Interview with Theoretical Physicist Clifford V. Johnson

Estimated Read Time: 9 minute(s)
Common Topics: science, book, people, like, see

Clifford V. Johnson is a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the USC. “I mainly work on  (super)string theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory right now, which lead me to think about things like space-time, quantum mechanics, black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, quarks, gluons, and so forth.” Clifford V. Johnson runs a well respected blog called and recently wrote and illustrated an exploratory book on physics called The Dialogues using the revolutionary format of a graphic novel. Learn more below…

Physicist Clifford V. JohnsonLend us some background on how you got interested in physics and some experiences in youth/school that were formative

It all started the way I think everyone starts out. I just asked lots of  questions about the world, and found ways to get them answered, either by experimenting, or taking things apart and putting them back together, or reading about things. I got hooked on that, and I guess people left me alone to just get on with that. (Maybe it helped being a youngest child.) I later learned that there was this career where you could just continue asking questions and figuring out how stuff worked, which is what I liked to do anyway. So that was my goal, since as early as 8 or 9, I think: To do that as a career. I was flummoxed when one day a family friend asked what kind of scientist I wanted to be. I didn’t know you had to choose, and I remember finding this revelation annoying. So I went away and sat with a dictionary and looked up every “-ist” and “-ologist” I could find until I hit “physicist”. The definition said something about it being the field which underlies all the other scientific fields. That was it for me. I loved (and still love) all of science, and so a definition like that (which of course is really oversimplified and arguably wrong) was music to my ears since it meant I could keep my options open about what science I got involved in.

What was it about the theoretical side of physics that peaked your interest?

Again, I think it was keeping options open. I could study any kind of physics my mind wanted to explore. I loved (and still love) experimental physics, but as I learned more about how careers worked it seemed that more and more you had to choose either experiment or theory, and theory seemed to allow me to go as deep or as wide as I wanted.

What are your thoughts on some current issues in science communication and how are you addressing them?

I don’t like that science is considered separate from the rest of our culture. It is presented as a special thing done by special people, people often presented as “other”: Weird, socially awkward, super geniuses, etc.  Part of the problem there is that this puts people off. Also, a lot of people who do science secretly like being thought of as super geniuses and so they do nothing to dispel the myth that this is a prerequisite. Most of my effort is about making science more for everybody. Presenting it as such, and showing that all kinds of people can bring valuable contributions to science. Science belongs to everyone. You can see that in the book, I hope, and in the result of the behind-the-scenes work I do as a science advisor in entertainment industry. I especially try to encourage filmmakers to show a wider variety of people doing science, and to humanise their portrayals of scientists more generally.

asymtopia blogHow do you see your blog “Asymptotia” and other forms of social media fitting into the pie of science communication along side traditional sources like news outlets, journals and research repositories?

Well, I don’t really think of blogs as social media. They started out that way, maybe, but what we think of as social media now are really quite different. You don’t go to social media for content, you go to it to find out where content is. It is a great way of sharing the locations of content. Blogs are (or can be) actual content. They are now things that get pointed to by social media. So one can really expand on an idea, present a long form discussion, etc., on a blog (and short things too of course). And that’s great to see for science and other subjects because it can give readers access to the people engaged in actually producing scientific results, rather than having it filtered through editors (usually poorly informed) choices at a newspaper or other news outlet. But overall, all these things can work together to produce a rich landscape of information, ideas, and reflections.

How do you balance the technicality of physics with the required accessibility for the general public?

I (politely) reject the notion that physics is any more or less technical or specialised than many other subjects that the general public can find their way into if interested enough, whether it be music, architecture, law, medicine, politics, or art.  This is especially so if we remove the mistaken belief that you need to have some kind of special brain for physics. The key to to try to be empathic, and just dive in and help people find a door into the subject that suits them. Not everyone can use the same door, and nor should they. By the way, no book should have to start from scratch every time, otherwise you waste time rewriting the same stuff again and again. You see that a lot in physics books for general audience because editors push this, so most of them are the same book for the first several chapters. We should not have to read everything linearly, or even “get” everything the first time, as society seems to tell us we should: The reader who’s interested to learn more can go look at some other books, and come back. Or carry on and get a sense of the ideas and drill down more later. That’s why one of the most important aspects of the book is a set of notes for further reading at the end of each conversation. If I worried that I needed to unpack everything in every  conversation, each character would again be doing a mini-lecture every time they opened their mouth. That’s not a real conversation. So readers should be prepared to immerse themselves, sit with the book, and be active in their reading, to get the most out of the book.

The Dialogues bookHow did you come to decide on the unique format for your new book “The Dialogues” and how did you get into drawing in general?

 I was driven to it as a solution to an idea I had back in 1999 while thinking about what was missing in standard prose books about science. I wanted to have the reader feel like they were not just being lectured to by an expert but maybe have a sense they were part of the conversation about science, or at least feel like they could be. As they can. So I decided to feature – celebrate even – conversations up front. Then I realised I wanted readers to see the people more, and what they were saying and maybe writing, and to see the locations of the conversations, to show that science can be happening all around the contemporary world of cafes, streets, buses, trains. These were all important elements to me as a means of making the reader feel more included in the process of the science discussion. It dawned on me in the mid 2000s that the solution was to go graphic. I was then blown away that nobody had ever really done that before. So I kind of just had to go and make the book. Like most people I’ve dabbled in doodling and sketching in some form or other, but I decided to take time out and really see if I could teach myself to draw at the level needed to do a book. So I just started drawing a lot. All the time. Because drawing is not about whether you can or not, as people like to say, its mostly about learnable skills you can perfect by practicing.

Can you give us some insight on the process of “The Dialogues” creation?

Well, I used many different modes along the way. Sometimes I’d write dialogue on its own mostly, with relatively little attention to the art aspect, but at other times I wrote much more visually, doing little thumbnail versions of the page as I thought about the concepts being discussed, constructing the words of the  dialogues for it later.  Other times – most times – it was more a little of both, where design of the words, settings, layout, and other aspects were done in parallel, ensuring that they all support each other, as I hope you can see in the book! Of course, I was also learning the whole process as I was going along, spending a lot of time learning drawing and the right kind of art and other techniques needed to make a graphic book.

If we would have a (planetary mass) black hole in our solar system to study, which experiments would you propose first?

First, precision versions of all the kinds of tests that were done for Einstein’s General Relativity: Seeing how it bends light of distant objects, how objects orbit around it, and so forth. To see if there are deviations from relativity that might start showing up – clues to what lies next. Perhaps I’d then start scattering specially prepared beams of known particles off and near, and of course throwing things in to see how they behave. The point is that this would be a close look at strong gravity and so one would start by seeing if one can see deviations from General Relativity. Since we’ve never tested whether strong gravity affects quantum mechanics in some truly unexpected way, one could do experiments near the hole to test this as well.

Do you expect that we can experimentally test string theory in this century?

I don’t know. I’d say that maybe we’ll start seeing some physical phenomena that might have their most elegant explanation in a string theory like context, but that’s not  an experimental test so much as an early sign that a new theoretical framework is taking over from earlier ones. IF I had to lay bets it’ll maybe be in an astrophysics or cosmological scenario.

What is our view on the state of the field of string theory?

It remains a really wonderful framework of ideas of immense (and continually expanding) value, touching many other fields from particle and nuclear physics to astrophysics to condensed matter physics and beyond.

What are black hole heat engines, why should one care, and what does one learn?

It is a wonderful and still mysterious thing that black holes, when combined with quantum physics,  seem to obey the laws of thermodynamics. I think that is a really important clue. The laws of thermodynamics they obey traditionally don’t include a direct notion of pressure and volume (and hence mechanical work) until you allow the cosmological constant to be dynamical (a lovely result of Kastor, Ray, and Trashen from 2009). Once you do that, it is obvious that an important notion is a heat engine made from a black hole: A system that does mechanical work while taking some input heat and giving some output heat. A lot of what we learned about thermodynamics since the 19th century was driven by (and can be formulated in terms of) thinking about properties of heat engines, both practical and formal in definition, like this one. Limits on efficiency turn out to provide powerful lessons about all fields of physics, and even the theory of information, both classical and quantum. Black hole physics can be connected through certain dualities to large classes of quantum field theory, and so I suspect that formulating certain physics questions in terms of black hole heat engines may yield some far-reaching and useful insights.

Are there any recent publications or projects that have you particularly excited?

Oh, that’s easy. Colliding black holes, neutron stars, etc. All the wonderful things coming out of LIGO/Virgo and the associate multi-messenger astronomy revolution that’s coming. It’ll change a lot of things.

Thanks Clifford Johnson for your time! Now go buy his book The Dialogues!
Read the next interview with physicist Arnold Neumaier
7 replies
  1. berkeman says:
    Greg Bernhardt

    he production is really really impressive.I agree. I bought the book and it came in the mail yesterday. It's a very unique book, and I'm having fun reading it so far.

    One part I really like is at the end of each chapter, he's included comments and references about some of the things that have been covered in the dialogs in that chapter. That includes references at various levels, from popular literature to peer-reviewed journal articles. Good stuff. :smile:

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  2. Greg Bernhardt says:

    Just got 3 more books yesterday! The production is really really impressive. I'll have more contests for them later next week. You're going to want it!

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