill gave us a great overview of the work of the dublab collective at last Friday’s LAIH luncheon. As I said in my introduction:

… dublab shows up as part of the DNA of many of the most engaging live events around the City (at MOCA, LACMA, Barnsdall, the Hammer, the Getty, the Natural History Museum, the Hollywood Bowl… and so on), and dublab is available in its core form as a radio project any time you like if you want to listen online.

[…] dublab is a “non-profit web radio collective devoted to the growth of  positive music, arts and culture.”

Frosty is a co-founder of dublab, and he told us a bit about its history, activities, and their new wonderful project called “Sound Share LA” which will be launching soon: They are creating a multimedia archive of Los Angeles based Click to continue reading this post

Simulated meets Real!

And by way of explanation, here’s an extract from a public Facebook post I did with details…

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.)

I asked Eddie Redmayne whether he enjoyed learning some of the physics that he had to talk about as part of his role. He said that it was mostly over his head, but that he had some good help from a former student of Stephen Hawking’s who is at Imperial College. I’m wondering who 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

Coming Along Nicely, Broadly Speaking

Coming soon next to one of my favourite buildings…


Probably a new favourite building, the Broad Museum for Comtemporary Art. (Click for larger image.) It has been a while since I’ve been down there during the day (mostly been at Disney Concert Hall (on the right) at nights the last few months, for concerts) and so I was happy to pass by it yesterday on a Click to continue reading this post

Has Hubble found the Culprit?

Recall that some years ago the Hubble telescope found a rude message in the sky:

Carina Hubble Image

It is said that many were offended by this sign. Some even thought it may have been left by their God as a sort of crude final message for those seeking meaning in the skies. Other, perhaps less imaginative people just figured it’s a random combination of shapes people are projecting onto.

Well, after much more searching through the sky for the perpetrator of the crime, it seems that the Hubble instrument may have caught a suspect on camera:
A smiling lens

Of course, until the entity is brought in for questioning, it should be granted the presumption of innocence. (And even if it was its hand, it may have all been a big celestial misunderstanding…)


P.S. The first NASA/ESA Hubble image is from a detail of gas clouds in the Carina nebula, and more can be found out about it here.

In the second NASA/ESA Hubble image the arcs of a circle that form the “head” shape are actually a gravitational lensing effect. 100 years ago this year Einstein published his General Relativity which shows, among other things, 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 the 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

Experiments with Colour

Well, that was interesting! I got a hankering to experiment with pastels the other day. I am not sure why. Then I remembered that I had a similar urge some years ago but had not got past the phase of actually investing in a few bits of equipment. So I dug them out and found a bit of time to experiment. pastel_experiment_18_jan_2015_small It is not a medium I’ve really done anything in before and I have a feeling it is a good additional way of exploring technique, and feeling out colour design for parts of the book later on. Who knows? Anyway, all I know is that without my regular subway sketches and so forth, I’m likely to get very rusty, so I need drawing practice whenever I can get a moment between my childcare duties. This was an excuse to get some while trying something new. I can report that it is a lot of fun, and will likely be useful later on… It is a great compliment to the colour I use in my sketchbook: Mostly watercolour pencil (flowed on the page with water brush), and occasionally just coloured ink pens. See e.g. here and here.

(What you see is unfinished – I don’t know if I will finish it. The lady is from a photo in a magazine ad. These are pastel pencils as opposed to raw pastels.)


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

A Contract With…

Good News Everyone!


The other day I put my signature on a contract to publish The Book!! Some of you might know about my somewhat unusual book project. It is a graphic book, written and drawn by me, all about science. Please tell your friends about it, especially the ones who think that the standard popular science book is not for them. This is very much not the standard popular science book, precisely because I want to broaden the range of people who read about science. The graphic book form has been stunningly underused in my field (physics) and I want that to change.

I used to say “graphic novel style book”, but because of the (well known) problematic naming convention for the form, I’m trying to stay away from that term, because people get confused about what the book is. (Not a novel, for example.) Anyway, it is a highly unusual project that I’ve been excited about for some time, and blogging about from time to time. The last year has seen me doing less on production and more on trying to explore the publishing world to get it in print. (I really do mean printed on actual paper, or I’d have explored other options by now: The self-publishing world has matured interestingly, I’ve discovered in my researches.)

That venture into the world of dealing with publishers turned out to be a huge adventure I ought to write a book about… All I will say here is beware of pitching too original an idea to traditional publishing people. If they can’t Click to continue reading this post

New Live Model!

Sorry I’ve been quiet here the last week. I was busy with helping complete the acquisition of a new drawing subject! Within 24 hours of said acquisition, I found a few minutes to do a quick pencil sketch of him (as it turned out) in my notebook, through my profound lack-of-sleep fog. (I did a little bit of extra chiaroscuro finish work on it later on.)


This is a whole new challenge, since: (1) his physical features are of course quite different in proportion to the usual grown-up faces I often draw, (2) when he is actually still enough to draw, I really ought to (2a) be catching up on 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!


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