Ship Building

agent_carter_team_cvj_aug_2015Last week it was a pleasure to have another meeting with writers, producers, VFX people, etc., from the excellent show Agent Carter! (Photo -click for larger view- used with permission.) I’ve been exchanging ideas about some science concepts and designs that they’re using as springboards for their story-telling and world-building for the show. I can tell you absolutely nothing except that I’m confident that season 2 is going to be really great!

(Season 1, if you’ve not already seen it, is also great. Go get it on your favourite on-demand platform – I rapidly watched all eight episodes back in June to get up to speed so that I could be as useful as possible, and it was a pleasure. It is smart, funny, fresh and ground-breaking, and has a perfect Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies – Fantastic Science!

screen_junkies_fantastic_fourHere, as promised yesterday, is the fun conversation at Screen Junkies. I don’t need to say much, since much of what I wanted to talk about (extra dimensions, other laws of physics, parallel universes, etc) made it to the (awesomely cut, btw!) episode! Embed of video below.

Click to continue reading this post

Upcoming Screen Junkies Episode Alert!

hal_dan_cvj_screen_junkies_augustYes! As you can tell from the photograph, I’ve recorded another episode with the excellent folks at Screen Junkies, and again we’ll be trying to look at some science (or science-related) issues in a movie. That’s presenter Hal Rudnick on the left, and producer/editor/writer Dan Murrell in the middle. The episode will appear tomorrow (Thursday) at around ten am Pacific, and if even a fraction of the fun (and hopefully interesting) stuff we covered makes it to the final cut (we talk for a good amount of time and then it is edited down to something short, because, you know, it’s the internet), I’ll be pleased, since we covered a lot of interesting stuff.

I’m not going to tell you what movie we talk about, but I’ll say this. The idea was that this Click to continue reading this post

Compton Delight

compton_effectI forgot to mention that I saw some skywriting two days ago over Los Angeles that I took to be – of course – a celebration of the Compton effect. You know, when a photon scatters off a charged particle and loses energy? That. It’s so good to see physics being celebrated so exuberantly in the public sphere**.straight_outta_physics_2


**My wife, who I was with at the time, suggested to me that it was to do with someone called Dr. Dre, but I’m pretty sure that it was Dr. Compton who discovered that phenomenon, so I gently explained the discovery to her.

Parting Shot

Museo_historico_nacional_santiago_chileWednesday was my last day in Santiago, and so after the morning Plenary talks I checked out of my hotel, stored my bag, and, boarding the subway, melted into the city for a few hours. I was not on the lookout for anything in particular, besides a sense (even a little) of the city’s life and flow. I also had in mind to spend a few hours at some galleries/museums (I’d already seen the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino) on Monday night, and had a tour, as that’s where the conference reception was). I wanted to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Contemporaneo Artes) and Museum of Fine Arts (Museo de Bellas Artes), as well as the Museum of National History (Museo de Histórico Nacional), back in Plaza de Armaz, where I’d done that cafe and Post office sketch on Sunday. I also wanted to wander the streets and squares and just look at the people and buildings and goings on. And then I had to get back to the hotel at 6:45pm to grab my bag and jump into the taxi I’d ordered and head to the airport for my flight back to LA.

Well, I did pretty much all of those things, with no hiccups to speak of. I was a little annoyed that 95% of the Museum of Contemporary Art was taken up by a massive David LaChappelle retrospective – not because there isn’t something in his work one can find to like or at least be amused by (I had a good look around since I was there), but because it seemed ridiculous to have flown almost 1/3 the way around the planet to see an American artist’s work when what I wanted to see was work that was more local – but all turned out ok when in the Museum of Fine Art (the adjoining building in fact) I found a great deal of interesting contemporary (and other) art that was locally sourced. The buildings themselves were interesting to look at too, so that was a bonus.

On a nearby street (Monjitas), I found a great spot for lunch and people-watching, and the woman who I took to be the proprietor of the cafe (who took my order) decided to engage me in conversation for while. Since she had little Click to continue reading this post

Almost Done

So Tuesday night, I decided that it was imperative that I paid a visit to one really good restaurant (at least) before leaving Santiago. My duties at ICMP2015 were over, and I was tired, so did not want to go too far, but I’d heard there were good ones in the area, so I asked the main organizer and he made a recommendation.

imageIt was an excellent choice. One odd thing: the hotel is in two separate towers, and I’d noticed this upon arrival and started calling it The Two Towers in my mind for the time was there. Obviously, right? Well, anyway, the restaurant is right around the corner from it plus a two minute walk, and…. Wait for it…it is called Le Due Tonni, which translates into The Two Towers, but apparently it has nothing to do with my observation about the hotel, since it got that name from a sister restaurant in a different part of town, I am told. So… An odd coincidence.

I will spare you the details of what I had for dinner save to say that if you get the fettuccini con salmon you’re on to a sure thing, and to warn that you don’t end up accidentally ordering a whole bottle of wine instead of a glass of it because you’re perhaps used to over-inflated wine prices in LA restaurants (caught it before it was opened and so saved myself having to polish off a whole bottle on my own)… Another amusing note is that one of my problems with getting my rusty Spanish out for use only occasionally is that I get logjams in my head because vocabulary from Spanish, French, and Italian all come to me mid sentence and I freeze sometimes. I’d just been getting past doing that by Tuesday, but then got very confused in the restaurant at one point until I realized my waiter was, oddly, speaking to me in Italian at times. I still am not sure why.

It was a good conference to come to, I think, because I connected a tiny bit to communities of mathematical physicists I normally don’t see at more specialist conferences. The only drawback for me was that because I had to moderate most of the sessions in my area, I was not able to to any talks in other parallel sessions and snoop a bit into what’s going on in other areas, but even in our geometry and topology sessions there was variety, with talks about string theory issues right up alongside the mathematics of topological insulators, for example. Have a look at the icmp2015 website for more.

The gentleman in the sketch (click for larger view, but blurry due to hand held snap in low airport light) was one of a partly of cour sitting at the table just in front of mine, at a comfortable distance, so I got some good looks at him and entertained myself with a bit of drawing practice. (Perhaps also the waiters,since they had a station just behind my table and may well have been watching the progress…) I took a break from it from time to time so as not to make him suspicious or uncomfortable. I think I largely succeeded.


Existence Proof

imageThe picture is evidence that bug-free Skype seminars are possible! Well, I suppose it only captured an instant, and not the full hour’s worth of two separate bug-free talks each with their own Q&A, but that is what happened. The back story is that two of our invited speakers, Lara Anderson and James Gray, had flight delays that prevented them from arriving in Santiago on time and so I spent a bit of time (at the suggestion of my co-organizer Wati Taylor, who also could not make the trip) figuring out how we could save the schedule by having them give Skype seminars. (We already had to make a replacement elsewhere in the schedule since another of our speakers was ill and had to cancel his trip.)

Two Skype talks seemed a long shot back on Sunday when Wati had the idea, but after some local legwork on my part it gradually because more likely, and by lunchtime today I had the local staff fully on board with the idea and we tested it all and it worked!

It helps that you can send the whole of your computer screen as the video feed, and so the slides came out nicely (I’d originally planned a more complicated arrangement where we’d have the slides locally up of screen and I’d click through them for the remote speaker, perhaps watching their talk on another screen for cues, a solution that would need three separate computers … That would have been messy.) Come to think about it, given what we do routinely with video for entertainment now (remember that HD video you just watched on your device of a cat nursing baby chicks or whatever? Or just glance over at your Apple TV box or google dongle thingy…) it is my suspicion that the main reason everyone expects a Skype seminar to go wrong at some point is the memory of things we tried a decade or more ago and swore never to do any time soon…

So the afternoon 4:00pm session started with Lara’s and James’ talks given remotely. You can see Lara’s talk in progress in the picture, with a little picture of her in the corner there for the audience to put a face to the voice they can hear over the room’s PA system.

Anyway, my two days of moderator and session organizer duties are over. I can enjoy just listening to a few talks… And I may well be seen in a museum or two and a cafe or two around the city before I board my plane for the long ride home…



imageI’m in Santiago, Chile, for a short stay. My first thought, in a very similar thought process to the one I had over ten years ago in a similar context, is one of surprise as to how wonderfully far south of the equator I now am! Somehow, just like last time I was in chile (even further south in Valdivia), I only properly looked at the latitude on a map when I was most of the way here (due to being somewhat preoccupied with other things right up to leaving), and it is a bit of a jolt. You will perhaps be happy to know that I will refrain from digressions about the Coriolis force and bathtubs, hurricanes and typhoons, and the like.

I arrived too early to check into my hotel and so after leaving my bag there I went wandering for a while using the subway, finding a place to sit and have lunch and coffee while watching the world go by for a while. It happened to be at Plaza de Armaz. I sketched a piece of what I saw, and that’s what you see in the snap above. I think the main building I sketched is in fact the Central Post Office… And that is a bit of some statuary in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral to the left. I like that the main cathedral and post office are next to each other like that. And yes, Click to continue reading this post

Page Samples…!

second_set_samples_editThere’s something really satisfying about getting copies of printed pages back from the publisher. Makes it all seem a bit more real. This is a second batch of samples (first batch had some errors resulting from miscommunication, so don’t count), and already I think we are converging. The colours are closer to what I intended, although you can’t of course see that since the camera I used to take the snap, and the screen you are using, have made changes to them (I’ll spare you lots of mumblings about CMYK vs RGB and monitor profiles and various PDF formats and conventions and so forth) and this is all done with pages I redid to fit the new page sizes I talked about in the last post on the book project.

Our next step is to work on more paper choices, keeping in mind that this will adjust colours a bit again, and so forth – and we must also keep an eye on things like projected production costs and so forth. Some samples have been mailed to me and I shall get them next week. Looking forward to seeing them.

For those who care, the pages you can see have a mixture of digital colours (most of it in fact) and analogue colours (Derwent watercolour pencils, applied Click to continue reading this post

Ian McKellen on Fresh Air!

Ian McKellen twitter profile imageI had a major treat last night! While making myself an evening meal I turned on the radio to find Ian McKellen (whose voice and delivery I love so very much I can listen to him slowly reading an arbitrarily long list of random numbers) being interviewed by Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air. It was of course delightful, and some of the best radio I’ve enjoyed in a while (and I listen to a ton of good radio every day, between having either NPR or BBC Radio 4 on most of the time) since it was the medium at its simple best – a splendid conversation with an interesting, thoughtful, well-spoken person.

They also played and discussed a number of clips from his work, recent (I’ve been hugely excited to see Mr. Holmes, just released) and less recent (less well known delights such as Gods and Monsters -you should see it if you have not- and popular material like the first Hobbit film), and spoke at length about his private and public life and the intersection between the two, for example how his coming out as gay in 1988 positively affected his acting, and why…. There’s so much in that 35 minutes! Click to continue reading this post

Goodbye Nambu

nambu-gotoOne of the towering giants of the field, Yoichiro Nambu, passed away a short while ago, at age 94. He made a remarkably wide range of major (foundational) contributions to various fields, from condensed matter through particle physics, to string theory. His 2008 Nobel Prize was for work that was a gateway for other Nobel Prize-winning work, for example 2012’s Higgs particle work. He was an inspiration to us all. Here’s an excellent 1995 Scientific American piece (updated a bit in 2008) about him, which nicely characterises some of his style and contributions, with comments from several notable physicists. Here is a University of Chicago obituary, a Physics World one, one by Hirosi Ooguri, and one from the New York Times. There are several others worth reading too.

Since everyone is talking more about his wonderful work on symmetry-breaking (and rightly so), I’ve put up (on the board above) instead the Nambu-Goto action governing the motion of a relativistic string (written with a slight abuse of notation). This action, and its generalisations, is a cornerstone of string theory, and you’ll find it in pretty much every text on the subject. Enjoy.

Thank you, Professor Nambu.


To Fill a Mockingbird

baby_mocking_birds_1Meanwhile, here at the Aviary (as we’re calling the garden because of the ridiculously high level of bird activity there has been in the last few months) there has been some interesting news. Happy news, some would say. This is hard for me since it is all about my arch-nemesis (or one of them) the Mockingbird. Many hours of sleep have been damaged because of them (they do their spectacular vocal antics during both night and day – loudly), and there seems to be more and more of them each year. I’ve been known to go outside (in various stages of undress) in the wee hours of the morning and thrash long sticks at parts of trees to chase persistent offenders away.

Well, we’d noticed that a particular spot in a hedge was being visited regularly some weeks back, and guessed that there might be a nest in there. Then one day last week, two juvenile mockingbirds emerged, practicing their flying! I knew immediately what they were since they have the same markings, but their feathers still have those fluffy/downy clumpiness in places, and of course they were not nearly as acrobatic as their adult counterparts. They hung out on Click to continue reading this post


No expense spared on astronomy graphics here, you’ll notice. (This is the Pluto-less hanging mobile that amuses my son every morning when he wakes up. At least I think it is supposed to represent our Solar system in some vague way… in any case, it is a very pleasant object to look at for both him and me.)

Just in case you’ve not been following the exciting news, let me remind you to look out for the new information arriving from the New Horizons mission to Pluto. tn-p_lorri_fullframe_color The craft has done its closest approach now, and later tonight will start sending the best of the images and other data about the Pluto system. A huge amount has been learned already in the days leading up to today, as you can get a sense of by looking here. Earlier today, the lovely image to the right (credit: NASA/APL/SwRI – click for larger view) Click to continue reading this post

Marginal Activity

The last couple of weeks have seen me fiddling with another important task for the book: rethinking the page dimensions. This gets me into things like crop points, safe areas, bleeds, and so forth. It is sort of crucial that I worry about this now and not later because for the kind of book I am working on, every single page is a unique self contained entity that must be designed individually, while at the same time each page still depends on all the other pages to be just right. So a change in page dimensions is a huge deal in the process. This is not like writing large blocks of prose in the form of chapters and paragraphs, where the page dimensions are less crucial since your words will just flow and re-flow automatically to adjust to the new shape of container (the page), newly spilling over to the next page if need be. Instead, graphic elements -the drawings- all must work together on a number of different levels on the page, their relative positioning being crucial, and any text that is present must also respect that layout… In fact, text is really just another graphic element on the page, and is not as malleable as it is in a prose book.

sample_exp_iv (Random sample from a story I’ve just completed the roughs for in the new dimensions. You can see the red guide lines I work to in order to make sure that the page comes out fine at the printer, the inner being the “safe area” beyond which you don’t put any crucial elements like text in case they are cut off. The outer is the line where the page should end. Some of my pages have “bleeds” which means the art will flow all the way past that outer line so that when cropped that part of the page is covered entirely with art instead of it stopping due to a panel border…)

I say all this because it is an issue close to my heart right now. Back when I did all the art for the prototype story (some years ago now), and right up to last year, I did not yet have a publisher for the book, so therefore of course no idea what the final page dimensions might be. Different publishers have different favourites, print capabilities, and so forth. So I made the best decision Click to continue reading this post

Dune Love…

goodnight_dune_julia_yuI ran across two excellent Dune-related items in the last fews weeks, and since it is the 50th Anniversary of Frank Herbert’s book “Dune”, I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is on the really excellent website called Pornokitsch, which I’m delighted to introduce you to if you’ve not encountered it before. (Don’t worry about the name – they chose it ironically.) Bookmark it and repeatedly return for more. This piece on Dune was about the David Lynch film, really (and not too much about the book), which is always great to discuss with people since it inspires intense love and hate in people… sometimes both in the same person. I find it a decidedly flawed film with so many delightful charming oddities that I can’t help but enjoy it. A number of regulars weigh in Click to continue reading this post

Lost Treasure

very_rough_pageStill doing detailed layouts for the book. I’ve been working on a story for which I was sure that I’d done some rough layouts a long time ago that I really liked. But I could not find them at all, and resigned myself to having to do it again. There’s always that moment of hesitation where one is poised between just diving in and re-doing something, or spending more time searching… Which is the better strategy to save time? This time, I thought I’d do one last look, and started to dig around in my computer, hoping that maybe I’d had the sense to scan the sketches at some point – I vaguely recall having made a policy decision to scan developmental sketches whenever I could, for ease of Click to continue reading this post

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.


So far, the Summer has not been as brutal in the garden as it was last year. Let’s hope that continues. I think that late rain we had last month (or earlier this month?) helped my later planting get a good start too.

This snap of a sunflower was taken on a lovely warm evening in the garden the other day, after a (only slightly too) hot day…




Yesterday, an interesting thing happened while I was out in my neighbourhood walking my son for a good hour or more (covered, in a stroller – I was hoping he’d get some sleep), visiting various shops, running errands. Before describing it, I offer two bits of background information as (possibly relevant?) context. (1) I am black. (2) I live in a neighbourhood where there are very few people of my skin colour as residents. Ok, here’s the thing:

* * *

I’m approaching two young (mid-to-late teens?) African-American guys, sitting at a bus stop, chatting and laughing good-naturedly. As I begin to pass them, nodding a hello as I push the stroller along, one of them stops me.
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

Calling Shenanigans 

I hadn’t realized that I knew some of the journalists who were at the event at which Tim Hunt made his negative-stereotype-strengthening remarks. I trust their opinion and integrity quite a bit, and so I’m glad to hear reports from them about what they witnessed. This includes Deborah Blum, who was speaking in the same session as Hunt that day, and who was at the luncheon. She spoke with Hunt about his views and intentions. Thanks, Deborah for calling shenanigans on the “I was only joking” defense so often used to hide behind the old “political correctness gone mad” trope. Read her article here, and further here.


(Spoof poster imaged is by Jen Golbeck)

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 puppet character that was determined to not believe whatever I told him/it. It was fun, and was done to camera at some TV 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. While there I heard 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.) Unfortunately, as I was only on in the afternoon, I did not get to see what they were up to and will simply wait for the show to air like everyone else.

It looks like it’ll be a fun and entertaining way of presenting some interesting science – a whole new series of it! – so keep an eye out for it. (I’ll give you details later.)


P.S. For unrelated work of mine with puppets, see here.

*This post was modified to remove the picture, and name of the channel and show until the producers are ready to promote the new show. I’ll put the photo back up later.