TAEM interview with Dr. Clifford V. Johnson of USC


Dr. Clifford V. Johnson

Photo Credit: Dr. Clifford V. Johnson

TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine has recently expanded to include a ‘Science section’ in our publication for all the students who follow us. We recently began by introducing schools on the East Coast and would now like to travel across country to California.

We’d like to introduce Dr. Clifford V. Johnson to all our readers. Dr. Johnson is an English theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Southern California. Clifford, please tell us of your educational background and the schools in England that you attended.

CVJ- Hi! For my undergraduate degree (BSc) I went to Imperial College, part of London University, in Central London. I did my PhD at Southampton University, in the South of England.

TAEM- What interested you the most about the courses you took and how did they prepare you for your current work ?

CVJ- Probably the best preparation was of two main kinds: Beginning to see how all the courses fit together, even the subjects that were least interesting to me began to take on a new meaning when I could find connections to other courses that excited me more easily – like seeing intersections between statistical mechanics and relativity. The other thing was really learning how to calculate, which is the foundation of it all. This means not just being able to do algebra, but learning how to stick with a long computation and wrestle with it for days sometimes, and learning how to make approximations – that’s something that seems tedious and messy in the early years, but becomes central when you mature as a physicist.

History Shoot End of Universe

Photo Credit: Erica Caskey

TAEM- Aside from teaching we understand that you are heavily involved with research. Please tell us about this and describe in detail the type of theories that you are working on.

CVJ- Generally, my interests are what you might call “origins questions”. This means I’m researching on what everything is made of, how it fits together, and where it comes from. When I was a graduate student I said more or less that at parry one time, and the woman I was talking to looked at me as though I was nuts and started pointing to things like articles of clothing and saying “well, that’s made of cotton, that’s made of nylon, that’s made of…” as though it was all so obvious. Well, in fact I’m asking those questions at a deeper level. What is the most basic description of all matter, energy and interaction in the universe? These questions are the realm of high energy particle physics, cosmology, and quantum gravity. So I’m primarily thinking about things like quarks and electrons and so forth, but also the big bang, black holes,  stars and galaxies. That’s the subject area, but the key thing I do is look for the next generation of theoretical tools that can open up the new frontiers in these areas. These tools combine things like quantum mechanics and relativity (both special and general), the two pillars of the 20th century physics, into new tools that we hope will teach us about why all the fundamental particles we know fit together the way they do, teach us about new ones, and help us understand the origins of the universe more clearly. Even space and time (as we understand them) had their beginning around the time of the big bang, and we want tools that can describe that. There’s a quantum part of that story we don’t understand yet that might be key to everything, and we don’t have the tools yet. So this leads me to focus on promising candidates like string theory, which is a rather rich and exciting subject both physically and mathematically.

TAEM- How does your research effect the understanding of the laws of physics ?

CVJ- Well, the point is to understand the origin of those laws of physics we already know. Instead of just writing them down into a big book of laws, you want to see how they are connected, and really see their reason for being the way they are. That process then usually leads to discovering new laws, or simpler underlying ones. I hope my research will one day contribute to that body of knowledge.

TAEM- What impact do they have on the future of space exploration ?

CVJ- That’s rather hard to say. Most of what I am working on is so concerned with the underlying fundamental questions about matter, energy, space, and time, that its consequences for things we might do in more immediate technological spheres are so long term that it is almost pointless to speculate, as one would certainly get anything specific wrong. What I do know for sure is that the quest to explore space is very connected to what I do since they are both about learning more about our place in the universe. The sort of work I do, in its mid-20th century incarnation, led us to understand that the stuff we all made of was manufactured in stars, which is a wonderful thing. Does it help us make better spaceships? Not directly, but it certainly gives a lot more meaning to the whole point of building those spaceships. I expect that we’ll learn profound and meaning-laden things like that through the sorts of questions being tacked today. Of course, there are always technological spin offs that happen from any pure research. The tools and techniques we develop in one area end up being useful for other areas, and this has been true through the history of the field and so it will probably happen again.

TAEM- Please tell our readers about the awards and recognitions that you received from your outstanding work.

CVJ-Well, within my field itself I was awarded a special grant called a Career award from the National Science Foundation when I was a young assistant professor, in 1997. Those were super hard to come by, and it was an honor to be selected that year. Actually, it was an extra special “Presidential” one that I was selected for, I was told (which also meant that you get to go to Washington DC and shake the hand of Bill Clinton), but they called me to check if I was a US citizen or permanent resident, and my papers had not come through yet. In 2005 the Institute of Physics in the UK awarded me the Maxwell Prize and Medal, for my contributions to some of my work in quantum gravity, string theory, and quantum field theory, which was also a huge honor. There have been other recognitions, which are all very humbling I find – in a good way. A regular and very important form of recognition for me is the actual recognition that happens on the street all over the world. People regularly recognize me from various TV shows where I explain a bit of science that maybe they enjoyed or found inspiring. I like that I can get people excited about ideas, and I like that every few days people tell me that, on the streets of Los Angeles or London, Madrid, Amsterdam, wherever. I thank them for watching every time.

History Shoot Planets

Photo Credit: Savas Georgalis

TAEM- You also work to promote science to the public and have appeared on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Please tell us about these venues that you participated in.

CVJ- Well, the contributions in front of the camera have mostly been done for a show called “The Universe” on the History channel, which outside of PBS has now been the longest running science show of its type on US TV. I’m one of the regular presenter-contributors. But I’ve appears on many other shows of this or related types on Discovery, National Geographic, PBS (Nova), and so forth. But key for me is not to contribute just to those sorts of shows, since I want to reach people who don’t realize that they might find science interesting – people who would not sit down to watch a science show. So I sometimes appear on shows that are not specifically science…. My philosophy there is that a little bit of science where people don’t expect it is often far more effective than a lot of science where it is expected to be. So you might see me commenting on or explaining a science idea on a comedy variety show. I also do a lot of behind the scenes work, helping writers and filmmakers get their science ideas (or science characters) in shape to include in a show, movie, book, etc…

TAEM- Last year you launched the ‘USC Science Film Competition. Tell us about this and the success that it achieved.

CVJ- If we are going to have a future where there is better public understanding of science we need better communication of it. The most powerful and pervasive medium of communication is film these days, whether it be movies, TV, or internet viewing. So it seems to me really silly to not find ways to get the future communicators in this area (filmmakers, journalists, etc) and the future scientists to start learning more about how to communicate science.  They can only do it well by learning how to work together, and learning a little about each others’ craft. So many flawed communication of science now has at its root the fact that scientists don’t know how to talk to journalists and filmmakers and filmmakers and journalists don’t know how to talk to scientists.  The point of the competition is to encourage people to make films communicating science in some way (in any genre), and the main parameter is that it must be teams of students that are interdisciplinary.

TAEM- You are about to launch your second film festival. How do students enter, and what are the guidelines for it ?

CVJ- There is a screening festival that marks the end of the competition period. The top films that were entered into the competition get shown, and then awards are given out to the winning films. It’s an exciting evening! You can find out more at http://sciencefilm.usc.edu

TAEM- You also formed ASTI. Describe this project and the success that it has had.

CVJ- ASTI stands for the African Summer Theoretical Institute. I started it in 2004, and wanted it to run annually and have it rove around different host institutions in Africa, changing its science theme each year. The idea was to have a place that could pull together people doing science in an area and have both a techniques school and research workshop running under the same roof. You’d have undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and professors, and also high school teachers. All doing programs specific to their areas for part of each day, but also attending talks and events that were for all of them, as well as eating and socializing together. The point was to help strengthen the career paths in science for people in the region, and provide a kind of educational enhancement to the existing infrastructure that was, crucially, very inclusive of people from many different backgrounds, different access to resources, and ability levels. The first one went very well, and I still get emails from students who went to it who tell me how valuable it was to get to meet more people like them at their career stage, or the fun they had in the lectures they had access to (that their institution did not offer), etc. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a donor (or donor) to help fund another one, so there was only one ASTI so far. See http://www.asti.ac.za/

TAEM- We also have learned that you also have a website to inform students about your work. How can they find this ?

CVJ- I think you mean my blog, Asymptotia. You can find it at http://asymptotia.com Actually it is for everybody, not just students. In fact, most of my readers are just ordinary members of the public. Many of them are not even particularly interested in science. The idea is that you can just look in on aspects of the day to day life of a regular person who happens to be a scientist. There’s a point hidden in there. The general fear of science that people seem to have that stops it being widely communicated and understood – and stops many people from realizing that they can participate in science- is partly bolstered by the very narrow view that is perpetuated of who scientists are. We’re not all trying to take over the world because we were picked last for the soccer team, or socially awkward or otherwise weird or odd. We’re just regular people, doing interesting things, sometimes seeing the world in an interesting way through the way we think.  Anyway, as one of the (relatively) early scientist bloggers, I aimed to create a quiet space where people can pop by and see an alternative to the stereotypes.

TAEM- Clifford, we are also amazed to learn that you are writing a graphic novel. Can you give us a sneak preview of what it is about and when it will be published?

CVJ- Ha! Well, people like the way I write and explain things, and have been asking when I’d write a book for very many years now. At some point I decided that it was not so urgent to write yet another book of the sort that a research scientist in my field get around to writing. They are great books, and valuable for sure, but I find that in the large scheme of things they are all pretty similar, and tend to be read by the same people. As you can guess from my earlier answers I am very interested in reaching more people – broadening the variety of people who take part in the science conversation, as it is part of our culture, just like art, or music, or politics. So I have been thinking about all the other modes of communicating in book form that are out there and how striking it is that very few of those other modes are well-explored in my field, especially the visual ones, which is to my mind rather ironic since so much of what we do in my field is visual first, and verbal only later. So anyway, I decided about a decade ago that  a science book in graphic novel format would be a real contribution. I don’t mean a lecture comic. Those are great, and there are plenty of them out there, and I don’t mean superhero+science stuff either. Also great stuff that people should carry on writing and reading, but this is not that either. The graphic novel form (and I do not necessarily mean a novel – it is just the term that is used) has become very powerful and has been recognized as something that is mature and beyond just “comics” in the traditional sense. You get to have both visual and verbal language melding together on the page in the service of your ideas. Why are we not using that more in science, for readers of all ages? So that is what I am experimenting with. I figured in 2010 that I’d start working on it for real, and for me that means all of it- doing the writing and the artwork. So I took some time to immerse myself in learning about the production of a graphic novel, from the basics of the art right up to the end. This meant learning and expanding many new skill sets, which has been fun. The project is  a series of interconnected (perhaps) short pieces collected together into a book. I’ve written and fully drawn and painted some large sections of it. You can see some progress discussion on my blog, for example here: http://asymptotia.com/the-project/ As for publishing, I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to find a publisher who understands what I’m trying to do here. My instinct is that it does not fit into an easily marketable category and so many won’t know what to do with it. I hope to find someone brave and bold who can take a chance on doing something bold and different. I may fail, but I might at least inspire others to continue to try to use a broader language than we currently use in explaining science. Publishers, agents, email me!

TAEM- I recently read in another media’s posting that NASA is looking for input from both the public and the government to help set a course for future space exploration. The media article stated that the agency seems to be ‘lost in space’. Members of George Mason University, and this publication, takes this as a challenge and want to form a grass roots movement to offer assistance to set a course for NASA. Would you, and USC, like to be involved, and what would you like to see be done ?

CVJ- This is of course hugely important, and while I cannot speak for USC, I know that there are many scientists in many fields related to mine who also think that. For me, this connects to all I’ve been trying to in my work on communicating science – and the importance of science – to the general public. I’m not going to claim that I have the killer idea about what should be done, but I am quite sure that the key to having a vision about what to do in space exploration is the realization that a huge amount of what NASA did in the golden years was inspire, and help us dream about what is possible with exploration. The more we get people to realize that such inspiration is the core to moving forward in society (both in science and technology and beyond) the more support there will be for the necessary expenditures in these “big” areas of science. Lastly, I think that there has not been enough publicity given to some of the space-related public participation projects that people can get involved with and have a sense of ownership in. There’s things like SETI@home that people might have heard of, but there are other projects like EarthKAM and MoonKAM started by Sally Ride’s foundation that I’d live to see more of. I don’t know much about them, but I think that in the social media dominated world we live in, that sort of participatory project should help inform and inspire.

TAEM-  Dr. Johnson, it has been an honor to have interviewed you in our magazine and I am sure students from around the country are thrilled to learn all about you and your great work. I hope that you will share this interview with your students and let your school reprint it in the student paper as did GMU. We are hoping that you, and USC, will take us up on our offer of the grass roots movement that we are about to undertake , too. Please ask your fellow faculty members if they would also like to be interviewed with us so that our readers can learn more about your school.