The Universe Lives!

universe_shoot_16_01_2014Many people have been asking me whether the show The Universe on the History Channel and its sister channel H2, (now the longest-running science show on commercial TV in the US) has come to an end, and I’ve not actually known the answer (but have been assuming so). Well, the good news is that there are some new episodes being made! I know this since I was involved in some filming for a few segments on two episodes on Thursday. I spent the lunchtime session talking about novae and supernovae, and the Click to continue reading this post

Early Fire Season?

glendora_fire_plumeWe’ve been having a virtual Summer here, almost consistently through the Winter. Very odd. One of the consequences is pictured. There’s a huge brush fire burning in Glendora right now, over in the foothills of the San Gabriels. I woke up to a lovely sky, and then noticed the strangest looking cloud in one part of it. Then I realised it was not a cloud. So I went on to the roof to capture a bit of the scene for you. I thought it would serve as a contrast to the photo from a few days ago.

-cvj

Update: The fire was contained.

A New Group

The new semester is underway and it’s off to a good start. I’m teaching the upper division class that I designed some years ago on General Relativity and got put on the course catalog here at USC. My thought back then was that since we are graduating streadily increasing numbers of talented physics students, many of whom are now going to the top graduate schools around the country, we really should have an opportunity for them to learn in depth about general relativity before they graduate. My thinking was also that it affords them the opportunity to not only learn about one of the most beautiful and important discoveries (almost 100 years old now) about our Universe, but also to learn skills and ways of thinking about physics and calculational techniques that they do not necessarily see in other classes. For many students it will be one of the last classes they take in physics as an undergraduate, and so they leave on a mind-expanding high note, off into the world to do wonderful things with their knowledge. For others who may take it the year before they graduate (or possibly even a year earlier) it may inspire them in their growing love and appreciation for all of physics in their remaining undergraduate years, maybe even help them decide to go to graduate school. More about all this here.

So anyway here we are. I’m happy to say that once again the group of Click to continue reading this post

A Present

rose_animation_jan_2014My mum has been visiting for the holidays. For her recent birthday I decided that instead of making a birthday card from a photo of one the roses from my garden (as I usually do) I would make her a drawing/painting of one on a card instead. The paper of the card has a ridged texture and I imagined that this would be an interesting component of the final piece. Using a photo of one of my roses as reference on screen in front of me, I sketched onto the paper Click to continue reading this post

Before Sunrise

before_sunrise_7th_Jan_2014_clifford_v_johnson_1Staying on the weather/climate theme a little bit, I should mention that we’ve been having some rather splendid sunrises these last few days. Spectacular colour combinations are run through in a matter of minutes as the sun emerges. I captured this image two days ago, stopping down a bit to get the cloud colours right, silhouetting a palm tree in the foreground to give a bit of context (also cropping some of the bottom off for better balance). Within a few minutes of taking this all the red had gone, pushing rapidly through yellow to white as the bright sun emerged.

By contrast, this morning was all billowing fog. The resulting visual range was Click to continue reading this post

Frozen – Not the Movie

beth_gilmore_bubblesI liked the piece on Morning Edition this morning about the experiments people were doing with the extreme cold in parts of the country, including making clouds, and seeing what happens to soap bubbles when they freeze!

The piece is here, and the “storify” box with some photos and videos is here. (The photo to the right -of frozen soap bubbles!- is by Beth Gilmore and I found it there.)

-cvj

New Year Renewal

renewal_bike_standHappy New Year, to all readers of Asymptotia!

I bought myself a treat for the new year, after much deliberation and hesitation. I hesitated because it is not something I needed, but definitely something that would improve things a bit. It is a stand at which to do repairs and general maintenance on the bike. I really don’t like fiddling with things like adjusting gears, changing and balancing wheels, and so forth when the bike is on the ground. You have to wrestle with it a bit as it squirms around, and for a long, subtle task (like adjusting gear shifts and so forth as I had to do recently), it can be tiring on the back too. So I bought a nice stable stand (pictured*), and Click to continue reading this post

Instruments of Torture

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There is always a mixed set of emotions for me when I come to change notebooks. It means that I stop carrying around pages and pages of ideas, impressions, sketches, and other things from the last few months that I can accidentally stumble upon. Instead, I start a whole new blank book that does not connect back to anything. I must fill new pages (which I love doing) that will become those favourites I will look back on. So I always like to start off with a drawing that I’ll like to look back on. It helps set the tone for the pages to come in the many months. (See an earlier post about this matter here.)

Yesterday gave me a nice opportunity. I took my mum (who is visiting for a while) to the beach in Santa Monica and we walked together on the sand for a little while. I then sat on the sand and did a sketch while she continued walking and looking around. My focus was the Santa Monica pier, and I wanted to Click to continue reading this post

Thinking…

thinkingHoliday time is upon us, and in this part of it, it is coming up on Christmas time. Really fast, it seems. The semester sort of petered out mid-week for me with the submission of the final grades for my graduate electromagnetism class (everybody did really well… fantastic group of students this year), and one last two hour committee meeting for another of those committees I can’t tell you about. I’ve found some time to think about some physics, and work on a new page for the book, among other things. There’s a panel Click to continue reading this post

Not Struck…

…by lightning or anything. Yay.

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It was fun! (See previous post for what I’m talking about.) The audience seemed to like it. I got to explain that being curious and doing experiments and forming hypotheses is somehow preferable (to some) to sitting back and saying “God did it”, and that there are a lot of nice side effects of that curiosity. (You know, increased food supply, improved medicine, better communications, travel, overall quality of life, and so forth…) We even got to talk a tiny bit about physics (somehow I got on to neutrinos…. not sure why, but then… why not?). Click to continue reading this post

Heaven Help Us

Well it is 6:30pm. It was my plan to take a nap this late afternoon (maybe early evening) but I’m not going to do that anymore. Why? Well turns out I’m appearing in a show this evening. It starts at midnight so I’m a little afraid that I might just sleep all the way through, wake up tomorrow morning and so miss my spot. So while the sleep would do me some good in order to be up so late, and functioning, I think I’ll skip it.

What’s the show? Well it’s a show on stage put on by some of the Upright Citizens Brigade. They asked me to appear as a guest – not as a character, but actually as myself, a scientist. It’ll be in front of a live audience, although they will be taping it later possible broadcast. You know how it goes with me – I especially like an opportunity to put some science out there here it is not expected so this is right up my alley. My understanding is that it’s a comedy Click to continue reading this post

New Tool

magnify_toolActually, this new tool is pretty old school, and I love it! There are times when I want to have a change of venue while doing rather detailed work for The Project… perhaps go sit in a cafe for a change, instead of at the drawing desk. But when not at the drawing desk, I could not use the lovely large illuminated magnifying glass that I have on a stand attached to it. So the other day I bought a cheap but Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 12 – Finale

fail_lab_ep_12_still….In which Crystal and many of the crew chill out on the sofa after a long hard season of shows and express some of their gut feelings about the whole business. Well done on an excellent series of shows, Crystal, Patrick, James, and all the other behind the scenes people! (Warning: – This episode may not be for the squeamish!)

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Dining

lunch_timeWell, since yesterday was all about eating here in the USA (Thanksgiving, in case you missed that), I thought I’d share a partially inked panel from The Project, of a meal in progress. I got a bit of quiet time to work on it this evening, while listening to Jimi Hendrix and then Freddie Hubbard. They helped a lot. It is at times like this I wonder what insanity has come over me Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 11 – Failure

crystal_adam_cvj_patrickThis episode of Fail Lab gets down to the bone of the matter: Failure. The whole point of this excellently conceived series was to look at the fail videos all over the web (as everyone does) and instead of just laughing at the people in them (as most people do), take a different path and try to see the positive in the failure. Sometimes with humour, and/or with tongue in cheek, but with an eye on looking at things a bit differently. Now this special episode turns and looks the issue directly in the eye. I have the honor of being a co-presenter of this one again, again with the excellent Crystal Dilworth, and this time we break the pattern and have yet a third person as a co-presenter – Adam Steltzner from JPL, the chief engineer of the landing stage of the Mars Curiosity mission, you might recall. Crystal and Adam are on the left. (You might also recall that we teamed up for an event earlier this year at the Natural History Museum…)

Together, we talk in the episode about the whole idea of failure, making mistakes, and of course, experimentation. We highlight how it underpins all innovation, scientific, technological, artistic… all corners of human Click to continue reading this post

Automatic Beans

self_shelling_beansSo here’s a nifty thing. The beans on the left are a sort of speckled butter bean (or lime bean, if you prefer) that are pretty automatic. Each year, since I first planted them long ago, I get a lot of new bean plants appearing in the patch that the last ones grew in. Basically, the beans tend to [stay on] be left on the vine until they dry and then they pop open and replant themselves, ultimately, since I never find all of the ones that fall on to the ground. This is great, since it means that I never have to actually plant the things again… they just show up and start spreading. I need only put some stakes and climbing frames out, and each year they will just cover it with vines and new beans. This year I discovered another automatic feature. If Click to continue reading this post

Hands On

Did you hear about the “takeover” of Seventeen Magazine’s Manicure Mondays? Hearing about it really made my morning*. I read about it in Slate. Go and look at some of the photos on twitter (you don’t need an account to do so) – It is a great variety of images showing hands (male and female) doing things, including scientific activities from field work to lab work. A rather excellent enhancement of the intended scope of just having nail-art.

Jason Bittel, who wrote the Slate piece, says at one point:

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Back to Bilbo, Again

Lorentz_DemoI’m preparing some notes for my graduate Electromagnetism class, and I’ve finally arrived at the section on Special Relativity. We will end up discovering the fully covariant formalism of the equations of electromagnetism in a few lectures, and a number of mysterious things we’ve seen over the course of the semester will be more natural in this setting, showing how marvellously Maxwell’s equations from the 19th Century, unifying Electricity and Magnetism, actually herald (actually should out loudly for!) Einstein’s 20th Century physics – Special Relativity.

But first I must review Special Relativity, going back to the basic thought experiments I like to talk about that lead you to discover it. Traditionally this means lots of scenarios involving flashes of light, and long extended objects being boosted at speed in various directions and so forth… All very fun.

Well, over the years I’ve changed the characters in the scenarios a couple of times, and now I’ve firmly (as of 2012) left Harry, his broom, Hermione, and Click to continue reading this post

Date Tastiness

walnut_date_bread_6Time for a quick visit to the kitchen. I woke up one Sunday morning with the urge to make a cake. I’d thought about a simple sponge cake for some reason in the days leading up to it, and that must have planted the seed. I was busy and so did not immediately jump into it. But I woke up the Sunday in the mood. (I think it was last Sunday.) So I looked at what I had lying around and remembered that I had some old dates that were needing a purpose. They’d dried out a bit and so were not so great for eating directly, but certainly had a use in cooking. A short time later I had a date and walnut coffee cake sitting on the counter waiting to be eaten.

It was all gone within a short time, and so this morning I thought I’d make some more. The pictures you see are some of the steps.

walnut_date_bread_1walnut_date_bread_2walnut_date_bread_3

It is pretty simple, being a fairly basic (baking soda risen) batter. The key novelty is to put together a cup of dates and a cup of walnuts, all chopped, Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 9 – Aggression

fail_lab_ep_9_stillFail Lab Episode Nine, all about Aggression, is now online. See earlier posts (listed below) for thoughts about this excellent series on Discovery’s Test Tube.

(By the way, (spoiler alert) in the video they analyze this week, that looks like a bit like a Wing Chun move (and stance) to me… albeit a tad sloppy. And I note that it was used to end the aggression. A win for positive use of martial arts!)

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Why Do I Study Physics?

why_do_I_study_physics_stillI was sent* this delightful short film recently. It is by Shixie (Xiangjun Shi) done as a graduation project at Rhode Island School of Design. It seems that it won prizes – quite understandably! – at a number of short film festivals, including one about science communication (which reminds me of the one I run). The film is entitled “Why Do I Study Physics?” and it is a lovely piece of writing and hand drawn simple animation that’s very Click to continue reading this post

Consulting for a Cat…

love_me_cat_stillEver wonder what it is like to science consult for the entertainment industry? Read on. You may recall me mentioning in passing that I had an interesting time a while back on a sofa being interviewed by a cat, an owl, and a robot. Possibly you missed that remark, or tried to forget it!!! Well, the interview is now online, and you can enjoy it at your convenience. Embed below. The entirely spontaneous piece ended up being a humorous conversation that closely resembles a lot of serious conversations I’ve had with people trying to creatively mix science and a dramatic story (and in some depressing cases, documentary…) I try to help where I can, if I get the call in time! (Actually, to be fair, sometimes even the most bizarre creative free flow can end up being useful!)

The show is called Love Me Cat, and was created by Eric Kaplan, who does the voice of the cat, in collaboration with My Damn Channel. You’ll certainly know Eric’s work from things like Futurama and Big Bang Theory, for starters. I had a lot of fun on the show, and it was great to meet Eric, and all the Click to continue reading this post

Ten Things…

black_hole_phil_club_talkSo I’ve been a bit quiet as I’ve had a lot going on. This includes preparing ten interesting slides to use as props for a talk I gave this evening to the USC Philosophy Club. It was entitled “Ten Things YOU Should Know About Black Holes”. It started with the original idea by Michell in 1783 (yes, really, that early!) and ended with topics of current research (what is the fate of the singularity? What really happens at a horizon? Etc., etc…) I spoke for a while and then fielded tons of questions, and am now (I am writing a draft of this on the subway train home – uploading later) suffering from a rather broken voice due to too much talking and projection…. Gosh. But it was fun. A really Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 8 – Testicles

fail_lab_ep_8_stillHere’s the next episode in the excellent web series Fail Lab, on Discovery’s Test Tube Channel. It’s all about testicles. Clearly no more motivation is needed to encourage you to watch. It’s in a slightly different style than the previous ones… An amusing format change, in fact. Of course, there’s still amusing shenanigans going on in the lab…

Here’s the embed!
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Late Arrivals

20131103-074202.jpgThe garden is quite dormant right now, after a busy Summer. But not as dormant as I thought. I spotted these a week ago, to my surprise, and gave them a bit of extra time. Today, I harvested them, mostly because they are close enough to ready, partly because Fluffy is very active in all trees outside, gathering Fall finds, and anything round seems fair game for being picked, and then mostly discarded. (Because of a fortuitous alliance with Flitty, which can raid my traps for nuts without being caught, annoyingly, Fluffy is difficult to control right now.)

Anyway. A pleasant arrival in the kitchen…

-cvj

KRKD Downtown LA

It has been a long and tiring week so far and I decided that I needed to withdraw for a little while. So I left campus early and went on a wander downtown. My goal? It is the last day of the worldwide Big Draw month of October (but see below*) aimed at raising awareness of drawing (you may have seen events in your own town – maybe even participated in some), and I’ve been so busy I’ve not done much outdoor on-location drawing this month (not counting subway drawing) and so I thought that I’d get one in on the last day. My own little contribution to the local Big Draw LA, if you will.

downtown_KRKD_sketch_31_10_13_small

Anyway, I considered doing some well-celebrated landmark like one so many of the splendid buildings available (Union Station, Central Library, Eastern Building, Walt Disney Concert Hall…), and as I walked I pointed myself in the direction of some of these, but just after I turned away from the library on Fifth, heading to Pershing square, I saw what I wanted to draw. If you stay on Click to continue reading this post

Fail Lab Episode 7: Tribalism

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Fail Lab, the web series on Discovery’s TestTube channel that I’ve been telling you about, is growing in popularity. People are hearing about its unusual charms as an edgy, funny, quirky, smart vehicle for some food for thought and are going to see. That’s great. There was a review on VideoInk today that seems to “get” series creator Patrick Scott’s “Zoochosis” point of view that informs his particular style of filmmaking, and that was good to see (although I don’t agree that the hard science can get lost sometimes – this is the online world where the viewer can take charge – if you miss an idea, just scroll back and watch it again. That creates opportunity for density in making intelligent programs, and hopefully steers us away from shallow, lowest-common-denominator programming).

Anyway, episode seven is now up, and fueled by a remarkable video it delves into ideas about how we relate to each other, within and without social groups. Here’s the embed:

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Big History is Coming!

big_history_promo_still

You’ll recall that I was in New York a short while ago to film some promotional material for a new TV series. It is called Big History, and it will be on History Channel’s H2 channel (and eventually on various international channels, but I’ve no idea which – similar ones to where you find the other show I’ve mentioned a bit, The Universe, I expect), starting this coming Saturday night.

Rather than be primarily about astronomical and cosmological things, the show will focus each week on one of a list specific items that have affected our history, and take the long view about that item. How long a view? The longest known possible! So take something like Salt, and examine its role in civilization and culture, bringing in historians, anthropologists, etc… and physical scientists to trace that object back to its roots in the early universe… (the big bang, the cores of stars, etc.) [Update: For you Breaking Bad fans, note that it'll be narrated by Bryan Cranston, by the way.]

Here’s one of the promo videos:

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Seminar Done

seminar_over Managed to find a little time over the last few days to lay out, draw, and ink a page in The Project. It has been insanely busy for me, so this is a little bit of a triumph in stealing some time back. It’s actually the same seminar that you saw in earlier posts (here and here). Now it is over. It remains a tradition in our field to give a little round of applause after a talk, which I find rather nice and quaint. It was a pleasure to depict that.

It is a wider view of the room, which meant (aaaargh!) drawing even more faces and bodies than before. Then there’s the challenge of doing them in different states of attention, applauding, with different faces, bodies, states of dress, etc. When I come to paint it I’ll be wanting to pick colors that together communicate the right mood for the panel and for the whole page it is part of, and so forth. It can be daunting to do all those faces, bodies, shirts, feet, and Click to continue reading this post

Weinberg on Physics Now

I just spotted (a bit late) that Steven Weinberg (one of the giants of my field) has written a piece in the New York Review of Books entitled “Physics: What We Do and Don’t Know”. I recommend it. He talks about astronomy, cosmology, particle physics, and by casting his eye over the arc of their recent (intertwined) histories of ideas, experiments and discoveries, tries to put the Standard Models of particle physics and of cosmology into perspective.

The article is here. Enjoy!

-cvj

(P.S. Follow this link to find a summary of articles by him for the NYRB. Lots of good reading to be found there.)

Fail Lab 6: Pyrotechnics!

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Fail Lab Episode 6 has a lot of things blowing up, so that’s good, right? We actually had a lot of fun mixing in a little bit of comedy with the science. (See an earlier post I did after shooting this episode.) I hope you have fun watching it! As a bonus, everybody’s favourite, petal the brain dog, makes an appearance again. Well done once again, director/writer/producer Patrick and his team for their work on making it such a visual treat – and James, it was fun to write with you and Crystal!

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SCSS San Diego

dinner_pic_cvjFriday’s meeting was rather nice. There was a really good turnout (especially from UCLA) and so in the end we had the perfect combination of an attentive and receptive audience and four really good speakers. As per design of the whole thing, plenty of time was allowed for discussion and pedagogy, and so I got the feeling that people felt really comfortable raising points during the talks and also chatting further during the breaks and lunch and dinner. It was really good to catch up with friends and colleagues from groups in the area, Click to continue reading this post

Highs and Lows

High:

Creating a structure for benefit of the students (for no reason other than it seems like something that can do some good) – a structure in which they can participate entirely voluntarily, and after almost two months of advertising it, and showing up in all sorts of classes to tell people about it, doing interviews about it, and so forth, and not knowing if anyone really will be bothered to get involved… getting lots (still counting) of teams of students registering. With lots of enthusiasm in various emails! Thanks everyone! It’s going to be great to see your projects develop. I hope you enjoy collaborating on making films about science – it will stay with you throughout your careers as a hugely valuable and fun thing to have done. Thanks to those faculty and staff who helped me spread the word by circulating emails, letting me show up to your classes, suggesting ideas, etc!

Low:

Dealing with faculty and staff who, despite the jobs they hold, really don’t have much interest in a new structure put in place for the benefit of the students especially if it means even slightly going out of their way to help out… some would rather come up with mountains of reasons and/or rules why they can’t or won’t help, or why I’m making their life hell for asking them if they might. They helped make this all far more stressful and difficult than it really should have been. Ugh… is all I can say. UGH!

High:

Meeting with a student today who is a freshman in physics. New to the city, new to the country, and new to this level of education. Enthusiastic about the subject and Click to continue reading this post

Midterm

ink_work_26th_september_2013_smallI realized just now that since I set a midterm exam on Monday for the graduate electromagnetism class, and since there’s only one midterm for the class, it really is… midterm. The semester is sort of half over already. And indeed, a glance at my calendar shows this to be more or less true. I’ve mixed feelings about this since on the one hand it is a busy and tiring semester and I’m glad to have it go by, but on the other hand… slow down life! What’s the rush!? Yes, I definitely keep wanting to make sure I stop to smell the flowers, or what’s the point?

The midterm itself (Monday, in class) was fun. Or at least, I found it fun to put together on the weekend. There were no complaints from the students, so I hope that means I got the balance about right. We shall see during class tomorrow, when Click to continue reading this post